At this very moment, 109 of my students are sitting in various classrooms around my school. They’re sitting in rows. They have a 27-page booklet in front of them that has 37 math problems printed in it. They have a graphing calculator. A pen. A pencil. They’re not looking at one another. They’re working in isolation, like robots, focusing only on their booklet. The clock ticks. They have an unapologetic three hours to squeeze all of their ideas out of their heads, into their hands, and into the booklet. A teacher displays the current time on the board.
And the rooms are quiet. They’re deathly silent as a matter of fact. Silent of any life. Void of any creativity, any debate, any togetherness. Vacant of anything that can respectably be called a meaningful assessment of their mathematical abilities. The rooms are absent of what so humanly filled my students’ hearts and minds all year.
In other words, the rooms are empty.
On this day, in these waning afternoon hours of June 21, 2019, a beautiful journey that delighted, surprised, confused, empowered, angered, created laughter, caused tears, produced smiles, forged bonds, and changed lives, reaches its final turn. Yes, it ends today with a cold, lifeless 27-page booklet.
I tear myself away from writing this post to visit them one final time as their teacher. To inject some of warmth into these hollow rooms is the least that I can do. I need to be there for them once more. There are seven rooms. A bold, red piece of paper is taped to the outside of each declaring it a TESTING ROOM. I open each door and stand in the entryway. I’m there for a minute, maybe two. I’m waiting for nothing in particular. I don’t speak. No words would dare attempt to capture how I feel. Many of them look up, see me, and smile. Some smirk because my beard is missing. I grin. Pleasant thoughts sooth me. I’m happy. I’m proud.
During my visits, I’m told on three different occasions that I cannot be there, I cannot share the space with my students, no matter how brief it is. The voice is annoying, like a gnat. I shoo it away and maintain my presence. While this voice is a lonely one, emanating from a single body, a body that doesn’t understand the bonds — the love — that I have for the young people in those rooms, it is also the blaring siren of a stolid, tyrannical system that is engineered to maintain a strict distance between everyone and everything that operates within the system. It’s only fitting that I am confronted with this siren — this force — now, in these final moments, because it has been trying to disparage the closeness that I share with my students all year long. I guess it couldn’t let go until the very end.
But the bottom line is that nothing was going to remove me from those final moments with my students. Bring my AP. Bring my principal. Bring my superintendent. We went through too much together. I belonged there.
I crawl back to my desk. The exam is coming to an end. So are the algebra 2 experiences of my kids. Attempting to capitalize on the moment, other teachers brought in water and snacks for their students. Candy is common. Others dished out high fives and personal notes as students walked into school. These various forms of nourishment serve as one last round of encouragement, a hopeful send off that the kids can collect enough points to satisfy New York State.
I feel guilty because I just couldn’t bring myself to do any of these things. It’s not that I didn’t want to, I did, but something in me resisted the urge to pour more energy into this lifeless day. I couldn’t contribute to building up an event that means so little. It’s bad enough that our 10-month campaign to better ourselves terminates like this, with a cold, lifeless 27-page booklet. I couldn’t make this apex moment any more sour by advocating for a higher score.
I remain in the building until the end. Not because I have to or plan on seeing any of my students or hearing how things went. I don’t care to discuss the exam with them or anyone else. Not now. There will be a time and place for that in this score-hungry, pass-rate driven mess of a school system. Hanging around till the end of it all just seems to me like the right thing to do. To see my students off, however vicariously.
I wrap up my thoughts, try to bring closer to this disheartening day. As I leave, I walk around to each of the rooms that housed my students just minutes before. I peer in. They’re still empty.