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How to catch a falling son

He was tested as gifted and loved learning. But somewhere along the way, my boy slipped through the cracks and nearly out of the school system. Is it too late to save him?

By Christina Tynan-Wood

When he was young, my son Cole was an entertaining writer, voracious reader, and so curious he exhausted us with questions. In second grade, he was tested as gifted. Now, at 15, he’s as likely to be the teacher in our relationship as the student. But with rare exception, he gets terrible grades. Over the years, I’ve been told he’s learning challenged and so needs special education and medication. I’ve been to every kind of parent/teacher meeting. I’ve tried every kind of school: Montessori, charter, public, magnet, private, as well as homeschooling. I hoped as he got older, this bright boy would be more willing to speak up and demonstrate that his inattention is not incomprehension.

But three weeks ago, as his sophomore year drew to a close, I got a call from a teacher warning me he was unlikely to pass. I had known he was slipping behind. In fact, I’d removed all the distractions I could from our house – Xbox, cable TV – and even set “distraction controls” on his laptop to keep him from wandering to Facebook when he should be studying. Cole and I talked about homework daily. He assured me he was getting caught up and that his teachers were simply not updating the online grading system. His efforts, he insisted with disarming confidence, would be reflected in his report card. But the teacher informed me she had just updated the system. I sighed and took a look. His grades were so low he would have to work to bring them up to Fs. What did he imagine was going to happen when I got that report card?

We'd been here before, but he always managed to catch up at the last minute. This time was different. I sat him down to explain that these grades were scotching his dreams of studying engineering at a good university. He shrugged and looked hopeless. “What are the chances that I’ll get into college?” he asked.

Not 'fit' for college?

What happened? How did that brilliant, curious mind decide it wasn’t a fit for college?

I started troubleshooting. First I called the school guidance counselor to find out what Cole's options were. Should I let him fail so he could learn from the consequences of his inaction? Was it mathematically possible for him to pass? “It’s possible," the counselor told me. "But I doubt he can do it. He has dug himself into quite a hole.” These were not easy classes he was failing. No amount of general brilliance would get him through honors chemistry. “But he can retake the classes in the summer. If he does that, these grades won't affect his GPA — though the incident will appear on his record. But try and get him to fix it. This is too harsh a lesson at his age.” The counselor agreed to talk to him man-to-man to explain the situation and Cole's options.

Next, I did what I always do when I feel lost: research. I discovered that what’s happening to my son is epidemic and has been happening for decades. Boys start falling behind girls in kindergarten and keep doing it right through college. The end result? Colleges that are only 40 percent male and an educated workforce that is increasingly female.

Christina Tynan-Wood has written for Better Homes and Gardens, Popular Science, PC World, PC Magazine, InfoWorld, and many others. She currently writes the "Family Tech" column in Family Circle and blogs at