Some of my best days revolved around school. I’ve always enjoyed learning and was always striving to retain that straight-A status.
As part of the regular curriculum, I took typing. I can’t remember if it was required, but I knew it would be an easy A. That was before computers were the norm, but the fancy electric typewriters we used in class were light years ahead of Mom’s manual one at home. Pulling out a dictionary was my spell-check, and there was no correcting errors before hitting Print. When I made a mistake typing, I had to back space, put correction tape over the space where I hit the wrong key, type over the tape to “white out” the wrong letter, and then remove the tape and type the correct letter. Correction tape was my savior.
The instructor played a recording for us to follow; we all, supposedly, typed in unison as the monotone voice said, “F-f-f, space, g-g-g, space,” ad nauseum. It was a voice I learned to hate as it increasingly directed me to type faster and faster.
I woke up the morning of my final exam still clutching my typing book I had studied for hours the night before. That, in itself, was pathetic. Who crams for a typing final? But I was ready for the big day and another A.
When the papers were graded, I was handed a big fat B. Quantum physics, anatomy and physiology, trigonometry – a B could rate as impressive. In typing? There’s no respect in that. So, my B in typing will simply serve as an explanation for any typos you may find, dear reader. The only time I had been excited about a B was when I was four years old. On the way home from pre-K one day, I told Mom, “We’re gonna make Bs tomorrow!” Of course, she thought I meant bees that fly around and suck nectar out of flowers. Then I continued excitedly, “Today we made As, and tomorrow we get to make Bs.”
Somehow I survived the second letter of the alphabet and made it to college. In a moment of temporary insanity, I decided to take macroeconomics, for fun and for my future life as a married woman. I didn’t want to be a clueless wife who heard, “Wah waaah wah wah waaaah Dow Jones wah wah wah,” like the adult voice in Charlie Brown movies, when my husband was watching an economist on television. I wanted to understand what the financial experts were saying.
The class was mind-boggling. It was like a foreign language, only with a lot more numbers. Unknown to anyone in the class, I competed with the guy who sat next to me. The “anything a boy can do, a girl can do better” mentality was reigning. Until the day we were taking a test, and my calculator died. There was no backup calculator. Since those equations were written by an Android or Vulcan, there was no way to find the answers without a calculator.
It was an exercise in terror in the life of an A-driven student.
After studying for my final exam for eight hours a day, for three straight days, I made a 55 on the test. FIFTY-FIVE. The world was a dark, dark place, and that B in high school was suddenly beautiful; I missed its lovely curves. I waited in line to talk to the professor, as did 90 percent of the class.
When it was my turn, I told him the number of hours I studied and, without crying, told him I was baffled. He looked over my paper quietly, turned to me, and said, “Well, looking at your work here, I’d say you are getting a good grasp on this.”
Could he not grasp that 55 was for speed limit signs, not my college career?
“It’s a hard subject,” he continued, “and a new subject for many of you students.”
I used my best puppy-dog eyes on him.
His response was, “I will be curving the grades.” Curving the grades? He’d need a welding torch to shape my D into a B. Obviously, he was not motivated by my GPA goals; he was more interested in educating me. He didn’t know this was my “fun class.”
I persevered and made a final grade of C. I’d like to say it was my first fall from grace in the form of an ugly C, but world history brought that harsh disappointment the year before. I had taken history from a professor I knew was a Christian. I thought since I picked him as my teacher, God would give me a supernatural ability for remembering names and dates. Apparently, God was busy with more important tasks, like helping all those crazy people taking economics at that time.
But my C in macroeconomics was different from other Cs; it was gorgeous. I’d never been so thankful for the third letter of the alphabet. Oddly, not once has Flash watched any report on the economy, so I would have been safe, after all.
College taught me how much I don’t know, and life since then has taken that lesson to the nth degree. I’ve always loved learning, and the older I get, the more I have to learn. With the shocking realization that nobody cares what my GPA was, I no longer equate grades with intelligence.
Wanting to instill my revelation in Cowboy, we have never stressed grades with him. We wanted the goal to be learning, in and of itself. But somehow, perhaps through some strange in utero academic osmosis, he has his mother’s drive for perfection and gets upset when he answers incorrectly. He is his own worst critic, as am I. His internal great expectations for himself are in his DNA.
For years, Flash and I have been Cowboy’s biggest fans, cheering for him in every realm, quite literally. So much so that he formed a habit of looking at us, his teachers, and his aides to make sure he was answering all questions correctly. Failure was not an option; his goal was hearing, "Good job, Cowboy," with the supplemental thumbs-up sign. When he answered incorrectly, he would get rather upset, solid proof that perfectionism is hereditary. His teachers would turn away from him while he did his assignments, so he wouldn't repeatedly look at them for approval. I tried to follow suit, but Cowboy would physically turn my head towards him. My laughter thwarted any hope of a teachable moment.
If I had a dollar for every time we rooted for Cowboy - for everything from shoe-tying to speech therapy to riding a bike to washing dishes - I'd have enough money to run for president and really shake things up. To remedy Cowboy’s praise-dependent ways, we had to dial down the cheerleading. We packed away the foam finger and pom-poms and did our best impersonation of normal.
It felt awful. I worried that his self-esteem would plummet. Without our “Two, four, six, eight, who do we appreciate” echoing from the halls of our home, I knew he would fall into a deep depression and give up on learning new things.
Instead, he has become his own encourager. He says, "Good job" aloud as he rates his work with a thumbs up. Of course, he may say it 50 times until we agree with his self-review, still wanting our approval, but it's progress.
He is learning the art of self-affirmation where it matters the most, outside the temporary realm of academia. He takes pride in his own work. But I didn't teach that, nor did I teach him many of the tasks he does around the house. Flash and I are often stunned when he does something new, turning to each other and asking, "Did you teach him that?" Being a visual learner, Cowboy emulates what he sees. Which, of course, makes shivers run down our spines at times; it's a serious responsibility to be the watchees. Every move we make is quietly observed as Cowboy’s mind absorbs everything, and he is pleased with himself when he translates what he sees into his own actions.
I can tell he is proud by the way he carries himself, with such determination that we dare not get in his path as he works. We say “Good job” less; “thank you for doing that” is now the norm. But regardless of how we show appreciation and admiration, he is no longer dependent on our praise. His reward is his accomplishment. He has learned that a lot sooner than I did; I am still learning it. Perhaps I need to watch Cowboy more and emulate him.