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Once monthly, the New York City Writing Project celebrates the teacher-as-writer by publishing works of poetry and prose written by its teachers. If you are interested in submitting your work to NYCWP Voices, please read the submissions guidelines and submit your work by email to email@example.com.
-Marcus Brandon McArthur
It was test day.
One day of two weeks allotted for the standardized testing that would allow Americans of all stripes to sleep with a clean conscience. After all, these tests would crystallize the fractured trajectories of the most unequal society in human history. The charcoal circles bubbled into uncoated stock would make rational the opening of Ivy League doors for the rich and the slamming shut of a jail cell door for the poor.
What better equalizer than a merit based test to thread the delicate needle of justifying such divergent paths in an American fabric woven of equality?
Only a small group would test. I was a special education teacher working with students with disabilities and today the Global History RCT exam was to be administered. A testing relic of years passed, it was preserved by the state as an easier “safety net” option for students with disabilities that struggled to pass Regents exams.
It was time to begin. Anxious feet sprung up and down in haste as the handful of kids awaited test materials and instructions. A cloud of dread blanketed the room as the prospect of another potential failure loomed. Most of the students I taught struggled with tests all of their lives. For all of the hardship endured traversing the pitfalls of New York City public schools for the better part of a decade, the added hurdle of a two-week testing barrage with unpredictable content was perplexing for my students.
I glanced down at the testing roster, scanned the room, and noticed a few students still missing. I proceeded unencumbered by their absence as the reality of life teaching in a New York City transfer high school was that of daily attendance struggle. Even on a day bestowed such significance, the fact of the matter was that for various reasons, every student would not make it that day.
Forty-five minutes into the exam, Johnny sauntered into the room. He seemed perturbed. Nonetheless, he greeted me with his usual, “What’s up, mister?”, settled into his seat, and started the exam.
I worked with Johnny for roughly two years and gotten to know him well. I watched him struggle with Algebra, but learn to lean on my verbal prompts and a calculator to compensate for his skill deficits. Even if he did not test well, he was thinking mathematically. A streetwise worldview informed his writing and interpretative lens of literature. In the eyes of pretentious American convention, his prose was lawless, but those gazing deeper recognized the buds of insight blossoming. His dream of being a Marine became my hope for him, as the urgency for an out from the life America offered him being born black, male, and poor compounded by the day. The stakes were higher for someone who confided that he did not want to register for PM school classes because they dismissed after sunset. His declaration that, “People in my neighborhood want to kill me,” was not hyperbole as evidenced by the bubbling “buck fitty” scar stretching his neck from ear to chin.
As the session matured, seemingly innocuous signs warned alarm. The exasperated gasps that blew from the corners of his mouth. The boundless charcoal circles that he violently bubbled into his sheet. The spasmodic maneuvers searching for comfort that startled the room as metal legs sharply screeched worn laminate. Apprehension swelled with every fidget and desperate erasure of his bubble sheet. As shoulders ascended in tension, we all sensed and waited.
“Yo mister, fuck this test!”
Startled bodies jolted back to life from the testing induced coma. Johnny clumsily closed his paper booklet after losing the battle with the paper over gravitational pull. His freshly awakened peers looked on shaken as I approached Johnny.
“Johnny, it’s okay. Don’t worry about it. Just do your best.” “Nah, fuck that mister. I don’t know this. This test is bullshit.” His eyes welled although the water refused to spill.
The harrowing truth is that standardized tests are a masterful tool ensuring the hollowness of the American project. America screams “equality” loudest to drown out the noise that reminds of her most unequal construction. Rather than being the natural byproduct of the racially tinged divergence in intellect, skills, and values that the myths of American nationalism would love for content citizens to acquiesce, true believers in equality know that disparity represents foundational flaws. Foundational flaws like that three-fifths compromise that callously etched inequality of personhood into the Constitution that American citizens are supposed to respect and revere. The inequitable conditions in which the non-white, the refugees of American violence, and the poor experience throughout the borders of this great nation show that the thinking that birthed three-fifths breathes deeply 228 years later.
Johnny and his peers tensely worked through their exams that day unto completion. He failed, but the youth spirit is resilient. Despite the setback he returned later that week and passed a different test to inch closer towards his goal of achieving a high school diploma.
I wouldn’t see Johnny again in the fall, as I transferred to a new school hoping to grow my practice through a more supportive and collaborative environment. I maintained contact with former colleagues who kept me abreast of the progress of my students including Johnny.
One afternoon in late spring, a former colleague sent a chilling text. Johnny was shot and stabbed to death in the Bronx. He was left for dead in the street.
My regret during the years that I worked with Johnny is that I was not half the teacher that I am now. I offered little beyond an empathetic ear. My pedagogy was captive to the outcome based thinking of ten multiple choice tests. I never deeply considered the three most fundamental questions any educator should ask themselves before they set foot in a classroom. What experiences do I want my students to have? What is my message? What do I want my students to create? Instead I collaged together an erratic semblance of a curriculum based on the discriminatory farces mandated by all levels of our plutocratic state. I cut out multiple choice questions. I created fill in the blank templates to teach writing by formula. I even printed out sparknote summaries of literature, all in preparation for the big test. There was not much exciting or inspiring about the experience for teacher or student.
I was not the “rotten apple” that the conniving hedge funders propagandize. I, like most Americans, had acquiesced to the myth of American meritocracy. The one that claims that grades and testing are a valid proxy for intelligence, skill, life prospects, and most disturbingly, humanly worth. I regret that I did not offer Johnny more opportunities to be a creator and not a test taker. Opportunities to read the literature that would help him make sense of the experiences of the modern lumpenproletariat. Maybe he would have understood why he and his family were relegated to a neighborhood where he had to take a livery cab from the train station to avoid blocks inhabited by people that would do him harm. Maybe he would have understood better that those people wanted to do him harm because he looked like them and they had been taught all their lives to hate themselves. Maybe writing a memoir instead of the formulaic essay would have facilitated just enough personal insight for him to better tease his uniquely positioned purpose on this earth. Perhaps the opportunity to make music, create art, build a business, prototype an invention, or just talk about life would have realized a miracle. Maybe all of the things I could have done in the classroom would not have saved Johnny, but teachers can have dreams too.
America is the shining beacon of inequality. This is the land where the effects of lead paint chips in corn flakes, how many words Mommy and Daddy offer you as an infant, the PTSD experienced because of block wars all matter. Six hours a day, one-hundred and eighty-five days a year, between four walls that are situated on the soil of communities birthed from the sins of America’s foundation will never wipe the country clean of this pernicious reality. Standardized testing is nothing more than a poor cloak for the feudal hierarchy of the 21st century. Support for standardized testing is a vote for the status quo in which the upper crust indulge the boutique while the downtrodden serve the 1%, woefully chase dignity, or die a violent death.
I opt out.
Marcus Brandon McArthur is a New Jersey native and Brooklyn based writer, educator, and political activist whose work focuses on race, economic inequality, education and cultural politics. He received his B.A. in History from Morehouse College in Atlanta where he focused on the shared historical plight of African descendents through studies in Mexico, the Dominican Republic, South Africa, and Brazil. Marcus received his M.A. in Latin American History from Penn State and M.S. in Special Education from LIU-Brooklyn. He has published works with the Mellon-Mays Undergraduate Fellowship Journal and the M.O.R.E. Caucus blog of the United Federation of Teachers. He currently teaches English and Social Studies as a Special Education Teacher at City-As School.