When I was in high school, my fellow students begged our teachers to grade on a curve. Their theory, of course, was that if everyone did poorly, no one would fail. That wasn’t necessarily true, but we were self-absorbed teenagers with little concern for broader implications.
If you’re not familiar with the grading curve, it’s a tool used by some educators to distribute grades on a bell curve. When an assignment or test is scored, the average score becomes the average grade. The scores above and below the average are distributed accordingly. That means, if you get a really high score, you might skew the curve for everyone else. It also means some students are guaranteed to land at the wrong end of the curve.
Back in the 1980’s, my teachers rarely actually graded on a curve. But when they did, I knew two things would happen:
1: I would get grief from all the other students in class warning me not to do so well that I would mess up the curve, and,
2: I had an opportunity to prove that I didn’t need a curve to do well. And that opportunity far exceeded my concern about anyone else’s grade.
At the time, my self-worth was completely wrapped up in academic success. I truly thought that the only thing at which I could excel, and which made my existence matter, was getting good grades. (Yes, I completely related to Brian in the Breakfast Club).
I also believed that getting good grades was simply a matter of working hard, and that anyone could work hard. I had little tolerance for my peers who got mad when I did well. To me, they just needed to try harder.
And so, I shamefully admit, I always tried to burn the curve.
Needless to say, I’m embarrassed that I used to think that way. I now realize that I had so many advantages: educated parents, good nutrition, a safe place to sleep, a home free of violence, a family that embraced education, a mother who believed women didn’t need to depend on men, and a father who expected as much of his daughter as he did of his son. My list of advantages could go on and on and on.
But now, all these years later, I recognize how some children start off at disadvantage simply because of the family they are born into or because of a disability. Some struggle to read. Others struggle to overcome loss of at least one parent in the house. Others were never encouraged or never had an adult who even recognized their potential. And when you are struggling just to get by, studying for test isn’t a priority.
That’s why, more than 30 years later, I may be ashamed at who I once was, but I am also ashamed of some of the former classmates who still embrace the bell curve. Some of the same people who encouraged me not to exceed are now blaming their neighbors for falling at the negative end of the curve. I know this because I see their posts on social media.
They complain about people “on welfare”and how they don’t want their hard-earned money going to support people who are lazy and just don’t try. The want to drug test individuals who receive SNAP (food stamps) because they aren’t deserving. And they have the misguided belief that if people just try, they can find a job that pays more and provides benefits.
When I read such opinions, I can’t help but wonder if my former classmates remember back to the days when I, the person at the top of the bell curve, had similar thoughts about them.
But, over time, I learned that each of us has fought both visible and invisible battles to get where we are, and success looks different for everyone. No one’s achievement shouldn’t be denied or belittled. But neither should we think everyone has the ability to achieve what we have.
Such thinking only accomplishes what the bell curve does: ensures an elite few stay on top while someone will always be struggling to just get by.