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Report Cards

Author John Cech
Air Date 6/2/2004

Report Cards Transcript

It’s the end of the school year, and that means: report cards. Remember how just the sight of a stack of those neatly-folded, buff-colored cards, waiting on the corner of our teacher’s desk, could send shivers of expectation through the whole of our young beings?

My mother carefully saved all of my report cards from elementary and middle school, and I remember finding them among her papers, neatly bundled, waiting for my own schoolchild to discover them one day, which she did. These cards came from way “back in the day” when a teacher was expected to write a brief character study of each of her students, and parents eagerly awaited this assessment of their child, to learn whether she or he was a stellar achiever, or still a work in progress. And unlike today, a parent wouldn’t have thought of challenging a teacher’s words on this hallowed piece of paper. I have before me the card that Mrs. Smith, my third grade teacher scrupulously filled out. It’s a little yellower than I remembered, and foxed around the edges. I’ll tell you the verdict in a few seconds.

No one knows exactly where or when the first report cards appeared. In private schools or one-room public schoolhouses in the first half of the 19th century, report cards really weren’t necessary. You, and usually all of your classmates and your parents knew what your marks were, and paper was too valuable to waste on these individual records. There was a tradition among teachers in the Pennsylvania Dutch villages to give exceptional students beautifully hand-decorated small cards, often with rhymed inscriptions. These were the fore-runners of the greeting card. The report cards most of us received began to be used in large urban schools in the latter part of the 19th century, when teachers often didn’t know their students’ parents, and teachers also had to be able to communicate graphically (through letter grades) with parents who may not have been able to speak English, about the accomplishments of their children.

What did my report card say? Mrs. Smith wrote: “John spends more time entertaining his friends with stories than he does attending to his assigned work for class. He needs to find ways to reign in his enthusiasm.” She certainly had me pegged. Today, I’m reigned in by plenty of other assignments and, of course, by time’s winged chariot. But hey, it’s a small concession to make to be able to keep telling stories!

Posted in Education