I just got off the phone with an old friend who moved away when we were in middle school. We hadn’t really talked in more than sixteen years. He reminded me of something I said when we were eleven years old, sitting in detention after school:
Grades show what you’re doing, not what you can do.
I was being a wise-ass but my friend took it as wisdom.
Let me reconstruct the scene for you. Our project was due that week and we had made no progress. The teacher recognized us as the brightest kids in the class and she was terribly disappointed whenever we slacked off. She would lecture us about our “potential” every time an assignment failed to captivate our attention—more often than not. This time she insisted that we show some effort.
The teacher balanced her grading system on two independent values: quantity of effort and quality of work. A deficit in either value could be made up by a surplus in the other. A student producing poor work could score well by virtue of having put forth sufficient effort. Contrariwise, we aimed to produce brilliant work with little effort. In this way we spent less of our valuable youth on boring sixth grade assignments and yet came away with ample grades for advancement.
(Notwithstanding the Marxist underpinnings of her grading system, our strategy had its own Achilles Heel: effort at study is an effective tool for impressing knowledge onto young minds. By avoiding effort, we circumvented our lessons while producing “evidence” of our successful learning. Any rebellion against education will succeed against learning.)
We got the grades we needed but the teacher chided us for merely “sliding by” whenever our work was less than brilliant. In her frame of reference we were flaunting the worst sort of insolence. Yet in spite of her lectures, we would not compromise. We had discovered a strategy that let us win the game of school without cheating and we felt we deserved praise for this accomplishment. This was our potential.