Needs Improvement

Texas coast
Before report cards

My parents are cleaning out. Dad tells me he’s got a stack of cookbooks going to Goodwill and do I want to pick through them? Mom stops by to drop off an envelope. It’s got my report cards from elementary through high school, my ninth grade school photos, and a high school creative writing magazine with two of my angsty poems in it (“Seems paradise was just a mirage/covering the streets of a city….”).

I spend an afternoon in nostalgic reflection.

Second grade. I loved Mrs. Stern’s go-go boots and bouffants. The report card evaluated me for how well I was “developing a courteous manner” and whether I could “accept group decisions.” Apparently, I was doing these things well. I also was “developing better posture” and “practicing habits of cleanliness.” At the top of the chart, Mrs. Stern had the option of marking “needs improvement” or “does his best.” It’s still a surprise to be reminded that “his” was once supposed to mean “her” as well.

Fourth grade. We struggled, Mrs. Neitzel and I, over my penmanship. “She should strive,” Mrs. Neitzel wrote in the first quarterly report, “for neater papers and more legible handwriting.” By the fourth quarter, I had improved, but I still wrote sentences in the margins and drew loops and arrows to show where they went. Mrs. Neitzel did not approve. Mrs. Neitzel thought I should start over and re-write everything neatly. At least I was revising.

My worst evaluation in fourth grade came from the gym teacher: “Allison needs to think more about what she is doing.” I have never been good at thinking about what my body is doing. My wrist doesn’t connect with the volleyball; my racket doesn’t meet the birdie; my biceps don’t smoothly move the bat. So I just laugh and swing wildly and hope. And get marked down.

Sixth grade and I was still struggling in gym class. But there were new trouble spots. Mr. Hoffman said that while I was doing well academically, my “self-control” could use some work, and I didn’t always “play well with others.” In high school, Ms. Hardy, my algebra-trig teacher, said I seemed “to waste time.” I regret now that we called her “thunder thighs” and laughed as she spread chalk dust over her polyester pants.

Today my colleagues and administrators evaluate me every fifth year in post-tenure review. If they think I need to work on my self-control, they don’t say. It’s true that I don’t always feel like playing well with some of my colleagues, but I’ve learned in most cases to ignore them.            

I’m still no gym rat; my exercise of choice is walking because at least my feet can propel me forward. The computer fixed my penmanship and legibility. Do I accept group decisions? Not always, but for some reason I keep voting.

One thing I wish I could get back: wasting time. I can’t remember the last time I wasn’t doing something productive, as pleasurable as many of my life’s activities can be. I can’t remember when I last spent an entire day doing nothing. Needs improvement, Allison. Needs improvement.



About allisongreenwriter

Author of The Ghosts Who Travel with Me, a memoir, and Half-Moon Scar, a novel.
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