When reading at grade level is not good enough

By Christie Tate

My husband and I sit on the bench outside my daughter’s second-grade classroom, staring at the kids’ self-portraits that are hanging in the hallway. While he’s enjoying the whimsical view, I’m trying to slow my heartbeat by saying the Serenity Prayer over and over. “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change…”

It’s our first parent-teacher conference for my daughter, and I’m anxious about what the teacher will say about her reading. She’s been struggling through her daily homework assignment to read aloud for 20 minutes. For both of us, it’s become the most fraught half hour of the day—the extra ten minutes is for the wrangling we do before and during the actual reading.

When she started first grade, my daughter was a struggling reader, assigned to a group required to meet with the literacy specialist. She knew she was in the “lowest” reading group and internalized the idea that she’s not a good reader. In her words: “Some kids are good at it, but I’m not one of them.” Now, a year later, when we sit down to read, she’s easily frustrated and quick to huff about her flagging abilities. In those moments, my worry doubles over itself as I fret over her ability to sound out the word “availability,” as well as her grit when facing a challenge.

What did I want out of this meeting with her second grade teacher?  My gut answer is that I wanted to hear she is doing okay. But if I press on that word—“okay”—I know there’s more. There’s so much more that it feels like a lie to say it’s all I want. Because what does okay mean to me? Is it the same as average? If so, how will I feel if the teacher tells me that’s the verdict, that my daughter is, in fact, average? Will it be enough?

Yes, but not really. Sort of, it should be, but it’s not.

My daughter’s best friend has torn through Judy Blume’s canon and the first three Harry Potters. Other parents tell of prying books out of their kids’ hands at night and forcing them to play instead of read. In the seven and a half years she’s been alive, my daughter has independently grabbed a book to read exactly once. That morning, a few weeks before the meeting, when I saw her curled up reading Ramona on her bed? I cried.

It was a sign I didn’t know I’d been looking for. A sign that she was a smart kid because smart kids read. She was a kid who was going places. A kid who was better than average and more than okay. Since I started counting her kicks in utero and comparing them to the charts from my OB, I’ve been primed, not to celebrate my daughter’s progress, but to read it like tea leaves as an answer to the question: is my child going to come out ahead?

When the teacher calls us in, I impersonate a sane person who has kept her seven-year-old’s reading progress in perspective. Smartly and no doubt based on years of working with parents like me, the teacher opens the session with my daughter’s strengths, which include self-confidence, dreaming up story ideas, and social ease. They are almost compelling enough to distract me from the reading angst. Almost.

“So how’s her reading?” I blurt out when I can no longer stand it. And I’m not looking for a vague adjective or platitude about how each child learns at her own pace. I want an assessment that will indicate where she is relative to her peers. That, I think, will prove whether she’s okay.

Calmly, the teacher smiles and says, “She’s doing great. She’s right where we would expect.”

It’s close, but it’s not quite enough. I sputter a few words before the teacher puts me out of my misery. “She’s right at grade level.”

I’m instantly relieved. Weeks of tension dissolve in my body and the steady thrum of anxiety quiets. For the rest of the conference, I’m relaxed, even jovial.

But by the time we get in the car, the lightness is gone. With shame, I admit to my husband: “Being at grade level—it feels like it’s not enough.” My husband gently tells me, “This is your stuff,” and he’s absolutely right. I’m perfectionistic, competitive, and from an early age, I drove myself to be the best in whatever I was doing. I was also emotionally shut down, miserable, and leaning on a raging eating disorder to cope with the stress.

This is not what I want for my daughter.

But this is exactly where it gets tricky. Because while it’s true that my notions of what’s okay are skewed by my own history and pathology, it’s also true that in this cultural moment, parenting trends are overwhelmingly aligned with my dark side. It’s not simply because I grew up in an alcoholic home that I believe that being average is not good enough. External reality confirms this every single day. I have to use two hands to count how many of my friends have mentioned their kids are reading above grade level. And the handful whose kids are not gifted readers are raising math/science wizards or art prodigies. No one’s copping to being normal, average, or at grade level.

Right after the conference, I remembered a neighbor who told me she hired a tutor for her son when his teacher assessed his reading as “at grade level.” At the time, I laughed at her. Silly tiger mom. I’m no longer laughing.

Now I can’t let go of this tutoring idea. When I mention it to a few of my mom friends, I expect them to rally around my daughter’s right to a carefree childhood. Instead, the first two I poll tell me that they’ve been using tutors or supplemental academic programs, including something called Genius Camp during the summer, for years. When I ask why, their answers are the same: “To give my kids a leg up.” One friend put it more bluntly: “If everyone else is doing extra, then extra is no longer extra. It’s required.”

Great. It feels like I’ve been sending my daughter into a cycling race where everybody was blood doping except for her.

Like everyone else, I have to figure out how to parent my child without strapping my demons on her back, while simultaneously giving her what she needs to succeed. The question is: how? I can’t tell the demons from the angels in my own nature, never mind culture’s at large.

In the meantime, I interview the tutor over the phone. She has an impressive background and a kind voice. We schedule a meeting with my daughter for Saturday.

Christie Tate is a writer and lawyer in Chicago, who is raising two children and working on a memoir about her adventures in group therapy.

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