By David Crisp/Last Best News

Albert Alligator, self-styled star of the long-running comic strip Pogo, once said this in response to an election frustration: “I tell you, it’s enough to make a man think before he votes.”

To which Howland Owl replied, “Don’t go flying off the handle, now.”

David Crisp
David Crisp

I just about flew off the handle last week when I read Dan Carter’s column here about supporting and encouraging average students. I can’t help liking Dan, and I envy him, so naturally I want to attack him when possible. His column caused more head scratching than a third-grader’s head lice.

I admit he has a point when he says we need to do more for average students, although I haven’t always thought so. I went through school as one of those kids that Dan says get all the academic awards at the end of the year.

I grew up in a house of books, so reading and writing came easy. My schoolteacher mother made sure her four boys got on the bus every morning on time, well-scrubbed and well fed. At night, our homework was done before we went to bed.

So I made a lot of A’s. Big deal. All that ever got me was a chance to go to college and make more A’s. I was on the G.I. Bill there, so college to me was just another job. I went to class and did my work, and that’s really about all it takes.

In those days, it was the average kids who seemed to have it made. The entire curriculum was aimed at average students. Slow kids struggled to keep up; smart kids sat bored at their desks.

As my daughter put it when she graduated from college, why didn’t they tell us in high school the stuff we really needed to know when we were trying to figure out life, like Plato? Answer: The average kids weren’t ready to drink that hemlock.

Moreover, there was nothing cool in school about acing a spelling test. The average kids made sure of that. They knew to do just enough to stay out of trouble but not enough to look like a nerd.

If you wanted any clout in high school, you might get it in a rock band or on the basketball court, never sitting at a desk. As Joan Rivers once told Johnny Carson, no man ever put his hand up a woman’s dress looking for a library card.

 That one day of the year when the smart kids got to pick up their Honor Society pins and perfect attendance awards was small compensation for nine months of monotony and faint praise. Even in graduate school, I used to occasionally wonder if there ever would come a day when the academic powers would say, “OK, you’ve proved yourself. No more tests, no more term papers. Go and learn, and let us know what you find out.”Of course, that day never came. That old stick that had been used to beat average kids into academic submission was always over my back.

Since then, things have gotten better for the best students. Like many school districts, Billings Public Schools has an extended studies program for gifted and talented elementary students, and high school students can earn college credits.

Now that I spend most of my time teaching college freshmen, even my attitude has changed. Average students fill my classes, and I’m probably as guilty as the next fellow of giving the best students a pat on the back and sending them on their way. My time is consumed with trying to find ways to make the worst students average, and the average students so good I can ignore them.

Carter’s column, for all of its merits, doesn’t say much about how to actually encourage average students. Participation trophies for all wouldn’t accomplish much. So what would?

My ideas are hardly original and are in some ways contradictory. As Dan points out, we don’t easily distinguish between students who are average because they don’t give a damn and students who are average despite trying their best.

But maybe there are ways to work around that. For one thing, as Dan suggests, students should be given as many chances as possible to find success in something: sports, clubs, auto mechanics, art, theater, astronomy, music. The more we strip those programs to push basic skills, the more we doom children to unexceptional lives.

We also need to find ways to move academic success out of the classroom and into the pulse of the entire school. Football players never worry about being so good that other kids will pick on them. In the same way, students should never have to feel embarrassed because what they do best is exactly what school is supposed to accomplish.

Finally—and this is where it gets contradictory—we need to upgrade the value we place on the highest achievers while at the same time downgrading the significance of academic achievement as a thing in itself. Kids are wired to learn, but somehow we manage, over and over again, to tear down that wiring long before they get out of school.

It’s easy to forget that if we are really out to educate people, then it doesn’t matter whether they pass a test on Shakespeare. What matters is if Shakespeare penetrates their hearts. That’s true recognition. That’s true success.

So long as we make grades the measure of success, then we are only firing grapeshot at what education ought to be about. If we can somehow manage to get across to all of those average students that being a student isn’t something you do but something you are, then we already will have taught them not to settle for mediocrity.

David Crisp is a longtime Billings journalist and teacher who writes a weekly column for Last Best News.