Parenting Pearls-March 2, 2006

Awards given to so-called underachievers

By: Dr. mae Sakharov
   March is time for the Academy Awards when Hollywood rolls out the red carpet and honors those the academy members vote the best of the year.
   Viewers who do not fall asleep during interminable speeches watch this program with rapt attention. They applaud brave performances, which are singled out, and make notes of fashion trends.
   So-called arbiters of good taste featured on entertainment news programs carefully scrutinize celebrity icons parading down the red carpet.
   As a child, I would, with the ambition of being an actress, stay up beyond bedtime and from the top of the stairs and listen until the best actress and actor were announced. The Academy Awards were a highlight of my year.
   Not so very long ago, the Academy Awards was one of the few such programs on the air. Now this is no longer the case. Currently, awards are handed out for everything and sundry, from losing the most weight to being the most conniving survivor on a far-off island.
   Thinking about the plethora of awards made me wonder why I could not disperse a few of my own. My nominees, unlike the celluloid cuties, did not receive free gifts for endorsing products or have fun wearing designer clothes.
   As a recent New York Times editorial pointed out, "The anointed receive thousands of dollars worth of merchandise — jewelry, perfume, sunglasses, cosmetics, vacations, electronics and other assorted baubles — in exchange for even brief appearances at glamorous events."
   My nominees may have won a more exalted perk: graduating from high school with their egos intact.
   My award is not to a specific individual but to a composite of underachievers in traditional schooling who, once released from the system, were able to reach their potential.
   It is often acknowledged the qualities that make for success in schools are not duplicated in the world. Students who rank the highest are primarily those who conform, follow the rules and hand in assignments to exact specifications.
   Those that are too individualistic, have issues outside of school to contend with or have not come into their own often drift under the radar. Once out of a cloistered environment, the open air invigorates and, with some years under their belt, the so-called underachiever hits their stride.
   There are many such individuals like J.S., my first award recipient, who just find high school boring and skate by doing as little as possible. Once out in the real world, they thrive.
   The type of educational environment the gifted underachiever thrives in is that which encourages creativity and relishes this idiosyncratic personality type.
   The first honor goes to those students who are totally disorganized. This type of student rarely take notes or brings books to class; they are the bane of teachers since they never hesitate to speak out, dominate discussions and, when bored, tend to nod out in class.
   The recipient of my award as a personification of the type is to J.S., formally of Brooklyn. A voracious reader, J.S. attended Styversant High School in New York during the mid-1980s. J.S. knew the answers to questions before the words were out of the teacher’s mouth. He never wore a coat, even in the cold of winter, and carried all his worldly possessions in the bulging pockets of a worn suit jacket. We knew each other well as, after school, he worked as a peer tutor at my learning center.
   I remember prepping him for the then-achievement test in American and world history. He knew the answer to every question and responded to my queries in bullet like fashion.
   His grades never matched his intelligence, and too rebellious to be at the very top of the class, J.S. attended the wonderful Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn., with a major in Eastern European languages. At the time, and perhaps today, this wonderful college was known for being a place brilliant underachievers in high school could thrive.
   The next thing I heard about J.S. was years later when he spent time in the Czech Republic during the Velvet Revolution. From there, it was on to the Ukraine where the brilliant unconventional student, true to his kind, founded a publishing company in 1995 with six employees and $8,000. He then launched an English-language business newspaper.
   Over the past decade years, his company has become a leading publishing and Internet company in Ukraine. Not bad for the guy that never carried a notebook or took a note in class.
   Another type of underachiever is the student with skewed intelligence, scoring high in one area, such as language arts, and bombing out totally in math. A representative is a young lady that attended a local Pennsylvania high school. Her grades were average and well below that in mathematics, which she hated with a vengeance.
   Never an athlete, she refused to attend or participate in team sports. Often leaving her gym clothes behind put her grades in this class and health in the D range.
   She loved music and writing. During the summer of her junior year in high school, she secured an unpaid internship in New York with a public relations firm that specialized in managing singers and publicizing concerts. This lackluster student soon proved to be an excellent worker, and before reaching the age of 17, she became integral to the company.
   She realized the only way to get into colleges of her choice was to circumvent her grades and go for the writing. The result was a phenomenal college essay, portfolio of her journal entries and the magazine she had designed for a project in her sophomore year.
   New York University decided it had a winner. She entered, completed her studies in four years and graduated magna cum laude.
   During her time at New York University, she continued to work for the public relations firm and soon became a paid member of the company. This underachiever in conventional senses became a member of a band, writes music and performs while still working at the public relations firm where she started as a teenager.
   My award third goes to the student who has triumphed over a family in which he was beaten and abused, dealt drugs from the sixth grade on and dropped out of school. The most unlikely to succeed can make a complete turnaround as did C.J., the survivor.
   I first met this guy when he was in the sixth grade and already causing problems in his private school. He was caught dealing marijuana to fellow students, suspended and eventually expelled.
   His parents did not know how to deal with him and asked that he attend my learning center for full-time schooling. At first, I was very hesitant about taking in such a troubled young man, but I consented.
   Although he was barely able to read, we made significant headway academically and psychologically. This child was adopted, and his father turned out to be a heavy drinker who would often come home and box his ears in. His mother was bound to the abusive relationship and would not leave to start a new life.
   C.J. began to stay out all night and try to find any place other than home to sleep. He had the reputation of a runner, one of the most difficult kinds of children to work with.
   We did, however, get along well, and I suggested he stay at my home. Well, the situation turned out to be just fine, and we bonded without difficulty.
   The next year, though, his parents sent C.J. away to a place where problem children were programmed to change their behavior. This program had a controversial reputation as being a drill camp.
   It was here C.J. stayed until, upon completing high school, he moved out West. I did not hear from him for years until a friend from this area opened a motorcycle show.
   Low and behold, C.J. now operated his own chopper shop and designed incredible vehicles as well. Somehow, he must have known where I lived and gave me a message — "Thank you for saving my life."
   Every day, so-called underachievers or victims of circumstance transcend stereotypes and make a way for themselves in the world. It is a testament of tenacity and hope that this is possible.
   Thus, I am honored to present these awards to representatives of these exalted groups. Perhaps you can hand out some awards yourself. Maybe you were an underachiever yourself?
   If so, come Academy Awards night, honor yourself for surviving high school with a celebratory glass of wine or the like.
Dr. Sakharov’s Web site is