Sometimes Life Is A Test

In the schools, March Madness can mean something different than basketball.

It's that time again and we're in the throes of state-mandated testing. And while I'm a big fan of accountability, it gives me pause when it messes with the emotional wellbeing of our littlest leaders. It’s been ten years, almost to the day, that a writing test got the best of a gifted fourth grader I know. With his mom’s permission, I tell his story with hope that one day things might be different …

He’d been an excellent writer for as long as they could remember, but this year he’d really polished those skills and he was ready. The class spent the year brainstorming, prewriting, editing, writing, practicing, editing, writing and practicing some more. Their goal was to become so accomplished that they could effectively write essays that would be judged a coveted 4, the best score that they could receive.

Through the year, he’d scored a four on his benchmark essays quite a few times, so his teacher knew that he could do it. The ironic thing is, so did he. He’d written about himself, his friends, his family, his school, his life. His teachers had even sent him to other fourth-grade classrooms to read what he’d written and inspire them to follow suit. They’d covered practically every topic that a ten-year-old child could possibly have experienced in anticipation for the big day. Today. The one day that his essay would count.

A teacher’s job never really stops. She is always there to instruct, to guide, to mentor, to inspire, to coach. But all of that changes on state-testing day, when the teacher becomes a test monitor. It’s counterintuitive, really, for a teacher to read “I can’t answer that for you; just do the best you can” from a script when a student raises his hand for help, but that’s exactly what happened on that dreadful day.

When he saw the prompt on the actual test, it actually caught him by surprise. He’d already written about his best day ever, that very prompt. So his question was simple: Would it be okay to write that same essay again? He raised his hand to ask his teacher if he was allowed to re-write an essay he’d already written. But today, she couldn’t help him. Today, all she could do was read from the script about how she wasn’t allowed to answer that for him. Confused and frustrated, he went back to his seat and felt unsure about how to proceed. As the minutes ticked away and became hours on the clock in that quiet, sterile testing environment, he put his head down and began to cry. Silently at first, then more pronounced. The teacher’s attempts to comfort him were unfruitful and panic started to set in for this young author.

Not certain what was going on but always there to help, his school counselor came into class and tried to calm him through some deep-breathing exercises before lunch. She couldn't discuss the test with him, of course, but he was able to take a calm-down break with her in the nurse's office. Fairly certain that he'd be ready to resume his writing test after eating, she let him go to lunch and return with his class afterward to try again.

He never did get that essay written.

His unanswered question caused a panic that trumped any academic prowess he'd previously possessed. He tried, but to no avail. An hour later, with swollen eyes and a puffy, red face, he checked out through the nurse and went home sick. An anxiety attack left him emotionally just exhausted. 

He was later able to explain that, since the prompt asked him to tell about the best day he’d ever had, there wasn’t any way to truthfully answer the question without re-writing an essay he’d already written for practice. And without anyone to assure him that it wouldn’t be cheating to write that same essay again, he got stuck and just didn’t get it done. Sometimes gifted kids are black-and-white like that; best means best. Just one. Ironically, this would actually go down as one of the worst days of his young life. 

Sometimes life puts us to the test, and when it feels like we're failing, we could actually be succeeding. He gained some life-skills that day that are bigger than any knowledge he could possibly regurgitate for a test. He learned that it takes courage to persevere and forge ahead on your own. To problem-solve with confidence. To make a decision and stand behind it without falling to pieces, without second-guessing yourself. 

And guess what? Like Judith Viorst's Alexander would say, "It was a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day," but it didn’t determine who he was nor what he could accomplish. That resilient ten-year-old subsequently worked through his anxiety and insecurity and is no longer prone to panic. He's confidently cruising through college on an academic scholarship. Now that’s something to write home about ... how do you help kids prepare for life's tests?

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