This Old School Report Card Shows That 'Bad' Didn't Used to Be So Bad

Thoughts about a time when 'citations' were given instead of grades.

Hebrew lesson at Kibbutz Maabarot, 1943.
Zoltan Kluger / GPO

Earlier this month, the translator/editor/writer Atara Ofek posted on her Facebook page a photocopy of a report card issued at the country’s first Hebrew-language school, in Rishon Letzion. It dates from the beginning of the 20th century. Reading it is like gazing in awe at a fossil: It allows you to track something that has become extinct and no longer exists, and offers a view of what a society decided to erase, to eradicate, to rub out; as well as what to leave, to repair and even to develop.

The report card evaluates performance by means of 11 grades, from 0 to 10. They weren’t called “grades,” however, but “citations,” but more interesting is the meaning of the citations – the words of descriptive evaluation that accompany pupils from an early age. The “citations” that catch the eye are precisely those that have disappeared from report cards in recent decades – words that seem to be effectively banned for use vis-a-vis school children, for reasons of political correctness or so as not to harm their tender psyches.

Probably the most important element of this old report card lay in the bottom section, the dark part. The explanatory area that, over the years, became one big blob, without hues – in which, among others, the generic rubric “failed,” is revealed in all its glory.

Instead of mixing all the degrees of “badness” and sequestering them under a single meaningless description, this report card gives a name to each degree of baseness. A grade of 0, for example – yes, there was such a thing – is glossed with precision: “Beneath criticism.” The very fact that it was possible to say to pupils that their essay or test or general ability was so poor that it was not deemed worthy of even a minimal critique is today an utterly fantastical notion.

No less fantastical is the possibility that the pupil will get a grade of 1, meaning “disgraceful.” A teacher who gives out that grade and comment today would surely be asked to tender his resignation, and his principal would be summoned for a dressing-down by the Education Ministry. “Do you have any idea how much image damage you’ve caused us?” he would be asked. “Have you looked at the Internet comments about this incident? Did you see what’s happening on Facebook? The late-night talk shows are already calling. What do we tell them?”

Grades 2 and 3 are also translated into terms that would not pass muster today: “very bad” and “bad,” respectively. These days, variations of “bad” are banned when it comes to children. After all, no one is truly “bad,” for the simple reason that there is actually no such thing as “bad.” It’s all a matter of circumstances, how a schoolchild starts out in life, problems at home, misunderstanding of his psyche, etc. (But what if his work really is just plain bad? Not to say terrible? Not to say crappy? Not to say disgraceful?)

It’s always peculiar to observe the way standard, correct speech hides only the shadow, only the unpleasant part of the self-image. Today’s report cards, in contrast, are typically overloaded with variations on the word “good.” You can get “very good” or “almost very good” or “good” or “almost good.” In other words, four of the six major evaluations of the report card are somehow connected with the concept of “good,” while the two others are related to the term “satisfactory” (which is also alright, no?).

In fact, society has chosen to expand, diversify, develop and transform the good into the central narrative of the time, and at the same time has decided to conceal the bad. But what meaning does “good” have without “bad”? Does “good” even have a meaning without “bad”? Does the semantic forgoing of “bad” make it vanish in practice? Does the semantic expansion of “good” really bring about the practical expansion of “good”?

The bigger question is: Is it beneficial that a person can look into a mirror and not be capable of identifying “bad” within himself? Is there any value in looking at the sidewalk and not seeing your shadow? Is a society that likes to inject quantities of congratulatory Botox (“amazing,” “stunning,” “delightful”), a society in which you can do “Like” but not “Dislike,” not losing sense of its own meaning when all the negative rungs, which are supposed to constitute the basis on which the positive rungs are placed, are brutally eradicated?

And also: Where exactly does all this “bad” flow to, after it’s been erased from speech, discourse and one’s reflection in the mirror? Isn’t it forced to find other ways – indirect, winding ones – at the end of which it spills into life more violently and brutally?

In the end, what stands out in this old, seemingly irrelevant report card is the detail, the richness, the diversity that allows each grade to stand on its own. As in life: Perfect is not excellent, excellent is not very good, very good is not middling, middling is not bad, and bad is not disgraceful. The more names, the more faces. And the more faces, the harder it is to trample them, crush them, make them disappear into all this good.