Saturday, January 11, 2014

Observing John: The Unlucky Recipient of the Most Testing in 2014

Today I want to share the bright light of one child. I have altered the story a bit in order to protect his identity, but the essence is the same and the nuggets of information are true. The name is generic on purpose; his real name is so beautiful and creative - I only wish I could share it here. 

Meet John.  John and I first met on a class walk around the block in which we were developing our skills of observation for a science experiment.  I had watched John for several days in his class. He stayed quiet. He kept to himself. He didn't want to talk to me as I moved from table to table talking to the kids about their reading. I am very accustomed to this; the children I work with often do not trust. It takes time. Today, I was lucky enough to be his walking partner. Teachers who are reading this probably know how happy I was about this - as a literacy coach who moves in and out of classrooms - an opportunity - a moment -  to be with one child - can be like winning the lottery. I now had a good half hour with John. 

I started chatting with John about what we saw, what we noticed, as we walked. He didn't respond to any of this. However, quiet John - from the days in his classroom - was no longer quiet. He immediately changed the conversation and began to tell me everything - absolutely everything. Everything that had to do with nothing I had asked him. Nothing about the science skill of observation. John needed to talk. And so I listened. He told me about the motel that is his home. He told me about the aunt he will visit on the holidays. He rattled off the names of all the schools he had attended. I listened.

And as John walked and talked I observed. His shirt was so big. His pants were sagging. Not sagging because he wanted them to sag but because they were too big and he was too skinny. He kept walking forward as though everything was just right. As he talked to me I tried to keep track of everything I always wanted to know about John.  I also began to make another observation. His belt was broken. The belt was leather. It no longer had many holes or a metal buckle to place in a hole. It was like a belt that had been ripped at both ends, as a cruel joke to a young child, who simply wanted to take a walk outside, with his peers, and make observations about what he could see. 

I didn't want to stare at it as John is a fiercely proud child.  But the belt was broken beyond repair and as a mother, it was all I could do to not swoop down and pick him up and carry him the rest of the way. I feared his pants would fall down at any moment. Gravity was taking its toll. But the shirt was so long that it was unnoticeable unless you truly paid attention to John.  John just kept talking. As he talked, staring straight ahead, he removed his arms from the sleeves of his too big shirt and he began to twist and tie his belt under the very large shirt, as his hands battled the resistance of the stiff leather, all the time, staring straight ahead, as he told me more about his motel. 

I looked John in the eye as he talked. He never looked me in the eye but that was okay.  He continued to stare straight ahead and tell me everything he could within that 30 minute walk, which also included six attempts to tie the belt. But on he talked.  He talked about sleeping on the pull out couch and eating dinner on the coffee table beside the couch. He talked about the bugs. He talked about moving to a new room at the motel because of the bugs. He talked about his family. He told me about his mother who was taking night classes to learn English. 

Meanwhile  I made mental notes of what he liked to read. We talked a lot about books. I created a little system using an acronym in my brain to remember all the sports teams he rattled off. 

Suddenly it seemed like a long walk. Too long.  I wanted to continue to talk to John but I could see the belt unraveling again, the relentless stiff leather which had no desire to be tied into a knot.  I forgot why we were even taking a walk. There was too much stress due to the belt. But I could do nothing but listen while watching John's shoulders relax and then become tense as the belt began to untie once again.  And all the while, I had to refrain from picking the child up and carrying him back to school.  Onward he walked, and every so often the arms would disappear, quietly tie the knot which refused to remain, all the while staring straight ahead, never able to look to the side, above, around, as his teacher continued to point to things she saw surrounding us on our walk.

And so we returned to school that day.

I thought about John in this public school system. I thought about all the arrogant talking heads who are making the decisions which affect John's life. I thought about the people who tell me to take it slow.  I thought about the people who tell me that teachers' voices don't matter; that especially my voice, a female elementary school teacher, matters even less - there is no respect for my profession. I thought about the people who tell me to have patience. The people who tell me that there is only so much we can change. The people who return home, such as myself, every day, to a warm house at night. So much advice from those who have so much. I cannot balance the rage I feel and the patience I must have as I continue to ask for a full on revolt.

I have seen John many times since. In school and out of school.  I saw him leaving the food bank with his mother. He carried the bags of food. She was carrying the large bag of laundry.  I saw him wrap a piece of pizza, ever so carefully, into a napkin, and place it in his backpack, after he and I had a special lunch together one lovely afternoon.  

Because John is a second language learner he gets more tests than most children - he also gets to take the English language learner test. Because of his age he also gets the additional new tests in social studies.  Because he has an IEP he will receive extra time on all the state tests, which means he gets to test for a longer period of time than others. John is the unlucky recipient of the most tests and time tested possible in 2013-2014. 

One day John came to me - terribly excited -  to tell me that he had brought his own lunch. He would not be eating the free lunch that day.  He recited every item in his lunch. He had a Go-Gurt - the yogurt snack in a tube - a peanut butter sandwich, and a bag of chips. He had his own lunch. His own.

Some days I get to sit with John and read. He reads incredibly well. He is fascinated by so many subjects. I let him check out books on my library card because he has a book overdue and has reached his limit. My card is his card.

