What It's Like To Be The Mom Of A School 'Underachiever'

by Rita Templeton
Originally Published: 

I log into the school’s online portal to check my 7th grader’s progress report, and it’s like somebody knocked off the first few letters of the alphabet, because there’s not an A or a B – or even a C – in sight. The course roster is populated entirely with Ds and Fs, and I can’t say I’m surprised. Not because my son is stupid or that I don’t have high expectations of him – neither could be further from the truth.

I’m not surprised his grades are in the toilet because I know my son, and I know that school just isn’t his strong suit. Which is why I’m also not that disappointed, because he has much more to offer than his standardized scores reflect. And nobody can see that more clearly than me.

I never expected we’d be at this point, though. When he was little, I figured he’d breeze through each grade. In fact, at one point early on, there was talk of skipping him ahead in school. He read as soon as he could talk, and had a more advanced vocabulary than many adults. He devoured any educational material he could get his hands on, particularly if it involved science. By age three, he could name all the vertebrae in the spine, and tell you anything you’d want to know about carnivorous plants.

If you had asked me back then how he’d be doing in the 7th grade, I’d have anticipated that he’d be at the top of his class, not scraping along by the skin of his teeth and at risk of having to repeat a year (and hopefully only one).

But within a few years of him starting school, ADHD reared its ugly head, and the associated symptoms and behaviors began to outshine his brilliant potential. His inability to focus meant that he spent much of the time distracted and daydreaming, and therefore totally lost; everything went in one ear and out the other, circling through his meandering brain and then slipping away.

Medication worked sometimes, but it didn’t keep his grades from going sharply downhill anyway, and he was yanked from the gifted education program because his dismal test scores “didn’t indicate a need.” It wasn’t so much that he was failing school as that the school was failing him. A classroom setting isn’t the most accommodating place for a kid like my son, even despite the “extra” measures we hoped would help, like letting him sit on an exercise ball in lieu of a chair.

We ended up pulling him from public school and enrolling him in an online school, which has been great in many ways. But no matter what we try, he still just isn’t good at school, and even the change in venue hasn’t magically resulted in an appearance on the honor roll. He trudges through every assignment with the speed and enthusiasm of a donkey being led through quicksand. He spaces out, and when he encounters a test question, it’s like he’s never learned the subject at all.

It’s frustrating for both of us: him, because his teachers are constantly on him to improve, and me, because I know he is somehow, some way, capable of doing better.

But then I watch him tinkering away with his computer, his favorite pastime. At just 12 years old, the kid has a legit side hustle repairing laptops for friends and neighbors – he’ll even make sure all the drivers and software are up-to-date before returning them. He has taught himself multiple programming languages, and it’s like living with the Geek Squad; my husband called him from work the other day to ask how to open a JSON file and ended up getting a detailed tutorial.

The last time I got a phone call from his online teacher, I steeled myself for another chat about his grades. Instead, she spent 15 minutes gushing over the fact that my son had been able to troubleshoot and repair – via code – a connectivity issue that his online class had been having. He even sent her screenshots of exactly what he did.

“I had no idea he was so proficient at computer stuff!” she marveled. But, really, why would she have any idea? School isn’t where his passions lie. All she usually sees is the apathetic slacker who skates by on the barest of bare minimum.

I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t struggled mightily at times with my son’s underachievement in school, especially since my other kids are at the high-achieving end of the academic spectrum. It’s difficult sometimes not to compare. Would I rather him be a straight-A student who adores school? Of course – if only because it would make things easier on him. I know there’s not much joy in being at the bottom of the class.

But I also know that talent does not necessarily equal achievement, especially if school achievement is not where my kid’s talents lie. I know that there’s a drive within him that’s going to motivate him toward things other than algebraic equations and world history. I know that school might be a necessity, at least for now, but that it’s only a page in a much longer story. His road through academia it may be bumpier than most, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t great things on the other side.

So I’ve decided that, rather than stress us both out by harping constantly on his piss-poor performance, I’m going to place less of an emphasis on stellar grades, and focus on developing the things he is good at. I will encourage him to pursue the things he is passionate about – because that’s what’s going to do him the most good. No one is remembered for the grades they got in school anyway, and the greatest gift I can give to my son is to not distill all of his worth and potential into one single, meaningless letter.

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