The ‘average’ child

As someone who has spent almost his entire life in academic institutions, I know how easy it is to put labels on students depending upon one’s perception of their academic potential. When faculty talk about students, they will frequently characterize them by such labels. It is a destructive habit since it seems to suggest to students that they are limited in what they can do. I tried to fight against that tendency in my own speech and encouraged fellow faculty to take a less rigid view but was not always successful, so encompassing is that mindset in academia.

It can affect more harmfully those who are thought to be ‘average’ or below since it can reduce their ambitions, as this poem by Mike Buscemi serves to remind us.


I don’t cause teachers trouble;
My grades have been okay.
I listen in my classes.
I’m in school every day.

My teachers think I’m average;
My parents think so too.
I wish I didn’t know that, though;
There’s lots I’d like to do.

I’d like to build a rocket;
I read a book on how.
Or start a stamp collection…
But no use trying now.

Cause, since I found I’m average,
I’m smart enough you see
To know there’s nothing special
I should expect of me.

But even those who are told by their teachers (and parents and other adults) that they are ‘smart’ can be adversely affected. While it might inspire some to aim high, it can also cause great fear in those who secretly think that they are not worthy of the label and are frightened that one day a poor performance will result in them being found out as imposters. As a result, they tend to play it safe, only taking courses that they know going in that they will do well in, and thus not really challenging themselves, which is when real learning occurs.

I have had such students in my classes and have had to counsel them in my office when they encountered the first time they did not get an A grade in one of their courses. Some have even cried, worried about what their parents might think of them. As a result of my experience with such students, in my large first year physics classes, I would tell all the students early on in the semester that getting their first B would be a liberating experience, since it would free them from the straitjacket of thinking that must maintain their straight A grade average. This statement from me would be received with nervous laughter (what kind of teacher tells students to embrace a lower grade?) but also, I sensed, a feeling of relief, that a straight A average was not a measure of their worth.

This perception that students belong in boxes gets inculcated into their minds early on and it is hard for them to shake it off in adolescence and adulthood.


  1. John Morales says

    I never had ambitions, so they could hardly be reduced.

    (Obs, I was never average, either)

  2. flex says

    I submit that it’s not just students whom we put in boxes.

    We put friends, co-workers, country-men, spouses, dates, children, other people’s children, everyone, into boxes.

    We even put ourselves into boxes.

    It’s part of our hierarchal primate behavior, it predates humanity.

    I think some people find it comforting to be told what box they are in.

  3. jenorafeuer says

    Yeah, fortunately I got out of that mindset in high school. (Only got a B in French, though I had the highest possible percentage for a B, 1% higher and it would have been an A.)

    That said, I also ran into the issue where I managed to get to third year of University before realizing I had managed to never learn how to study properly, because my memory had just been good enough to remember it all. Third year was when the information density finally got high enough that I had to change that…

  4. says

    As Rousseau pointed out in his treatise on inequality, a society exists to bolster those who are not as fortunate in their starting conditions -- or the society misunderstands its purpose or is a failed state. In the US there are programs catering to the above average, and under-funded less effective programs for “special needs” -- the effort is backwards. There’s no need to hold back star performers, but everyone else should be helped to perform at as high a level as they can/want to. [This was something that Kurt Vonnegut made one of his rare mistakes on, in his story about Harrison Bergeron]

  5. Katydid says

    @Marcus Ranum: I found the exact opposite was true when my kids (late 20s) went to school. Every effort was put into getting kids who were never, ever going to live independently, much effort was put into those behind for behavioral or general ability, some effort was put into the average child…but if they were good at school, well, as the elementary school principal told me when I objected to them cutting the Gifted & Talented program, “Your children ACE the standardized tests, what MORE do you want?!?!” Uhm, how about a fair and appropriate education?!? The justification for cutting education for the bright kids was, “They’re going to do well whatever we do, so why put money into it?”

  6. Don F says

    I was a smart kid. I was always told that I was smart and at school everything seemed pretty easy for me but it didn’t seem to matter much so I just did enough work to get by, unless it was something that I really liked like mathematics where I’d mostly get straight As. But then in college things became more difficult and my habit of not working hard didn’t get me where I wanted to be . . . but oh well, it still didn’t matter much so I’ve always done just enough to get by.
    Luckily for me I was able to earn a pretty good income doing things that I enjoyed in a job that was mostly easy but I wonder how much further I would have gone if people had praised me for hard work instead of being smart . . . .

  7. sonofrojblake says

    Echoing Katydid -- I’ve lived with a couple of teachers. The latter one in particular was the AGT (able, gifted and talented) coordinator for her school, and she fought a constant battle to maintain funding. I don’t know how that battle’s going nowadays obvs, but 15 years ago there was a constant tension between AGT and “special needs” (i.e. dumb kids), to which her response was always “the smart kids have special needs too!” They deserve an education that will at least put them somewhere near the private school rich kids they’ll be surrounded and likely outnumbered by at university. Fuck low expectations.

