Everything else

Marked for Life

The permanent record is a lie.

Illustration by Dylan

I was in third grade the first time I heard the phrase “permanent record.” My teacher had taped large pieces of paper on a brick wall for us to draw on during art period, and my friend Amanda* and I used thick fruit-scented markers to scribble on the paper, and then the tape, and then subsequently all over the wall. “I’m going to read you the riot act!” my teacher yelled, and it sincerely took me years to realize this was just a saying, and not an actual treatise. “This will go on your permanent record!” I didn’t know what she meant, so I asked my mom about it on the way home from school, and she told me: “It’s a folder where they keep track of you, and everything you do in school, good or bad.” The only thing I knew for sure about good and bad was that no one would be your friend if you were bad, and you did not get to play at recess, and I did not want to go through life friendless and without recess because of one incident involving fruity markers. I was terrified.

For years thereafter, I lived in constant fear of my permanent record, worried that it would keep me from going to college and attaining my dreams. Did my academic achievements mean nothing because I once told my least-favorite teacher that the principal’s office called, and that his house was on fire (incidentally, the worst prank I’ve ever pulled)? Had my chances of attending a good university been significantly diminished when I cut all of my classes to read The Executioner’s Song down by the bleachers?

As it turns out, no. I got a week’s worth of detention for the phone call, no one ever knew that I skipped school that day, and my life carried on, and was even met with a fair share of success. And now that I’m older, I’ve realized that the permanent record is, by and large, a myth.

The threat that anything you do will be subject to eternal scrutiny—that you will be marked for life—can paralyze you with fear. Maybe you failed a test. Maybe you’re having a hard time because you’re depressed or upset, so you talked back in class a couple of times, and now you think you’re pegged as a troublemaker. Or maybe you haven’t done anything wrong yet, but you’re prone to being stressed and nervous anyway, and you’re paranoid that the slightest screw-up will be catastrophic. Or maybe you got bad grades—the report card is one of the most common but most tyrannical manifestations of the “permanent record.” In grade school, you worry about whether your scores are good enough to get you into high school; in high school, you worry about your transcript for college; in college, you worry about grad school or future jobs—and before you know it, it’s like your whole life comes down to a grade, and any aberration or failure will derail your entire future.

Relax! It’s rarely as dire as all that. I have never had an employer ask me whether I got an A in algebra, even when I had a job where I had to do serious math every day. Obviously, it’s important to try your best—a C is a well-earned grade if you worked hard for it—but either way, one disappointing score is not going to result in lifelong destitution. I had a friend who would make herself so nervous about her grades that she puked before every test she took. This kind of obsession with the bottom line can keep you from achieving what you want to in life. Maybe you really like history, but you’re not doing as well in the class as you’d hoped—that doesn’t mean you should avoid taking more classes, because in the long run, you’re way more likely to succeed at something you actually enjoy. Or maybe you’re channeling so much energy into getting that A in English that you neglect other activities and subjects that you have more of an aptitude for. Colleges take into consideration a whole range of factors when determining admissions, and while your grade-point average is definitely one of them, it’s far from the only one. You’re obviously going to worry about your grades, but don’t limit or torture yourself by thinking that being a straight-A student is the only way to succeed. I didn’t get perfect grades in high school, and I even dropped out of college after freshman year. And yet here I am, years later, with a PhD and a job as a college professor. Because I gave myself a second chance to do well, the world did too.

The permanent record ends up intimidating us in ways we might not even realize. I understand rules, and I respect most of them, but sometimes punishments are designed to prevent us from questioning the status quo. When I was in school, anyone caught kissing in the hallway was publicly reprimanded by a teacher and threatened with detention. Personally, I don’t think it’s appropriate to make out in school, but I don’t think it’s grounds for getting in trouble, either. Life requires us to make all sorts of basic decisions for ourselves, and the reasons behind them shouldn’t be primarily rooted in a fear of what seem like arbitrary or inappropriately harsh consequences.

If you disagree with a policy, it might be up to you to voice your objections to authority, and if you do so respectfully and calmly, you might get your point across, or you might get reprimanded anyway—but at least you stood up for yourself. And even in the event that you have no grand philosophy underpinning your decision to cut school just this once, or break into the supply closet and use the gym equipment, it’s definitely not the type of thing you’ll have to tell your boss about three years after you graduate. Time usually lessens the severity of the crime, which is what I learned in the months after my fruit-scented-marker incident, when I still had friends and was permitted at recess.

That’s not to say I think all rules are meant to be broken, or that there won’t be some lasting consequences as a result of certain actions. For instance, plagiarizing or drinking on school property violates ethical and legal codes of conduct, and they’re treated seriously for good reason. Infractions like these can result in suspension or other disciplinary measures, which, depending on your school’s policy, might be shared with prospective colleges. Future employers will keep track of grievances against us, credit card companies will note every missed payment—but we can’t let this consume or define us, because in doing so, we give our failures more weight than our successes. (And, while we’re on the topic, I should mention that if you break the law, your criminal record may need to be reported to colleges/future places of employment if it isn’t expunged, sealed, or made otherwise confidential.)

