Many schools have become places where standardized testing (and preparing for testing, and practicing for testing) eclipse inquiry and learning — places where a teacher has to strip away evidence of kids’ growth in order to proctor an exam that will make them feel like failures.
In three years at a well-regarded suburban high school, I learned to solve quadratic equations, balance electrons in chemical formulae and conjugate the French verb “vouloir” in the simple past tense.
I learned those things and then forgot them. But here’s what I remember:
In my senior year at Lower Merion High School, I took Art 1, a “serious” art class taught by Bill Bahmerman, who had cerulean eyes and a scruff of white beard. Our first assignment was to draw an empty toilet paper tube standing on a sheet of white paper, with a light shining on one side.
I set up my minimalist still life on the kitchen table and picked up a thick pencil. How tough could it be?
Tougher than it looked.
How to render the faint, spiraling line that wrapped the tube, the place where the cardboard strip had been fused to make three dimensions out of two? How dark to make the elliptical opening at the tube’s top — and was that ellipse perfectly symmetrical, or a little thinner on one side?
For the shadow, I tilted my pencil to the side and scribbled a dark wedge. The result was a stubby, mottled triangle that seemed to rear up from the paper instead of adhering flatly to the foreground. I couldn’t figure out how to fix it.
I worked for an hour, then taped a sheet of tracing paper over my masterpiece and slipped it into my backpack, next to my Shakespeare homework. The next day, Mr. B collected them. The day after that, he handed them back. A fat-bellied “D” rode on the corner, along with this note in Mr. B’s looping script:
“Next time, draw what you see.”
But there would be no next time, because I was leaving. I grabbed my backpack and flung my purse over my shoulder, hoping I could slip from the room before the tears sprung.
Mr. B stopped me at the door. “I know you’re not used to getting D’s,” he said quietly. “But if you stay in this class, you will learn to draw.” And he gently turned my shoulders back toward the easels, the paint-spangled floor and the scratch of lead.
I stayed in Art 1 all year. And Mr. B stuck with his singular counsel: Draw what you see. It was simple and demanding. Again and again — as we graduated from toilet paper tubes to boxes and fruit and vases of droopy chrysanthemums — the challenge was to abandon preconception.
Which meant that the shape of the front panel of the Band-Aid box — rectangle? trapezoid? — really depended on the angle of my gaze. The egg wasn’t satin-smooth, but imperfect, slightly pocked. The shadow inside the lip of the toilet paper roll was (yes, look very closely) asymmetrical and multi-hued, darker toward the forward edge of the tube, less dense as it climbed toward the light.
Three days a week, I parted with classmates headed to calculus and advanced physics and walked downstairs to a room that smelled of oil pastels and dessicated apples. It felt like trespass: a hidden wing of the building, near the boilers and the auto shop, where Mr. B’s disciples — straight-A kids and stoners, hippies and geeks — learned a secret way of seeing.
I think about Mr. B often — when I look at a placemat whose orange stripe buzzes against the teal background; when I watch shadows tentacle around the base of a tree. And I thought of him last month, when I taught poetry in a Newark elementary school.
I was there the week before 6th-graders — indeed, all New Jersey public school students — were due to take the new and controversial PARCC test. The acronym stands for Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Career, and the test has sparked outrage from Montclair to Cherry Hill; an estimated 30,000 students have opted out of taking it.
One day, half of my Newark class was missing. The reason? A practice PARCC test in advance of the actual exam. The kids slumped in 40 minutes late, unsmiling, ground down by questions created hundreds of miles away by people they have never met, a test that may be aligned with the Common Core standards but is surely askew from their lives.
It took a round of silly vocal and physical warm-ups — say “cucumber” like it’s a hilarious joke; shake your right leg 16 times, quickly — to jostle them out of their funk. Meanwhile, their teacher buzzed around, preparing for the real test on Monday.
She peeled down the Venn diagram posters on which students had contrasted Steve Jobs and Bud Caldwell, the protagonist of Bud, Not Buddy. She removed the chart paper where kids had scrawled their interpretations of a phrase in the book: “Stay hungry; stay foolish.” She whisked away the books themselves.
This is what so many schools have become — places where standardized testing (and preparing for testing, and practicing for testing) eclipse inquiry and learning. Places where a teacher has to strip away evidence of kids’ growth in order to proctor an exam that will make them feel like failures.
No standardized test could measure what I gleaned in Mr. B’s cave of light and shadow — not just a keener eye, but a more resilient spirit. I learned to endure frustration. I learned that I could gradually get better at a skill that came hard. I learned to see what was in front of me, instead of what I only wished or imagined were there.
Our final exam that June was a self-portrait in pencil. My first attempt yielded an idealized version of my 17-year-old self: a shelf of cheekbone where my face was softly rounded, hair better-behaved than my actual, unruly curls.
“Is this how you want to look?” Mr. B asked, frowning over the sketch. I knew what I had to do — for that assignment, for the rest of my life, college and career included: Slow down. Don’t flinch. Commit to the work, again and again — even if you’re afraid of failing, even if you have failed before — until something like the truth emerges from your sweating hand.