  8. brightmoon says

    Y’all were lucky , I had to fight tooth and nail to get my oldest child’s middle school guidance counselor to stop abusing him . I even ended up in family court over this issue as he reported me for child abuse because I kept insisting that my son was smart . This racist creep deliberately gave my son an IQ test when he knew he had a bad headache. My son just marked random answers because he felt bad. I decided to play smart and not tell this asshole that I would purchase high school and college textbooks and let both kids read them . The creep took my son out of his Spanish class even though he was doing well and my son got pissed and decided to learn French, Spanish , and Italian. Luckily I lived in a neighborhood that I had neighbors who spoke all 3 languages . He’s fluent in Spanish and is ok in French and Italian.

    My son decided to outsmart this racist asshole too. He walked into the principals office one day and told the principal that he’d drop out and the school would lose funding IF he wasn’t allowed to take a special program that they had to let middle school kids take college classes at the local community college. He forged my signature on the permission slip and only told me after he was accepted in the program.

    I advised him to take English and get it over with . He took general chemistry and got an A . I didn’t help him because he didn’t ask for my help. I’ve got a biology degree. He’s got 2 degrees , one in biology and one in chemistry . He decided to take the chemistry degree his senior year and ended up taking 24 credits in just chemistry classes his last 2 semesters. My reaction to that -- “Boy, is you crazy! “ . I’m just glad I didn’t let that racist guidance counsellor derail him. I’ve got 2 kids like that and I’m glad I didn’t have to put up with that much crap with the younger one even though I had to scold a library worker because she wouldn’t let him take out high school math textbooks when he was in elementary school. She had the nerve to tell me that “ people steal them and sell them “. Not my problem, lady! I could title this venting I’m doing as Problems Of Black Folks and just FYI this deliberately not educating/ miseducating Black children crap still happens!

  9. Mano Singham says


    Thanks for sharing that story. You are absolutely right that this kind of thing happens to Black children all the time.

    We lived in an integrated community with a very good school system but many parents of color did not realize that they could not just let the school teachers and administrators decide what was best for their child but had to closely monitor what was going on and be an advocate for them, the way that many white parents did. Your son seems to have gone one better and even become an advocate for himself. Good for him for not succumbing to low expectations!

    We had a similar, but not nearly as severe, experience. When my older daughter was in elementary school, she was selected for an enrichment pull-out program in English. The pull-out teacher kept telling us at conferences that she was doing just fine. But when our daughter went to the middle school, she was not put into the enrichment class. When we asked the middle school advanced English teacher why, she said that the elementary school pull-out teacher had said that our daughter was not very good, the opposite of what she had been telling us (the parents). When we told the middle school teacher this, she decided to test our daughter herself and based on that test, she selected her, and our daughter thrived in her class and in the years after, so much so that this teacher remembered her years after she graduated and would ask us about her whenever we met in town. That middle school teacher was Black and I wonder if her willingness to be flexible and check for herself what our daughter was capable of was because she knew how easy it is to have students pigeonholed.

  10. Holms says

    It must be nice to go to a school with such programs, but I wonder what it feels like for the students excluded from them, knowing that the option exists but not for them.

  11. John Morales says

    Holms, are you the beneficiary of a trust fund where you get discretionary spending for all your needs, a car to drive, places in which to live, servants to attend to you, and so forth?

    If not, be aware that those exist.
    So, however you feel about those is likely to be similar to what such students feel.

    (Some of us can substitute theory of mind for empathy)

  12. John Morales says

    No, Holms, there is no ‘also’, unless you get my example, since it means ‘as well as’.

    See, it’s a thing that’s around, but not for you. Same sort of thing.

  13. says

    …I had to scold a library worker because she wouldn’t let him take out high school math textbooks when he was in elementary school. She had the nerve to tell me that “ people steal them and sell them.”

    Does someone really have reason to believe there’s a black market for high-school math textbooks? That’s truly bizarre, but it also implies something good and hopeful about that community.

  14. brightmoon says

    @14 nah, she was just accusing him of stealing but “ being polite” about it. Just like the “helpful” store clerk who follows you around . I learned long ago to not get pissed but I’d definitely make them do their job. I’d walk to the other side of the store and when they’d ask if they could help me I’d ask them for something on the first side of the store that I knew they didn’t have . “Oh that doesn’t come in orange, well I really wanted orange but thank you for helping me!” After about the 3rd or 4th time they’d walk across the entire store , they’d find something else to do!

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