The True Definition of Smart

Navigating report cards with my dyslexic daughter and why A's don't mean a thing

I’m playing with the word smart. I’m looking at both my girls’ report cards and I’m thinking about how I used to look at my report card. It was a simple equation: smarts + hard work = “good” grades.

The word smart has 24 definitions on

Smart means showing a quick-witted intelligence. My older daughter KK’s smarts show up on her report card in several versions of the letter A.

Or smart means mental pain and suffering. If my youngest daughter, Annie, looked at her report card, she might despair when she realizes it doesn’t assign her high honors or rewards. As in, “sorrow is the effect of smart.”

Third graders like my Annie don’t receive letter grades — instead they receive E for excellent, M for meets expectations, P for progress shown and I for improvement needed. Getting one E in physical education, a handful of M’s, one P and one I might smart, or cause a “sharp, stinging pain.”

That’s what I felt five years ago when Annie’s kindergarten teacher pulled me aside to ask me to test her for learning disabilities. I felt like I was up against a brick wall at the end of a dark alley way, and I was struggling to breathe. She talked at me as water collected in the corners of my eyes. Her private school teacher refused to let my gaze go as she said, “We can start with testing at the public schools. It’s free, and depending on her results, she might qualify for services at the public schools. It’s a good place to start,” she said. “She’s at the bottom of the class. We have our work cut out for us.”

I had my work cut out for me starting with that moment. Her grades are just a reminder that I need to become a smarter mom. As Annie, who is dyslexic, continues to make her way through the system, her report card causes me less grief every year. But I just wonder what feeling it will evoke in her when she finally takes a close look at it.

Maybe if she didn’t have her older sister as a comparison, she wouldn’t know what being an A student looks like. It looks pretty nice from where Annie sits. KK works hard, but not as hard as Annie. KK does her homework almost entirely by herself. She has no tutors. When KK reads her report card, the A's soak right into her body. She puffs up with pride. I congratulate her, noting how hard she worked. So far seventh grade has been her most difficult year. She earned those grades with much perseverance: test retakes, extra math help from her teacher, tears and studying.

Still, Annie has five tutoring sessions a week. I do most all of her homework with her. I have slept with her almost every single night since school began. When I got unusually frustrated with her after being woken up from a deep slumber to move to her bed one night, I pleaded with her to tell me what she was worrying about. “I worry about school getting hard again.”

That’s the irony. School is really the easiest it has ever been for her. Annie repeated kindergarten. She used to have 10 tutoring sessions a week instead of five. She used to sob often at her toughest tutoring session, curling up into a ball in the corner of the room. Don’t I sound like a monster, making her go to a tutoring session where such agony took place? After she cried and I helped to soothe her back to calmness, her tutor would say to her, “Annie, let me explain to you why you need to learn this.”

And Annie would go back to her tutoring session. I would quietly wish the tutor would send us home after these crying fests without making her work hard again at learning to read. Now I know where my girl earned the skill of perseverance. It’s OK to be frustrated and express your frustration. And then you will calm down so your brain can work again, and slowly you will learn to read. Those impossible tutoring days when I would go home and take a nap after I dropped Annie back at school? That reading program is why my Annie can now read. That word “grit” that educators can’t stop talking about? Annie has some real grit.

Someday she will pull that report card away from me and I'll have to talk her through what those letters mean. 

They mean nothing.

And grit doesn’t show up on everybody’s report card. Annie asked me about her report card and I said to her, “You did great. Just great.”

She did, but I wanted those E for excellence to be everywhere on her report card. I need to let go of those E’s. Because someday she will pull that report card away from me and I’ll have to talk her through what those letters mean.

They mean nothing. 

That’s where my past comes in. I was much like my older daughter. I wanted all A’s and I still remember the only C I ever got: Seventh grade gym class, the trimester with volleyball and gymnastics. This kind of report card thinking has to change first with me. My A’s mean nothing to me now. They meant a lot to me as a kid. My older brothers got A’s with little effort. I worked so hard at school my mother used to take my homework away from me. “Nancy, you cannot rewrite that paper one more time. Stop!”

I was rewarded for those A’s by the school system. I was a cherished student, and I would be remiss if I didn’t tell you that I wore those A’s with pride. I liked being thought of as smart by my fellow classmates. I looked down on the kids who got C’s and D’s and F’s. What was wrong with them? If they worked hard like me, if they were smart like me, they would get A’s and B’s.

I was wrong. The way people assign too much meaning to our grading system is wrong. The way we label the A students as gifted while the ones that get 1 percent on their Iowa tests as “diverse learners, special needs kids,” well, that’s bullshit. My Annie is as smart as the gifted child. My Annie is as smart as my KK.

I’m not sure the grading system at every school in American will ever change to a system that more accurately describes the students it serves. I’m not sure it matters. I do know that what matters most to Annie is my attitude. She again asked, “How’s my report card mom?” I replied, “It’s great. Why don’t you pick out a book as a reward?”

Is that a good enough response? I don’t know. All I know is I need to keep thinking about what I’m going to say as Annie moves through school. A few weeks ago KK retook a math test because she got a low grade. Annie asked me, “What if I get a ‘C’ someday mom?” I said, “A ‘C’ is a good grade, Annie.”

But part of me knows I’ll need an even better answer when she starts receiving true letter grades in fifth grade. Perhaps by then I’ll no longer be hung up on the many definitions of the word smart. I’ll be smart enough to know that a report card’s measure of smart doesn’t really matter. What matters is that Annie grows her confidence in her gifts alongside her ability to deal with her difficulties due to dyslexia. If we can get there, I’ll be one smart mama.

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