Report cards arrived in the mail today. And while my son’s final grades were acceptable according to our family’s standards, I couldn’t avoid focusing on the “D” and “F” he received on two final exams. Those letters seemed to vibrate on the page, and my son was (momentarily) frustrated that his efforts to prepare for those challenging academic tests were not reflected in his exam grades. But both my son and I know that school has never been his passion, and attempts at tutoring and other behavioral changes have had minimal impact on his grades over the years.
My son attends a respected high school that launches almost all of its students on to further education after graduation. My son harbors the same hopes for himself, though he plans to attend a fine arts college rather than a traditional university. Even so, I struggle with the question of whether I should push him harder to improve his grades. These moments cause me to pause and examine my definitions of success. I want my son to have all the opportunities to express himself, to grow and explore, to succeed in his passions. I want him to develop into a contributing member of society; to become a considerate, caring and responsible adult. But I also hope to not be housing him in my basement when he is 30. Being able to support himself is an integral part of growing into adulthood. And, in our community, the media, and among his peers, college seems to be the undisputed path toward independence and success. But how do we define success? Is it defined by a paycheck, a stock portfolio, or the number of letters after one’s name? Is success equated with socioeconomic status, peer esteem, notoriety in one’s field? Am I naive to encourage my child to pursue happiness, creativity, spiritual and emotional fulfillment at the cost of being “hire-able”? With our country’s skyrocketing health costs, should I remind my child that a job that provides insurance benefits and a savings plan is as vital to his well-being as creative fulfillment? I find myself stuck between the proverbial rock and a hard place. My wife and I make enough money to live in a decent neighborhood, vacation occasionally, and make our bill payments on time. We both are lucky enough to have jobs we enjoy. Are those realities a hallmark of success? Have we ourselves bought into the cultural mindset that happiness is found in security, a high credit score and a regular paycheck? I don’t have a clue. We all want the best for our children. We want them to have an easier life, a more supported start, than many of us have had. We hope for them that they find purpose and meaning, and that those things come to them through healthy relationships and work that reflects their talents and spirits. Academic success and further education is one path with a likelihood to those ends. But for my son’s sake, and those of other creative, dreamy souls, I hope there are others. For now, I post his report card on the fridge, next to his application to the student film competition and under his end-of-year show choir picture. By the beginning of school in the fall, the grade report will have wedged itself under the neighboring stove, or be torn in half to be used for a shopping list. Maybe, by then, I will know how to guide him toward the surest path to success. More likely? I will join him in learning all the songs for “West Side Story.” Those Jets know how to dance!