But even in cases where our decisions haunt us more than we’d like, it’s important to remember that we’re not incapable of rectifying our mistakes, or changing, or moving on, and usually, our transgressions will eventually be forgotten. We almost always have another chance, and let the record reflect that. ♦

* This name has been changed.

26 Comments

  • lacecat January 29th, 2013 11:18 PM

    “We almost always have another chance, and let the record reflect that.”
    Danielle, this is so beautiful. I needed this right now because my grades are slowly sinking :(, this gave me a bit of hope. Rookie never fails to read my mind.

  • litchick January 29th, 2013 11:23 PM

    This article is great- funny and relevant in so many ways. It was exactly what I needed to read. Thank you.

  • raggedyanarchy January 29th, 2013 11:34 PM

    The first time I heard of a permanent record, it was off of an episode of Jimmy Neutron. Maybe that says a lot about who I was as a child.
    Anyway, I go to a prestigious prep school where it is literally all about grades. They don’t even have “D”s, anything under a 70 is an F.
    And they’re always bringing colleges in to talk, and it always leaves me sad and insecure because it’s all “the minimun GPA to get into our college is a 3.8!” and “Get at least a 30 on your SATS and ACTs!”And let’s face it, I suck at math and will probably never get my GPA or my test grades up to that.
    But why should I? I know I’m smart, just not at math. I’d probably have a 4.00 if not for that stupid math grade.

  • Kathryn January 29th, 2013 11:36 PM

    “1-800-YAY-FART”

  • Maryse89 January 29th, 2013 11:45 PM

    this is so timely…right now I’m in grad school and all of this anxiety is very much on my mind. I feel like now the stakes in my life are much higher and any mistakes I make now will really mess up my future…

    as far as high school goes, especially grades-wise, though, I can concur with Danielle that stuff like class ranking will NOT EVER matter in your future. I had middling to bad grades in HS but I still got into a good university, and had the most amazing time of my life there…

    I wish there was someone who could tell me the same thing about my early 20s!

  • smallsimplicity January 29th, 2013 11:47 PM

    I went to my guidance office in high school and asked to see my file. I was on pretty good terms with all the councilors, so I thought it would be no big deal. I asked one of them for it, and he got this really weird look on his face and said “Who told you about that file?” I was super confused, and said that our psych teacher had mentioned it with regards to IQ scores (if you’d been in the school system long enough). Even without that, I just always assumed that they had files for everyone, not a large pile of papers on the floor that represented the student body. He got it for me, and then peered anxiously at me over the desk until I was done. There wasn’t much in it, mostly just stuff from when I was home schooled and when I transferred from North Carolina to Iowa, and a few test scores. It was an all around fun experience, because I got to feel like I was somehow sticking it to the man without actually doing anything crazy. But also confusing.

  • rottedteeth January 29th, 2013 11:48 PM

    I really needed this article I’ve always been hesitant about really saying what I want in fear of getting in trouble.

    http://growtolovesoon.blogspot.com/

  • Emilie January 29th, 2013 11:49 PM

    1-800-YAY-FART

  • Muna January 30th, 2013 12:02 AM

    I wish i would have read something like that in the beginning of this school year, i wouldn’t stress so much about everything haha

  • BridgetC January 30th, 2013 12:13 AM

    My high school actually gave me my permanent record last year (I graduated in 2006). It had all kinds of hilarious stuff like one of my junior high teachers writing that my hygiene had improved. “Permanent” only means until you’ve left high school.

  • thefilmrookie January 30th, 2013 12:31 AM

    This rocks! your permanent record means nothing

    http://www.pink-lantern.tumblr.com

  • galactica January 30th, 2013 1:37 AM

    This is such a relevant article to me right now. I’m in 11th grade, and just today I found out I got a 70 on a test, and started worrying about how it may jeopardize my entrance into university, how everyone else would perceive me, and my entrances into grad school, despite the fact that my average is consistently around 90. I’ve realized that I do base a lot of my self-image on my grades, so it is reassuring that it isn’t the end of the world. I like knowing that I can move on from mistakes like these, and I would like to commend Rookie for consistently posting good articles like these, because I definitely need them sometimes. Keep up the awesome posts!

  • marineo January 30th, 2013 1:40 AM

    ahahah this is so true!
    I am in high school and nothing from middle or grade school has come back to haunt me, my childhood sassiness towards all authority figures has not prevented me from being accepted into college. Even when my friend and I snuck out of a rally (we got caught) didn’t even matter.
    however cheating definitely goes in your file and one of my former friends cheated so much (and sold test keys to other people) that my spanish teacher actually called all the UCs and told them not to accept him… so yeah don’t do stuff like that because that actually matters (kind of… his grades are good enough that he can get in a bunch of other places anyways)

  • Yazmine January 30th, 2013 4:46 AM

    I start yet another year of high school tomorrow and because every year is even more important than the last, I’ve been putting a lot of pressure on myself to do really really well this year. This article has put my mind at ease a bit and made me see that when I make mistakes (and it will happen), it’s not the end of the world. Thanks x

    http://www.fashionandfringes.blogspot.com.au

  • Anastasiya January 30th, 2013 8:24 AM

    I’m constantly stressing over my grades to the point where I am frequented by panic attacks and nausea. This lovely post really helped me realize that I need to take a step back sometimes and look at the big picture, take time to realize everything will settle down and be alright. Thank you <3

  • AmyL January 30th, 2013 9:29 AM

    This was super awesome – I’m always freaking out about my grades and the things I do “wrong” such as “have a bad attitude.”

