One of the most heartbreaking and tragic secrets about school success I learned from Charlie — long before I became a public high school teacher, a student support group counselor, and eventually a private school director.
A few decades ago, one of my high school students approached me to inquire about his upcoming graduation. Charlie, who I knew all too well as an outspoken and intelligent young man – had managed to get the same grades in all of his high school classes – all straight Fs.
During our conversation, Charlie did not express any concern about his grades. “They will graduate me with all of my Fs because they will be glad to get me out of here,” Charlie explained to me with bright eyes and a big smile.
During my teacher training years in a multicultural inner-city environment, I had learned from way too many students that grades really didn’t matter in order to graduate as long as you didn’t get an “Incomplete.” What puzzled me about Charlie though was that he was getting straight Fs in all of his classes even though he was quite obviously extremely smart.
Charlie’s unusual school success
When I asked Charlie why he had gotten such terrible grades despite being an intelligent young man, he gave me quite an interesting answer.
“Failing ALL of my classes is my success,” he said proudly. “At least I am good at something.”
No little boy wants to grow up to be a failure. For Charlie, at the age of 18, the only kind of success he had been able to find was failing. “I just wanted to succeed in something,” he told me.
Charlie died within a year after his high school graduation in a tragic speed-racing accident.
Charlie was not alone
Charlie’s unexpected perspective and attitude towards what success meant to him prompted me to listen to my students carefully. What was their understanding of success? What did they strive for?
To my surprise, Charlie was not the only student who felt “success” by getting Fs in all of his classes. Other students shared with me that their success wasn’t just failing classes but also consisted of ditching school, cheating in tests, and fooling teachers.
Many of the students who confided in me shared that “success” was not what teachers, parents or the general society thought it should be. Why wait for success in the future if you can feel successful now – even if it is negative?
One 16-year-old girl told me that to her, success would mean getting pregnant and having a baby. “At least then I would have something that belongs to me.”
The decades since Charlie’s eye-opening statement about his understanding of “school success” have been filled with listening, research, explorations, and finding ways to provide positive success to students – not just in the future – but on a daily basis.
The purpose of our website is to share the behind-the-scenes secrets to school success that enabled my students (many of whom were facing the challenges of borderline autism, dyslexia, Attention Deficit Disorder, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, OCD, or Depression) to complete high school at the age of 16, to graduate from a university without a penny of debt, or to become an international ice-skating champion, an engineer, a veterinarian, an artist, a writer, an architect, or a yoga master.
“Success is not measured in years, but in moments.”
— Tina Burgess
Director, Academy of Exploration International