"SO, let me get this straight," I say to my wife as I perch squinting at the rows of columns, numbers and ticks on our little girl's school report, "a number one is the worst and five is the best."
"Well," she says, "clearly, they don't use words like 'best' and 'worst' any more."
"Clearly," I mutter. It looks like a spreadsheet of laboratory results, quite different from the report cards in mean little brown envelopes we were sent shuffling home clutching, teary-eyed with fear, in my day. It was the longest walk of the year, a day of dread, routinely followed by phrases like, "Wait until your father gets home", and the prospect of no money for comic books for a while.
But our youngest skipped into the kitchen from school with her bright little folded sheet, barely able to contain herself, then stood beaming as we opened it, before tottering off singing to herself.
"This is an entire pamphlet," I say, folding and unfolding it and noticing that all of the little ticks are in the column marked 'five' or 'four', which evidently is a good thing, very good in fact, far from the reports I remember steaming open and laboriously attempting to change any 'Es into 'Bs.
Here, there are sections titled 'Behaves well in the playground' and 'Sensitive to others' feelings', which have four possible grades, all with little comic-book-font, computerised ticks under the column headed 'always' and for a moment I vividly recall handing over one grim report to my parents, across the bottom of which were scrawled the words 'YOUR SON IS A TEST OF PATIENCE' underlined three times.
"Where did we get her?" I say.
"Haven't a clue," deadpans my wife.
"You realise," I tell her, "that the only things missing on this are little pictures of flowers and butterflies."
"It's quite detailed actually," she says. "You have to read between the lines. Look at the comments."
This section has been neatly typed using a computer. When I was our daughter's age, the best I could hope for was that the teacher's handwriting might be so bad, words like 'inexcusable' or 'infuriating' under the column marked 'behaviour' would be indecipherable.
It's how I first began using a dictionary, desperately trying to find similar-sounding, more positive words. "I'm pretty sure that says 'inspirational'," I'd try to tell my mother as she chased me around the kitchen table swatting me on the back of the legs with the envelope.
"It says here she has 'great ability for recalling information and explaining her skills to others'," I say.
My wife looks up at me from under her eyebrows.
"Right," I say, "in other words, it's hard to shut her up sometimes?"
"It could be worse," says my wife. "Our friends' report for their five-year-old said 'loves to give the class extremely detailed accounts of what's been happening at home every day'."
"The horror," I say, blanching a little at the thought and skipping ahead through the comments quickly to make sure it doesn't say anything like that here. As I do this, I make a few idle pen marks in red.
"What are you doing ?" says our daughter, suddenly reappearing.
"I'm correcting your teacher's grammar and punctuation," I tell her and she giggles.
In truth, this happy little school report with its picture of smiling school children holding hands on the front is a breath of fresh air. End-of-year updates on how things have been ticking over deep beneath the shaggy fringes of her secondary school brothers were not entirely as rosy.
"Smm-herrup aport-curd," the youngest of the two had burbled from somewhere under his hairstyle when he dropped an envelope on the table then promptly disappeared to a computer to resume slaughtering zombies with his thumbs.
And when his older brother trundled in, he simply heaved a giant, heartrending sigh before handing his report over, then trudged upstairs and closed his bedroom door.
The first of the two reports was quite good, far beyond expectation in fact, surprise of the year being something along the lines of him being a good communicator.
"Perhaps they've got the wrong child," I said.
"Maybe they have an interpreter," explained my wife.
The second report, however, gloomily portends a coming Leaving Cert exam year of anxiety and hardship, whatever it holds for the student sitting the test. It also points to many long months of cheap pasta for mum and dad; cake and the finest wines known to man, no doubt, for the legion of grinds teachers soon to be raking in heaps of our hard-earned cash.
"Look on the bright side," I tell the boy when he re-emerges.
"What?" he says.
"Um," I say and he lumbers off again and closes his door.
Still, the hell paid off with the eldest of the lot, who phones a little later from college where he's been finding out his exam results.
"I got a First," he says.
"That's a good thing, right?" I ask my wife.
"You're joking," she says. "It's brilliant."
"Well, it's clear who he takes after," I say, wiggling my eyebrows.
She gives me a stumped expression.
"I went to college," I say defensively, "for a while."
"Lounging around on the cricket pitches outside the bar in my college with a pint in your hand while I was finishing MY degree, hardly counts," she says.
"Look at me now," I say.
"I rest my case," she says.