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A Few Famous Flunkies Give Report Cards A Failing Grade

"Bring me no more reports!" cries Shakespeare's antihero Macbeth in a despairing, penultimate moment. He was not, as it happens, referring to school reports.

But the Scottish butcher-king, as an invention of that playwright chap who also wrote so understandingly of "the whining schoolboy ... creeping like snail/ Unwillingly to school") might have had some such thing nagging at the back of his mind.

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Some scholar or other once seriously investigated the question: How many children did Lady Macbeth have? There is conclusive textual evidence that she had at least one, though neither she nor Mac himself could be described as fond of kids.

Who knows? Perhaps the Macbeth child or children consistently brought home such poor report cards that Ma and Pa finally decided to wash their hands of the whole ghastly rising generation, education-wise, forever. "Bring me no more reports!" may have a hidden resonance.

But I do not think it is all that wise to take school reports at face value. Even teachers know that they do not always mean what they seem to say. A humorous list going around British schools currently (and anonymously) suggests this. It is headed "Understanding Your Child's School Report" and offers real meanings for the euphemisms found therein. "Easygoing" actually means "bone idle"; "friendly" means "never shuts up"; "easily distracted" means "hasn't finished a piece of work yet"; and "works better at practical activities" means "totally illiterate."

I'll let you in on a secret. I was a schoolmaster - teaching English - for two years. I wrote my reports in my digs late at night: an unwelcome, baffling chore.

The problem was not so much that I couldn't recall whether it was Lindsay or Linda who had neat handwriting but little imagination, but how to convey politely to the doting parents that their offspring might never have a career as a novelist or playwright. I could hardly say that "even writing a shopping list is beyond this child" or that "this boy's middle names are not Charles Dickens."

Instinctively we sensed a line between politeness and insult over which we could not step. I may have longed to write, courtesy of the Scottish play, that the recalcitrant Joe was a "cream-faced loon" or that in the mayhemic Robert "confusion now hath made his masterpiece," but I am sure I resorted to the clichs of the genre. Lindsay (or Linda, or both) "could do better." Joe "needs to concentrate more." Robert "sometimes allows his attention to wander." And so forth.

Teachers are rather constrained. A parent at a school I know complained to a teacher the other day that his daughter's report was identical to the last one. What was he expecting? Change? Improvement?

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"Improvement" used to be a great stand-by of the school report, though today it seems to have lost currency. My teacher-wife assures me she still uses the word, and with meaning. Nevertheless, it is not on the list quoted above; yet in April 1884, when Winston Churchill was 9 and was given a report, "improved" was used on it no fewer than six times.

The word is rather relative, yet it does indicate something of that period's educational philosophy. A child would have been thought innately in need of improvement. The teacher's function would have been to improve the child, propelling him forward from ignorance and misbehavior.

The child Churchill's 1884 report is in the news just now. It is on view in an exhibition at London's Public Records Office, Chancery Lane (until Oct. 4), one of 150 items from the Churchill Archives Centre in Cambridge.

When I was a child, Churchill was cited, by the more indulgent adults, as someone phenomenally successful who had been hopeless at school. The implication was: "Don't worry!" Perhaps these adults were not quite clear about this famous model. As his early report shows, it was not his academics that were hopeless, but his behavior. Under "Diligence" it says that his "conduct has been extremely bad." He "cannot be trusted to behave himself anywhere." He has been late 20 times - "disgraceful!" His "General Conduct" is "very bad" - he is "always in some scrape or other."

It was not in such matters that I, as a child, needed kindly reassurance. My problem was academic. It was Maths. Or rather, my problem was a conspiracy between my Maths teachers and my businessman dad. They sent him coded messages in my reports to the effect that I didn't even know my tables, and this shocked him. He made me recite my tables to him as he tended antirrhinum seedlings in his greenhouse or disbudded the dahlias in the nursery beds. I remember feeling affronted. I could see no point in tables - and if this was to be the effect of my school reports, then I was against them.

A.A. Milne was against school reports, too, I am happy to discover. In 1894, when he was a precocious 12-year-old at Westminster and top of the school in mathematics except for three much older boys, he nevertheless carried home to his schoolmaster father this brief, unjust report: "Has done ill, showing little or no ambition, even in mathematics."

The report had been written before the child's remarkable exam results. It could not have been more mistaken. But "when he read this," Milne wrote, "Father turned his face to the wall, and abandoned hope. I, on the other hand, turned my face to the lighter side of life, and abandoned work."

Perhaps this episode would have something to do with Milne's later invention of one of the great characters of fiction. Perhaps Milne's basic disrespect for academicism on its own account was what enabled him to make so profoundly lovable - and so lovably profound - that Bear of Very Little Brain. I mean, just imagine being a teacher trying to write a school report for Winnie-the-Pooh!

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