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What happens when a child falls behind?

Newsletter · Aug 23, 2021


Last week I wrote a post about this – currently very noisy – idea of children ‘falling behind’. I realised, after writing it, that I’m a really great illustration of why it’s so absurd.

In my younger schooling years – from when I was 5, through to when I was aboouuuut 13, I was the absolute model A+ student. I stayed ahead of every expectation set of me, I was in all the extension programs, and I was a joy to have in the classroom.

This is one of my actual report cards from that time:

“Issy is a teacher’s delight. He listens, considers, watches and acts with thought and maturity. He will achieve what he sets out to achieve in life, and should set his sights high. He is a very highly self-motivated, empathetic, capable, conscientious, enthusiastic, intelligent, and well-liked boy.”

This whole school thing was a piece of cake. Life was set.

And then came high school, and with it pimples and bad haircuts:

But what also came with high school was more structure, more pressure, more testing, and – what I think is one of the biggest issues, certainly for me – the splitting up of classes and subjects into short blocks. At my high school, here in New Zealand, our days were made up of 50 minute classes followed by a 10 minute changeover break – which gave you just enough time to walk to the next class and get yourself set up for the next subject.

For the first two years of high school, I went…ok. I slowed down from pulling consistent As to solid Bs, but by the time I was 15 I’d dropped down to averaging Cs. I was… starting to struggle to keep up. The following year, with a schedule packed with chemistry, and physics, and statistics, and history, and English, and whatever else was on the typical 16 year old kid’s plate, I quietly started to crumble.

My report cards at that point…well, I can’t tell you what they said because I never opened them. I couldn’t bring myself to.

I stopped showing up to some of my classes. I ducked away to the public library for entire afternoons. I’d walk away from the school feeling relief at not having to face trying to keep up when I knew I couldn’t, followed by immense guilt and stress about the inevitable eventual consequences.

I had officially fallen behind. I was – in the school’s eyes – pretty much a lost cause. Somehow I scraped through my final year of exams (my results were poor across the board, but just above the threshold for what was then called University Entrance here in NZ), and then spent years at University repeating exactly the same thing. Setting out each year with good intentions, only to fall behind, and eventually just bailing out. I left University with nothing to show for it but a stack of student loan debt.

As far as the system is concerned, I am a failure.

Except – plot twist! – I’m actually not. It took me years to really process that, but since bombing out of both school and then university, I’ve worked in senior sales roles, project management roles, and marketing roles. I’ve started and sold a business, helped grow a software company from really small to really big, hired, managed and led big teams of great people, and written words – over the past few years – that have touched the lives of millions. I have married the woman of my dreams, and have four beautiful children.

Every day I feel challenged and fulfilled. As a child, I fell behind. But I am not a failure. I am living proof that the concept of falling behind, on missing out in life if you don’t keep up with the standards, is only real if you believe it is.

Thank you, as always, for reading – I hope you found this little story of two very different life halves comforting! And if there’s ever anything you’d like me to write about, please don’t hesitate to drop me a line.

All the best,

Issy Butson, aka Stark Raving Dad. Author of The Grandparent's Guide to Home Schooling

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