Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Final Exams

If my husband and I ever get divorced it will not be over infidelity or finances or growing apart, it will be about final exams. We both have the same ultimate goal for our children, to help them learn how to work hard and do their long as it’s on our terms. The trouble is, our terms are a little different.

My husband is good at everything he tries. He’s motivated, smart, curious, a hard worker and entranced by excellence. Excellence is his true mistress. She tempted him to write a 30-page paper, front and back, single-spaced about To Kill A Mockingbird in 9th grade. She winked and flirted with him throughout The University of Pennsylvania undergrad and law school. She seduced him into becoming one of the best prosecutors at the Philadelphia’s District Attorney’s office. He simply cannot comprehend how anyone can resist the sweet siren song of excellence. He worked hard to achieve excellence in school and he believes that his study methods will work for others in their quest for excellence as well.

I have spent the majority of my life desperately hoping that people will not discover me to be the fraud I truly am. The youngest of six, I spent most of my childhood convinced that I was the least intelligent and least interesting person in the room. I worked hard in school probably out of a misguided desire to feel like I deserved to be a part of a family that was infinitely smarter than I. I didn’t love reading. I was not very competitive. I never asked for help. I did my homework. I studied. I did well. Never the best, but never the worst either. Excellence was the popular girl I didn’t feel I had the right to speak to. Nobody taught me how to study; I just did it to keep up.

Fast-forward to last Sunday, the night before Teenager 2’s Social Studies final. Husband’s plan was that Teenager 2 write his outline for the essay question, research details, practice writing the entire essay, and practice drawing the map of Europe, which would be on the exam. A sound plan to be sure. Teenager 2, however, wanted to write the outline, memorize the outline, study the other two practice maps he had already done and then play video games and watch the Transformers movie for the 567th time. Foolish misguided youth.

Husband went over the plan with me several times, leaving me in charge when he had to leave to take Teenager 1 to Spanish tutoring. I now absorbed the familiar fear of failure should I not be successful in carrying out the plan. What if he came home and there were steps left unfinished? The exam could be a disaster, the year’s grade could be compromised, there would be no hope of getting into an excellent college with an average or simply good 7th Grade Social Studies exam, who would hire someone with a B or, worse yet, a B-? How could I ever be a success with a grade like that?

I mean, how could HE ever be a success.

That’s what I meant.


And then it struck me; I already went through Middle School. I have no memory of what I got on my social Studies Final. I don’t even remember if we had one. And, oddly enough, I have never been asked for that result in any job interview. All I was doing now was transferring my stress to my son. I was not helping him learn material, I was just passing on the family heirloom of fear of failure. What Husband and I hadn’t realized was that Teenager 2 was figuring his way of studying, just like his crazy ancestors before him.

Ah, sweet catharsis, a term which I had to study for some final at some point, and now am actively using in a meaningful way. I cannot control the future and ensure everlasting happiness for my sons through definitive and traditional success on final exams. Because success is not marked by a letter or GPA, it is not marked by a fancy calligraphied diploma on your wall or the amount of boats you own. Success is trying hard, never giving up and being proud of what your effort accomplished on your own terms sometimes despite your parent’s perceived best intentions.

Don’t get me wrong, Teenagers 1 & 2 do not have all the answers, because this is the first time they’ve ever been 13 & 15. Husband and I will still try to help them find the answers, and we will succeed and fail brilliantly, because this is the first time we’ve ever been parents to Mr. 13 & Mr. 15.


  1. As I happen to be mothering 13 and 15 year olds myself, both of whom also have finals this week and next, I really needed a chuckle as well as some useful insight. This post was announced in my Facebook newsfeed at the exact right moment. Thanks, Mary!

  2. It takes a village. We'll get through adolescence somehow

  3. I can definitely see that the concept of helping my kid with his homework will be tricky (when is it too much? when is it appropriate to let him fail? etc). Thanks for this look ahead...

  4. Testify, Mary!!! How eloquent and RIGHT you are! I went through 47 different mindsets this past week trying to find a comfortable parental resting place by juggling my experiences and my son's, but never did. The point you make about kids finding their own way to study is MAJOR. Thank you.

    1. I'm still going through it. Two more finals for my high-schooler; I think I have doubled my number of gray hairs.