''Seems never to achieve his potential. Indolent.'' 

Re-reading report cards can be depressing

Wednesday, Feb 15 2006

There can be few things more likely to induce a state of profound melancholy than looking through one’s old school report cards. That sentence doesn’t quite satisfy, but I’m going to let it stand. The reason it doesn’t satisfy is that it all depends on what’s in the report cards, doesn’t it? And there my troubles begin.

I went to school in England, and now that I think about it, which generally I try not to, it was a disturbingly long time ago. The report cards I’m writing about come in the form of a booklet (“To be returned on the first day of each Term,” is printed sternly on the inside page), measuring 6 inches by 8 inches and bound in cloth the color of an old bloodstain. Inside are the handwritten comments of the “Masters” (i.e., teachers) charting the feeble academic progress I made between the Easter term of 1969 (“age 9.3, height 4 ft 5¼ ins”) and the Summer term of 1973 (“age 13.6, height 5 ft 1¾ ins”). The booklet bears the pokerfaced title Reports, but could more accurately have been called Acutely Perceptive Remarks That Will Haunt You for the Rest of Your Life (You Dumb Bastard).

It is now clear to me that I was unlucky enough to have had attention deficit disorder at a time when it was known simply as being “a lazy sod.” Had I been going to school in America in the 1990s rather than England in the 1970s, I would have been up to my eyeballs in Ritalin and family therapy and dressing like a miniature gangster. As it was, family was far away. I was in a boarding school.

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“He continues to occupy a very low position in the form due to his inability to concentrate on his work,” runs a typical comment from the Science Master, a dandruff-plagued Scotsman who pronounced the word “film” as “fillum,” something I occasionally do today, just for the moronic thrill of it. “If he can maintain concentration, he should have no difficulty in this subject,” observes the French Master, who, being actually French, regarded his pupils with amused condescension and appeared to consider his geographical location in the English countryside to be the result of an inexplicable cosmic error. “Still too fidgety to concentrate for long and this is his real weakness,” puts in the Headmaster, whose grotesquely overweight wife, to the slack-jawed astonishment of the students, was being passionately pursued by the Latin Master, a hypersensitive redhead who flew into terrifying rages during class. “He has plenty of imaginative ability, but has to work harder on the work in which he is not so interested,” wrote the History Master. Minus the complimentary part, that’s pretty much what my editor told me just the other day.

Certain subjects I was particularly weak in. Take the “Mathematics” portion of my report card, for example. Through four successive terms (Christmas, 1970–Christmas, 1971), I was described as “Rather a slow worker,” “Still rather a slow worker,” “Still a slow worker and not always a careful one” and “Still very slow . . . Exam results poor.” Even a snail might take offense at that.

Let’s try Science, Christmas term, 1971:

His exam result and form position reflect his attitude towards work — lazy.

Easter, 1972:

His position has improved somewhat but it still reflects his attitude towards his work — lazy!

Filling out my report card was obviously a breeze for a teacher. All you had to do was flip the page to the previous term’s report, see what you’d written last time, and then, with a few minor changes, repeat it word for word. The question is, Why didn’t I burn the damn things at the first possible opportunity? (Answer: because it took years for their essential accuracy to reveal itself.) Now stray phrases float through my mind like epitaphs queuing up to be chiseled on my tombstone. Top prize would probably go to this comment by one of my many despairing math teachers:

Found himself out of his depth but could have at least made some effort.

Others are less lapidary but compensate with cold-eyed analysis. “Brendan needs constant spurring on to keep him up to the mark and seems to have no sense of urgency himself. He has a curious diffidence which hinders him committing himself fully to any activity” (Headmaster’s Report). “Seems never to achieve his potential. Indolent” (English). And my favorite, the brutal “He is not very good at this,” which technically refers to History but which seems increasingly pertinent to, er, Life.

If teachers wrote these sorts of things today, they’d probably be sued for defamation of character and imprisoned on charges of advanced psychological cruelty. Now my eye alights on statements such as “He panics when faced with anything difficult” (Scripture). “Is easily distracted and easily distracts” (Music). “I think he is rather lazy, and I am afraid he deserves his low place” (History).

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