I wonder about the day of the walk.  I think about the belt. I think about all the thinking that goes into a young child's mind when they know they have a whole day of retying a belt every five minutes they are standing. I wonder if he stood quietly at recess. Did he have P.E. that day? If he didn't, I am sure he was relieved. I think about his stare, straight ahead, when he knew I knew about the belt. But I couldn't speak of it. The look in his eye made it clear that I was not to speak of the unspoken. I respected that wish that day.  And now John hugs me when he sees me. 

I think of that determined look in John's eyes quite often. 

I think about it when I speak to parents who are interested in opting out. I simply want to tell them the story of John. John who deserves wrap around services, a warm home without bed bugs, shelves full of books, a refrigerator full of food, and a belt. A real belt. John who deserves to come to school and read, create, and smile. John who deserves to take a walk and look at the trees, the sky, and all that surrounds us, in order to think about his observation skills for the upcoming science lesson. Yet, John cannot think about any of that, as he is methodically planning to tie his belt after the next block when his too large pants begin to creep down to his knees again. 

I think about John's continual "on guard" stance that he takes when presented with anything or anyone new.  He refused to speak to me the first week I knew him. He refused to even look at me. 

I think about his "on guard" stance when I meet with parents who are interested in saving public education. I watch all of us engage in conversation and talk freely. I watch our body language. How we lean forward, how we use our hands to express our emotions. I watch people interact within a community at these meetings; they have come together because they desperately want to save their community. They know one another, they have been together for years. They have built relationships and they are not on guard.  They trust. 

I wonder about John and his community. I think about all the schools he has attended; I fear every day that when I come to school he will be gone. What will happen to John? Some days I panic. I do not know what I will do if John is gone one day. I become sick at my stomach as I think of his determined stare and how much more he will barricade himself in, as he protects himself from those who come and go.  I think about the emotional support he needs, the community, the consistency, all that he needs to begin to trust and begin to allow himself to freely, be, all that John can be. I imagine what it would be like to see him smiling, using his hands to gesture, free of the burden of tying the belt, as we took that walk. 

I think of all of this when I meet with parent groups to give them advice about refusing the tests and advice on saving authentic learning and teaching; I think about it while we drink our coffee and then hop back into our cars to return home to our warm houses. 

In 2013 I learned patience. Patience to believe that the rest of the world will begin to care about John. Patience to believe that the rest of the world will see past the high test scores and the value of their real estate. And so today, I share the bright light of one child, in the hopes that others will care, refuse the test, and help reshape our world to provide nutrition, healthcare, books, and authentic learning and teaching for these children, such as John. The 25% or more, living in poverty.

I ask you this, in 2014, the year John is the unlucky recipient of taking the most tests. 


  1. As a former literacy coach and current ESL teacher in a high poverty, urban area, I identify on such a deep level with your story. This is a story that everyone needs to hear. This is a story of the harsh reality our children live and the heartbreak and frustration we, as teachers must live with. When will the day come, that one of us, who truly care about children and their total development, be in a position to change the ridiculous top down decision making process in Education? It is a long and difficult battle but well worth the reward!

  2. Thank you so much for this beautiful and moving post. I have known students like John and my heart breaks for them as I worry about their future as well as their present. Those who proclaim No excuses for lack of performance for children need to be told No excuses for heartlessness and lack of generosity for adults who are in a position to help but do harm instead.

  3. Peggy,
    My eyes are teary as I read about John because I have so many Johns in all my classes. I have a girl who does not have a jacket, I offer her mine -- but she is too proud even though her hands are red because it is 38 degrees outside, yesterday a former student came by to tell me that she missed me and she was moving because her father had been deported -- her mother died when she was 2. Beautiful, soulful young ladies and their lives are upside down but we still test them and test them -- are we giving them what they really need?

  4. Thanks for such a beautiful piece of writing, Peggy. But more than the writing itself, the words you use, is the message that must get out there about kids like John. And, the message, to ourselves in case we need a reminder, is that this is why we're in this for the long haul - it's for all the Johns of the world.

  5. Yes! I am swept away with this story, swept away with John as I too want to make sure there is a belt, books and a warm safe place to live. I want to restore humanism to this system of testing and InBloom and ESL and IEPs. and see his eyes light up with wonder. Thank you

  6. Peg, you put into words what many of us have experienced and felt at least once in our varied careers..............I am speechless and moved, in a very profound way. Thank you for writing. Thank you for organizing. Thank you for continuing to resist..........

  7. Thank you Peggy for sharing this wonderful account of John! The saying, "To Teacher is to Touch a Life Forever" is true! I am sure John will remember his caring friend and teacher! (I worked with your Mom at West School many years ago. She, too, has touched many lives over the years! ) Thanks again for making a difference is children's lives!!! (Ruthie Kem)

  8. Such a beautifully written, poignant piece. As a school principal in Missouri, one who used to work with your mother as well, I wonder what more I could do besides the daily arguments with state leaders on public school matters. I am tired, 25 years tired, and am looking for the way I can impact public education from another viewpoint. Thank you for sharing yours.