One baby boomer afternoon when my best friend and I were in fourth grade—she in the local public school and I in the parish Catholic school—she showed me her weekly spelling test. It had a shiny metallic-looking star and a great big 92% A written across the top. I too had scored a 92% on my spelling test that week, but I didn’t get a star because 92% was considered a B+ at my school. Only a 93% or higher received an A.
There were differences in our study lists as well. We both had fourth grade sight words like factory, crop, and engine. And we both had academic words like hemisphere, division, and American. But she never had to spell indulgences, blasphemy, or transubstantiation.
Oh, the disparity a fourth grader can feel! She can do less. I have to do more. Equal performances didn’t receive equal rewards. But did it matter? We both continued to do well at our respective schools. We both graduated from public universities—she as a nurse; I as a speech-language pathologist. We both can still recite the mnemonic: i before e except after c, or in neighbor and weigh (and weird)
Some people are good spellers because they have strong visual memories. Others because they understand phonics. Still others because they pick up clues from the meaning of the word, for example, that fourth is spelled like four not forth because it refers to a number. And many once-excellent spellers are apt to lose their skills today because their computer spellcheckers not only correct their errors, but catch them in the first place. Successful learning–in any subject–depends upon hundreds of factors. Methods of grading change with the times. One size will never fit all.
But for me, the arbitrary cutoff of 93% to receive an A did matter. It mattered because it taught me about school and life: that what I consider enough may actually be too little in a different circumstance or to a different boss. That a little more effort (or a little less) can make a big difference in the outcome. That exceeding the minimum or average standard made me feel good about myself. It taught me that learning wasn’t something that could be handed to me like a list of words, but something that required my active participation. 93% kept the focus of learning high, and helped me see education as a thing of value.
School wasn’t always fun for me and plenty of times I complained about demanding teachers and difficult tests, and voiced the perennial lament I’m never going to need to know this stuff. But when I hear of girls in foreign countries being killed for wanting an education, or of kids truly walking miles to school without shoes, or of students right here in America who would give anything to have a parent praise them for learning to read a new word, recite a multiplication table, or locate a line of latitude on a map, I think of 93% and that fourth grade spelling test. And I know that the only two ways to spell education are p-r-i-v-i-l-e-g-e and g-r-a-t-i-t-u-d-e.