failure_dos_screen sxchu_carlsilver

As soon as he got off the bus, he greeted me with a grin. “I got lots of compliments on my report card!”

Not knowing him to be a particularly high-achieving student, I was surprised. But I told him I was excited and could wait to see his  report card.

We went inside to begin our day at after school. After putting up his book bag, he got out the sheet of paper and handed it to me. He smiled big at me as he repeated, “See? Lots of compliments.” I couldn’t wait to see his grades.

But it was not as I expected.

Turned out, he had F’s in three of his core classes, and a D in the other one. He didn’t even have A’s in all his activity classes, where all you have to do is show up and participate.

I was shocked, and I glared at him, “I thought you said you had good grades?”

“I do. See? Lots of compliments.” He pointed to a column on the report card.

“That doesn’t say compliments,” I corrected. “That says comments. These are not good grades.”

“Oh.” He replied, dejectedly.


Oh, yes, there were comments, alright. Comments like,

He’s lazy and shows no initiative.

He is bad in class.

He doesn’t finish his work.

Doesn’t sit still. Bothers other children.

Rarely turns in his homework.

We’ve known him for over two years. Does he exhibit negative behavior? Yes. Who doesn’t?

But is he is a “bad kid”? No. He is not malicious or rebellious.

He’s the boy who I once paid a dollar to sit still for 5 minutes, and who barely did it. He’s a boy who is occasionally suspended (in school or out of school), when his anger and frustration lead to physical and verbal fights. (A key reason he’s missed so much homework is that he’s been suspended several times recently, and doesn’t think to ask for or do his missed assignments.) He’s a boy from a talented family who is being robbed by poverty.

I’m not one to excuse behavior, and I have been frustrated plenty of times with his behavior. I’ve asked, pleaded, insisted: “Why don’t you sit down?” “You need to act more mature.” “Will you please sit down?” “Keep your hands to yourself.” “Don’t yell back at him.” “Didn’t you hear me say to sit down?” “Quit talking and do your homework.” “Sit down and stay there, now!”

He’s Not Bad; He’s Smart

He’s about three grades behind in his reading level. And though he should be learning division, he still adds on his fingers.

But I’ve seen him recall incredibly specific nuggets of information. You can see almost the lightbulb turn on when he makes the connection.

The person he met one time, he remembers him immediately six months later. The lesson on constellations causes him to blurt out accurate facts from a book on Greek mythology that he doesn’t even remember reading.

He’s not a bad kid. He’s failing, and his failures frustrate me and a bunch of other people.

Who’s Failing Who?

And when I get frustrated, I realize that it’s not just him that’s failing.

I’ve failed him, and I am failing him.

I mean, you’d think spending hundreds and hundreds of hours with him over the past two years would make a difference, right? After school, summer camp, seeing him in school, playing at our house, taking him out to dinner. Shouldn’t we be a lot further along than we are?

I’ve yelled at him. I’ve seen his siblings yell at him (“Sit down!”), as well as his mom. I’ve seen teachers and classmates yell at him.

I wonder what all that yelling does to him. I wonder how it crushes his spirit. I wonder how it trains him to react.

If it was me, I’d lash back in self-defense and anger. I’d probably be jittery and antsy. I’d be so focused on survival that doing missed homework assignments would be the furthest thing from my mind.

Eric Jensen writes in Teaching with Poverty in Mind,

“Most low-SES kids’ brains have adapted to survived their circumstances, not to get A’s in school. Their brains may lack the attention, sequencing, and processing systems for successful learning. It’s up to us to upgrade their operating systems – or see a downgrade in their performance.”

We are failing him, and other students like him. I mostly feel helpless. I see F‘s all over my ministry report card.

But failure is never final, unless we quit.

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**image courtesy of carlsilver via


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