    Intergalactic-dragons.blogspot.com

  • stellar January 30th, 2013 10:01 PM

    why care if u know what really happened and what matters? those who ‘get’ u and your intentions r the only people who matter.

  • stellar January 30th, 2013 10:02 PM

    p.s. my poor dad still thinks his school grades ‘define’ his intelligence, regardless of the awesome stuff he achieved later!!

  • Abby in the Sky with Diamonds January 30th, 2013 10:16 PM

    I lo-lo-lo-lo-loved this article and the illustration!!!
    P.S. the last visible violation of Rookie’s permanent record had me in stitches! “Pulled the fire alarm and shouted ‘Snow Day’. It was 54 °F degrees.”

  • momobaby January 30th, 2013 11:06 PM

    This is so great. I currently have the first F of my life, in English of all things. When my mom found out, she freaked, telling me that this would mess me up for years, take so many opportunities away from me. There was a lot of crying involved.

    Its nice to know that this won’t last forever.

    http://www.littlerebellia.blogspot.com

  • Nimble February 3rd, 2013 10:09 PM

    I once got in trouble at school. I accidentally made a long trail of scuff marks down the hall (new shoes). My principal figured out I didn’t actually do it on purpose and he was like “it won’t go on your permanent record”. If I wanted to vandalize my school, I would burn it down with acid and make sure nothing is ever built on it’s cursed ground again. THAT would go on my permanent record.

  • Chris February 5th, 2013 12:57 PM

    Okay, I confess. Mrs. Wilbour caught Ronnie (bad boy) Kreseroti and I kissing in the hallway. His hands were on my ass and his tongue in my mouth. Went in my permanent record. I am sooooo proud-truly.

  • Cam-D February 15th, 2013 5:10 AM

    I hate to break it to you all, but records DO exist! For an elective and an easy A, I chose “student-aid” to my counselor who took care of our small Magnet student-body. I had access to all of the students’ confidential records which DID date back to Kindergarten. This is bad and illegal, but to pass the time when we had nothing to do, another aid and I would sneak the files to our desk and read aloud (whispers, actually) our classmates’ records. We read some very interesting things about classmates whom we suspected through their behaviour had interesting backgrounds, we stifled giggles at comments like, “fidgets nervously” or “chews on pencils”, and we laughed at funny school pictures that former teachers had glued into the files. Some file folders were quite thick and definitely juicier than others and some were pretty thin and dull in that they were typical. So kids, permanent records do in fact, exist! This is how the schools keep track of basically everything relevant to students (although the nurses keep medical records separately). This is how Magnet programs like the one I was in weed out unlikely candidates. This is how The Man at school knows who the bad, gifted, and fragile kids are. This (along with recommendations) is how you are chosen to be placed in advanced or regular courses…

    A lot of what you do (not everything) really does make it in your record, often handwritten by your teachers. But don’t let it frighten you, just do well in school and with proper guidance, your record won’t keep you from living and becoming whatever you desire as an adult. :)

  • Cam-D February 15th, 2013 5:34 AM

    I should add that I was a Senior in High School at the time (I’m 22 now) and during my service (and constant academic probation visits), I also learned that counselors can easily pull up ALL of your grades from Junior High! I don’t know how easy it is to pull up grades from elementary school since they tend to have different systems, but I’m sure it can be done. However, don’t think that Ivy League universities will think any less of you if one bad mark in 7th grade smears your otherwise-perfect GPA and record. In fact, they probably won’t even look at what you did when you were 13. You don’t need to be an overachiever, just behave in High School (be an undercover rebel instead of a blatantly, rudely defiant or rotten kid) and make sure to meet your requirements to get into the school of your choice and hope that you get in.
    I hope I’ve provided some good insight. Don’t shrug off records completely but don’t scare yourself too much either! Okay, I’m done now. :)

  • Emmi February 24th, 2013 1:44 PM

    the last time i didn’t care about my math grades was 3rd grade… ever since then it’s all been trying to stay in honors math every year. it’s crazy how everything’s built up now. in 4th grade i was called into the principals office for one of those ‘questioning’ things where if there was stealing or something in a particular classroom, the principal asks you if you know anything about it… i went home and CRIED for hours thinking i was marked for life as someone who went to the principal’s office!

  • Cutesycreator aka Monica June 3rd, 2013 3:16 PM

    What a comforting, positive article! ~Life will be okay~

    PS 1-800-YAY-FART IS THE PERFECTEST ROOKIE PHONE NUMBER EVER

    JUST

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