My son begins 8th grade in a few weeks and over the course of the summer we’ve had a few “talks” about how this was the last year his grades wouldn’t be on the transcript he would send out to colleges. He took this news with the amount of alarm that you would expect out of a thirteen-year-old: zero. Or at least he pretended zero. Everything I’ve read (and I panicked after his 7th grade year and read multiple books over the summer) points to the notion that “bright but unmotivated” kids are often perfectionists who fear failure and therefore don’t even try, ending up with that facade of “couldn’t care less.”

Our son sailed through seventh grade, sunnily assuring us that he had no homework because they were allotted time in class for it and he’d done it already. I believed this because I know the school had a “low homework” attitude. It was possible that–given enough time in class–he was truly finishing things up.

How could I be so stupid, you wonder? Well, aside from his convincing smile, I was unconvinced. Essentially, we were running an experiment to find out what would happen if we kept our hands off. We assumed he’d be mature enough to at least crash-land his 7th grade year fairly well the same way he’d crash-landed 6th grade.

Then, at the end of the year, I got an email from one of his teachers saying that my son had failed to turn in a two-chapter take home test. She asked us to encourage him to return it ASAP. I looked her name up in the directory, since I never can remember which teacher is which (I’m just bad with names of people I’ve never met that way). It was his algebra teacher. Now, I knew my son was having a hard time in algebra, partly because he didn’t have a textbook–he was at the orthodontist the day they handed out books and they were short so (in short) he didn’t get one.

This, for the record, happened in Seattle Public Schools: there are not enough textbooks for each child to have one in some schools. His middle school is one of the wealthier schools (as supported by PTA dollars). It has a world class music program built by the parents, but the school district cannot be bothered to allot them enough textbooks per child.

So, I was cutting him some slack in algebra because of the no-textbook-thing, though I thought a native of the digital generation should take to his “online textbook” like a fish to water. There was a textbook available for him to use in the classroom, so I figured he just put a lot of effort into finishing (mostly) during class.

But the take-home test made me livid. The algebra teacher had a no-make-up policy and here she was practically begging me to make my son turn in this two-chapter test. Upon returning home that night, I interrogated my errant son, who replied that he hadn’t quite finished it and so hadn’t handed it in–knowing there were no make-ups and no late work allowed. Clearly, he wasn’t thinking clearly.

He finished the test, turned it in, squeaked by, and when his grades came his father looked at them and suggested that I not bother.

So now here’s the bad news: we just sat down with our son to explain to him that mother is going to be monitoring his schoolwork every damn day. Every day will be “planner bingo,” with something written in for each class, whether the topic they covered or the assignment due or what they plan to discuss the next day. Something–anything that mother happens to deem valid. Then, mother and son will organize all of the papers that came in that day, devise a study plan, and mother will sit at the dining table and work quietly on her own work while son and daughter do their assigned work for the day. I will be there from start to finish, no cut corners, no skeletons in the closet, nothing out of place, everything ready for the next day.

Here you may ask: why me and where is my husband in all of this?

I’m the study hall monitor because my husband is the chef and the dishwasher. If you think he’s getting the better end of the deal, you’re wrong; I hate to cook and touching cold, wet, slimy dishes turns my stomach. And I’m forever grateful to him for taking on the yucky stuff.

The good news then, is that even though we’ll fumble and stumble a bit, I have that secret love of planning things, so I’m sure we’ll get the hang of it pretty quickly. From there, I just have to make sure he stays on task and does his best. And everything I’ve read assures me that organization and staying on top of things are key to good self esteem and, more importantly, self-efficacy (the sense that you are capable and resilient in the face of what life throws at you). And from there, the grades just magically follow.

We hope. We’ll see. I’ll report back later on how this actually turns out.

If you’re interested, here are the highlights of my summer reading:

  • That Crumpled Paper Was Due Last Week ~ which taught me that my son was not alone in his disorganization and inspired me to sit down with him to get him organized. We’re implementing some pieces of the author’s tactics in modified ways.
  • The Price of Privilege ~ while we’re not one of the uber-wealthy, absentee-daddy, power families often referenced in the book, I found this one so compelling that I wrote fifteen pages of notes and went over them in two sessions with my husband and son as conversation starters
  • Teach Your Children Well ~ by the same author as The Price of Privilege.
  • Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be ~ a book about the bubble of madness surrounding college admissions, esp. the Ivies. The book contains a sweet collection of anecdotes about kids who had to go to their 2nd choice or even fall-back colleges and who found they actually got a great education. My blood pressure must’ve dropped a good ten points reading this book.