J and I were both awake at around 4:30 am, and we spent the next couple of hours alternately staring at each other and chatting. She was worried about her test. The test that she’d thought was easy, the test that I told her did not matter at all.
At one point I asked, “What do you think would happen, if you failed? Like, if you failed wildly, what are you afraid would happen?”
“Mrs. D. would lose her job,” she answered. Promptly, like it was so obvious.
“No, no, no, no,” I swore up and down. Her performance would have no impact on staffing decisions whatsoever. I know that she’s not getting this from us. Or from her teacher. It’s crazy. Except it’s not crazy. When I was a kid growing up, it didn’t occur to me that my teachers could possibly lose their jobs. I thought that adults’ lives were static: if you were a teacher or a cop or a business person, you always would be. But our kids have grown up watching teachers and teaching assistants lose their jobs. And there’s so much talk everywhere about using testing as part of staff evaluations, that my poor, sweet, too-smart-for-her-own-good girl had decided that her failure would lead to her teacher’s dismissal.
I tried to talk her out of it, but she kept that skeptical air, as if I’d said one of those false comfort statements like, “No, honey, your Dad and I aren’t going to die for a long, long time” or “Of course you’ll make a friend if you go to that new activity by yourself.” You could see it on her face: I hope that she’s right, but I don’t know that she’s right.
Shortly before it was time to leave for school, J had begun to half-snooze on the sofa, and I was stumped about what to do with her. Then she woke and was panicked about getting to school on time. I said that I’d drive her, and printed out an official “refuse the test” letter to take along with me.
In retrospect, this was a mistake. She pulls herself together for school, but at this point I was so overtired and stressed out that I wasn’t sure if I should pull her entirely, see what we could do to mitigate the whole situation, or throw up my hands. I went between J’s teacher, J’s principal, and J. J didn’t want to refuse the test, no, never, but we came up with a plan for during the test if things got hairy. By the end I felt awful. First, because I ended up crying in the principal’s office and all of our talking really hadn’t helped anyone, and second, by the time I was heading home that morning I’d begun feeling like perhaps I’d made the exact wrong choices.
Here’s what I was thinking. I hadn’t actually met an educator who thinks that these tests are helping my daughter, and I’ve met many who think that they’re harmful. After this experience, I think that these tests are more harmful than helpful for J. But because my kids are typically good at taking tests and because I’m fine with tests eventually, like the SATs in high school, I’ve been going with the flow. I mean, they’ll have to do all the test prep anyway, and I know that they’d rather go along with everyone else. But by yesterday, I started wondering if allowing the girls to take the tests is a morally wrong choice. Like I’d become a collaborator in support of a system that’s hurting children. Maybe, I speculated, what I need to do is start planning now to refuse the tests next year, and start prepping my children for thinking that this is a good choice, like sitting at an integrated lunch counter in the 1960s. Except that if my kids don’t take these tests, they won’t have the kind of practice that their peers will by the time they take college entrance exams. But there I am making choices based on helping my two kids, which unwittingly screws kids as a whole. And maybe learning about taking a stand based on sincerely held beliefs is worth test points. So I was fretting over all of this, but mostly I wanted to scream at my daughter to freakin’ relax and not worry about it so that I could ignore the whole issue. And then I decided to set it aside and have a cupcake for breakfast.
By the early afternoon I’d gotten a chance to pay my neighbor Mary a quick visit. She’s not doing well. She was so groggy from the medicine that it was hard to understand anything that she said, and when I was able to catch a full phrase I felt like putting my hands over my ears. She’s trying to stock me up with advice and love for the rest of my life, and I don’t want it. It’s selfish, I know, because her last year hasn’t been great, but I’d prefer my neighborly advice in recurring weekly installments. So I went home and sobbed some more and ate another cupcake.
And soon enough it was time to splash on the cold water so that I could greet J, all bright and cheery, and ask how her day at school went.