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unopened gifts

            I always learn more than I teach. Always. At least, when I am open to listening, and not just trying to make a point, or stick to a plan. Actually, I teach because it is one of the contexts I have discovered in life where it’s pretty critical to discover the point, explore the possibilities, and plan but only enough to create a framework where something real may occur. My students have always taught me far more than I have taught them. Always.

            One of my lifelong adages has been that the only thing I really know is that I don’t know, and I must admit that I continue to learn this – for I am always surprised by what’s true and real. Another adage is that I am not a teacher because I have the answers for the students, but because I have more questions than they do, and that I don’t really care how foolish I look when I share the questions.

            What I see is that I am busy oftentimes modeling what being human, human in that messing up and caring and sometimes as tragic as it is fully joyous everyday way, can look like and be like. Not pretending to be anything else – or even better yet catching myself pretending and calling myself on it with everyone watching. Because we’re not here to do anything else, but be as real as we can be.

            Yesterday I gave a test on literary terms. It was a model public school test. One of a handful I have ever made and given in my life. Multiple guess, fill in the blanks, and an essay for those who wanted extra credit.

            Foreshadowing occurred in first period. Wasn’t even a quarter to eight in the morning and already they let me know. Jonathan, who has to work so hard to pretend he’s dumb that he literally sweats, takes one look at the test, arches both eyebrows and says, “This ain’t like you miss.”

            Of course, and sadly as usual, I chose to ignore the first sound of truth made since it was gonna mess up a decision I had already committed to. With the final exam looming on the horizon, it was time to see if their knowledge would translate readily to multiple guesswork. If not, we’d need to do some work specifically on that. So, instead of listening to the voice of reason via Jonathan, I quipped back.

            “I’m trying to work out of my box right now Jonathan… get a pencil from the drawer and go do the test.”

            He shrugged, smiled, and complied. That first period group has some degree of public school enculturation. A test is serious business. Far more serious than learning, or caring.

            Anyway. The rest of the day wasn’t such a big deal. Students took “the test”. I took the opportunity to read and respond to a stack of journals a zillion miles deep.

            Then came ninth period. Ninth period, with Mr. Q, the G-man, Natasha, Nhatosha and TaiMai. Peter and Penny, and the two Nadenes. One look at the test and it was total bedlam. And what I knew was, they weren’t doing it. Oh, I talked them through part one, the multiple choice part, and with some cheerleading they managed that. But as they arrived at part two, it became clear even to me that it wasn’t going any further.

            They wanted a “word bank”. They said it was “unfair”. They claimed it made no sense. Initially, I countered their objections with my own. The word bank is the terms in part one. Not good enough, too much work to find. I said my usual thing about life not being fair – one of my more ridiculous defense mechanisms.  Preaching to the choir too – these young people and I come from Unfair Street. We know it ain’t fair out there. We’re hoping it can be fair in here somewhere, dammit.

            I watch as they begin to shut down. Oh, Nadene G. and Andrew can pull it off; they have a combination of intelligence and confidence rare within these walls and that allows them to keep at something no matter what. But Jamar shuts down completely. I watch as his anger at “not getting it” suffuses into his whole being. His pen drops loudly onto his desk. He glares out into the rain-pained window. His hands become fists. Tai Mai puts on her poker face and starts snapping her gum loudly, sharply, like a slap every time. Peter and Penny keep at it, never looking up, pretending not to listen to the others’ grumbling. They are faking it, guessing and pretending they know. Refusing to let anyone wonder if they are okay. It’s been working for them for years. Shanika liberates her cell phone from the bottom of her purse by spilling its contents onto the floor and asks if she can call her Godmother. I am no longer losing them. I have lost.

            Mr Q puts on his smooth and says, “Tell ya what miss, why don’tcha just count part one?” he glances about conspiratorially while mysteriously maintaining eye contact with me. “No one else has ta know,” he whispers, smiling.

            At that exquisite and torturous place where expectation meets reality and crumbles, I stand, quivering. Knowing only that I am, once again, lost. And that if I am to be found, if any good can be salvaged from this, everything must be up for grabs. Everything.

            I take a deep breath and say again, obviously mechanically, and certainly with more question than conviction, “All the other classes did it.”

            Natasha is all over that one. “You can’t go comparing us to other classes,” she reminds me. “That ain’t right miss.”

            “But if it was too hard, or unfair, everyone would’ve had trouble with it,” I counter. Natasha and I know this is not an argument, but a conversation. And the rest of the students, now listening intently to every sound and watching every gesture, are hanging onto it like a life-saving rope.

            “Still,” Natasha shakes her head sadly, almost disparagingly, “It ain’t right miss – everyone’s different.” Too true a statement for denial. So I do what I do when I’m lost in a group of people.

            “So what should we do?” I ask.

            Mr. Q’s all over it. “Let’s do part two together!!!” he says joyously, as though discovering treasure in a Broadway Avenue pothole.

            “Did’ja’ll study?” I ask, sensing my shoulders drooping.

            “Swear to God, Miss – I actually did study – I know this stuff.”

            “He does,” TaiMai offers credibility, checking for it in the quality of her most recent fingernail polish art, and adding, “he was actually goin over ‘em at lunch.”

            “Okay,” I sigh. And I sit on the desk, and we read through part two together. And it turns out they do know the answers. And when I listen to some of the sentences through their ears I hear how some of the fill in the blanks are way too amorphous, even unfair. And they hear out loud through my ears that they know even more than they thought they knew. And I learn, once again, what I should already maybe know, or maybe I am reminded of what really matters. And they see for a moment that maybe something different can happen here, that something in life can be fair, and real, and human.

            Later that night as I sit, correcting my perfect little exam, I discover that I have to disclude the part two scores for every class. Though most of the students went ahead and either guessed or blew off part two, absolutely no one did well on it, and it brought their scores down to a miserable and most often failing low. Not because they didn’t know the material, but because I had not created a test that was fair, or clear, or even possible. So despite Mr. Q’s suggestion that no one need know that I wasn’t going to count part two, everyone did know, as I handed back the exams the next day, and explained the scores to every class the next day, letting them know that I cancelled out part two because it was not a fair exam. And letting them know how the folks in ninth period had stood up for themselves and persevered and taught me a thing or two in the process.

Previously published in Chronogram Magazine.

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