Brain Pickings

Anne Sexton’s Report Card

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“She had little patience for studying … she passed the time in math class by writing flirtatious notes to boys.”

Thomas Edison was once called “addled” by his teachers and dropped out of school after only three months of formal education, then forever changed the course of technology and earned himself a Congressional Gold Medal. Benjamin Franklin dropped out of school at the age of ten after two years of study, then went on to become a polymath and a Founding Father. Albert Einstein flunked out of high school at the age of fifteen, then proceeded to build the foundation of quantum theory and win the Nobel Prize in physics. The list goes on, but hardly does the evidence for the disconnect between academic performance and genius get more delightfully visceral than in Anne Sexton’s report card, found in Anne Sexton: A Self-Portrait in Letters (public library):

In the prologue to the first section of the book, covering Sexton’s early letters, Linda Gray Sexton, Anne’s daughter, and Lois Ames quote Anne’s own autobiographical recollection:

I went to Wellesley public schools, then to private schools, then back to public. By the third grade, my parents were told to give up on me. I’d never learn anything.

The editors paint a fuller picture:

When she reached the fifth grade, the school insisted that she repeat the year and she did. But the loss of familiar schoolmates left her feeling more isolated and unappreciated.

At one point, her teachers and the school authorities urged Anne’s parents to get psychiatric treatment for her. When the Harveys indicated their reluctance to embark upon such a threatening course, the school warned them that Anne might experience emotional problems later in life. Mary and Ralph Harvey decided to wait.

But Anne was masterful at disguising her suffering, both academic and emotional, with vigor:

She had little patience for studying; a precocious, headstrong adolescent, she passed the time in math class by writing flirtatious notes to boys. Her classmates remember her as happy, vivacious, and popular, but underneath, she later claimed, lurked exquisite pain which found an outlet in her role as the class rogue, one who laughingly braved all authority. Although her carelessness and lack of attention were the qualities most often mentioned by her various teachers, many of her report cards remarked on her verbal ability and intellectual agility as well.

Though Anne went on to become one of the most celebrated poets of the twentieth century, winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1967 and thus unsnarling the mythic correlation between early academic excellence and lasting cultural influence, she never transcended her teachers’ mental health admonitions. On October 4, 1974, at the height of her literary acclaim, Sexton had lunch with her editor to go over the final manuscript of her forthcoming poetry collection The Awful Rowing Toward God. She then returned home, put on her mother’s old fur coat, and stripped her fingers bare of rings. With a glass of vodka in hand, she walked into the garage, locked the door behind her, and started the engine of the car, ending her life by carbon monoxide poisoning. She was 45.

One has to wonder when our broken education system will finally recognize that learning the essential skills of mental health has much further-reaching, lifelong benefits than performing well on standardized tests of vacant memorization.

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