My reading age isn't as low as my reading-in-between-the-lines age. I need some extra coaching for that. This was brought home to me when I went to see our youngest son's teacher to discuss his school report. It was a real education. He is five and his teacher didn't make me feel much older.
"He is making reasonably balanced progress which promises well for the future," she said, unsmilingly showing me a file full of his hard work. She looked up. "When I say reasonably balanced, I don't mean limited or adequate. Limited and adequate aren't good. They are not the things you want to see in a school report. Reasonable is okay. Reasonable isn't bad."
She sensed my comprehension skills weren't up to the national norm. "He has a very commendable attitude to his work, reflected in his disciplined, careful approach to it," she explained, as if no further explanation was necessary. Still feeling that I was having trouble, she said: "On the whole, his work has been consistently satisfactory, which is encouraging.
Very satisfactory." She said the last two words slowly and very phonetically.
"Oh," I answered, showing I had developed my basic vowel sounds. "If you don't understand or are unsure you must ask. You only learn by asking," she said, giving me a glare over her glasses. I squirmed in my chair.
"I don't know what you are talking about. Is he a prat or not? Is he going to grow up to be a terrible person? Can you tell by his scissorwork or the way he rolls out dough if he will qualify in later life for a range of well-paid and stimulating mid-management positions?" I asked. "Is he a genius?"
"He's not a thickie."
I sighed. She looked at me as if she suspected I needed a dictionary to read The Sun. "He has responded well to a wide range of new linguistic experiences," she continued, slowly realising I was struggling to follow suit.
I have never really understood school reports. They are a foreign language.
She got up from behind her desk and stood in front of the blackboard. The lesson started. She talked to me in a tone which suggested she thought I was unable to finish a five-piece jigsaw in under two minutes.
"The aim of this school, just like all other schools, is to produce happy, confident and inqui-sitive children who can play co-operatively with their peers and participate in ball sports and social activities with people of their own age without being teased or bullied about their educational achievements. So many parents take it personally if their child doesn't get a good report. But they must learn to read school reports carefully. We can help them understand their children's school report better."
I listened and said "I see", showing my understanding of the senses.
"Daniel is a thoughtful little boy," said the teacher.
"Bright, you mean?" "No. You aren't listening properly. Pay attention. You must listen carefully to what is being said if you are going to understand.
I said thoughtful. Not bright. He's always keen to produce quality results.
Do you know what that means?"
I thought for a minute. "He's frightened of you?" She frowned and shook her head. "He's scared of his mother?" She frowned again. I almost put my hand up. "He's conscientious!" "Good. Yes! That's it. That's a good word. He's conscientious."
"How many children have you?" the teacher enquired. I told her two. "David is nine," I said. "Four years older than Daniel," I added, conscious of sounding numerate.
"Luckily for you and me, they are both happy, polite boys and a pleasure to teach," the teacher concluded. "Unlike others." She brought out another report and read from it. "Master X has been a challenge to teach," she quoted.
"That means he is an objectionable prat. 'He would benefit greatly if he could channel his enthusiasm in a positive way' - the subtext of that is he should stay in his seat and stop shouting and his parents should be worried about his pronounced psychotic tendencies. He is an emergent crime statistic. But you can't say that. You just say it in another way."
I walked across the playground thinking of one of my own school reports.
"Attendance is a problem area," wrote my teacher. "He attends regularly."
Kevin Pilley is a former chief staff writer of Punch