I have been engrossed in a gem of a book entitled “David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants” by Malcolm Gladwell. One of the chapters I just read really made me think: would I rather that my child be a little fish in a big pond or a big fish in a small pond? My inner-tiger mom tends towards the big pond.
My son Josh struggled in 8th grade Algebra and ended up needing to repeat the subject his freshman year in high school. I was devastated. I was a computer science major, and David was a math major. We are a family of mathematicians. Our child should have passed Algebra with flying colors and moved on to Geometry as a freshman! I thought I totally failed as a mother and as a human being.
Because Geometry was a concurrent requirement for Honors Biology, Josh was also forced into pedestrian-level science track, thereby tarnishing his college applications for sure. Josh is a scientist, for goodness’ sake! He had gotten a perfect score in his 8th grade state testing for science. He loves science.
I thought that his 8th grade Algebra teacher was lousy and was more interested in her pending retirement than in teaching. I was mad at myself for not intervening sooner, but I felt even worse that Josh began to think of himself as being stupid. Yikes!
Alas, when Josh retook Algebra at his high school, something finally clicked. He began to do really well in his class. It helped, of course, that he was taking the class for the second time. It also was a major plus that his teacher was young and enthusiastic and had an innovative way of teaching to make certain that all students understood a concept before moving on. Josh began acing all the tests, and he became a star student.
He felt good about being the best in this class, a decidedly smaller pond in comparison to the Honors Geometry class which would have been a big pond for him. If I had insisted that he move up to Geometry, he may very well have struggled and continued to think of himself as a “dumb math student.” Instead, he got A’s in Algebra last year and is now continuing to do well in his sophomore Geometry class. He thinks of himself now as a good mathematician. He got his mojo back.
According to writer Malcolm Gladwell, many Ivy league students in the bottom quarter of the class get so discouraged that they drop out of their majors or, worse still, college altogether. Every single person who gets accepted at Harvard, Yale, or Stanford is most assuredly brilliant, but somebody still has to be at the bottom quarter of the class, right? Gladwell also sites studies which show that the top students at many of the “mediocre” schools actually accomplish much more than the bottom-half students at the top schools. It’s good to be a big fish in a smaller pond!
Pushing Josh to take advanced classes just so that it would look better on his college application — or, truth be told, so it would make me look better as a parent — would have done him much disservice in two ways: One, he would have gotten less-than-stellar grades, and two, he would have lost his self-confidence. We would have set him up for failure.
Perhaps it was in God’s divine wisdom that Josh ended up in Algebra for the second time in 9th grade. And because his workload has been relatively light as compared to his comrades in honors classes, Josh has been able to enjoy his high school years to the fullest. He plays the trumpet in the marching band and is making a lot of friends and memories.
I still hope for Josh that he ends up at a decent college and has a great future. If we have to scale back the Big Pond dreams we had for him, so be it. Now, after reading this book, this panda mom is thoroughly convinced that it’s better for him to be a big fish in a small pond than a small fish in a big pond.