Summer school is no picnic

When the argument over MCAS started heating up, in the late 1990s, it didn’t register with me beyond the swirl of sound bites on the local news. I was a musician in Boston, married with no children. Education reform was not high on my radar screen, and the extremes of shrill intractability that dominated the public debate–Schools must be held accountable! Standardized tests are discriminatory and unfair!–seemed as dispiriting in their own way as the Lewinsky hearings. But a series of changes in my life, happening in rapid succession, brought MCAS closer to home.


In 1999, my son was born and my wife was offered a job in western Massachusetts, where we could actually afford a house. We moved, and I settled into a routine of watching our boy during the day and teaching guitar at night. But somehow, it wasn’t enough. Filled with the unfocused resolve of fatherhood, I decided to make a difference in the world my son would inhabit by dusting off my English degree and becoming a teacher. Both my parents had devoted their lives to public education, and I saw something laudable in that. Given my parenting responsibilities, however, I’d need to ease into my new career. I started by tutoring, with students in need of extra help steered to me by a school guidance counselor I knew.

Then, last summer, came my first substantial classroom job: teaching MCAS-related English, five days a week for six weeks, to two classes of eighth- and 10th-graders from what passes for urban areas out here. By coming to class for two 75-minute periods a day, they would earn credits toward graduation while they prepared for the test they’d need to pass in order to graduate. It seemed a good deal for them, and for me. After all, I wanted to teach kids who really needed my help.

When I immersed myself in MCAS sample tests, I couldn’t see what the fuss was about. The reading passages ranged from an excerpt from The Great Gatsby to a Shakespeare sonnet. Each one was followed by questions about grammar, vocabulary, and content, then a “prompt” that was supposed to inspire a short analytical essay. Shakespeare seemed the toughest of the reading matter, but I figured most of the students would have had some exposure to the Bard; none of the other material seemed unreasonable.

I struggled not to seem like a deer caught in the headlights.

That is, until I entered the classroom. There were more than 20 students in my first section, many more names than were on my list. I didn’t have enough materials for everyone, but something told me it was a bad idea to give handouts only to some, and a worse idea to leave the group alone for 15 minutes while I made more. But then, as I stood there in front of the room, everything seemed like a bad idea. These adolescents seemed ready to eat me alive. The murmur they generated grew louder as they sensed my tenuous hold on the room. They peppered me with questions that grew ever bolder:

“When is this class over?”

“Can we watch a movie?”

“We’re not gonna have homework, are we?”

They seemed indignant at the idea of doing any work at all. “You mean we get a grade?” Pencils and fingers flew in arrhythmic desk drumming. As butterflies careened around my stomach, I ruminated on collective guilt, wondering how I might be able to discipline the lot of them. But the best I could do was struggle not to seem like a deer caught in the headlights.

“Okay, I want an essay about you,” I heard myself saying, loudly. “Tell me about yourself–who you are, what you like, what you don’t like.” Groans. But they got to work, after a fashion. I hoped the assignment would help me sort them out, as individuals and as writers. Not to mention buy me some time to collect myself.

The essays surprised me, in ways both good and bad. They ranged from the nonexistent (one student simply drew a Darth Vader mask) to the promising (some were perceptive, if intermittently so) to the hilarious (one titled:”I’m a Lover” ). The syntax, grammar, and spelling made me seasick. But several wrote with some insight about music, discussing the rhythms, arrangements, and personalities that drew them to a particular artist or style. Not being sure what to make of this hodgepodge, I decided to be doggedly optimistic, hoping to cultivate some of this (very) raw talent.

It didn’t take long for our little classroom society to take shape. By the end of the first week, several students had already dropped out, and the rest nestled themselves in tight and distinctive clusters. In my morning class, Tabitha, Prism, and Agnes (names have been changed to protect the innocent and the troublemakers) formed a brazenly blasé troika. Another pair of girls faced each other in the corner, drawing pictures of unicorns and chatting. Though they showed no interest in the proceedings, I learned they would participate, after audible sighs, if I harried them. Four smirking boys equipped with skateboards who sat in the middle of the room sometimes could be prodded into participating if I stuck with it. One large student with a shaved head just glared at me all class, reminding me of the psychotic private in Full Metal Jacket. But he was gone by the end of the week.

In the second section, I had a boy who was smart and a gifted draftsman, but he fidgeted constantly, attributing his actions to Attention Deficit Disorder. (He told me a relative of his had won the lottery, so he didn’t need to go to college.) Javier, author of the “lover” essay, proudly displayed his hickies. He could be charming, but also threatening, always arriving with his henchman, Michael, at his side. Michael was something of an enigma. Though he was Javier’s one-man posse, Michael didn’t join in when Javier acted out extravagantly, providing only quiet support with whispers and sarcastic looks. He seemed to know when to stop. Michael was also the best writer in either class. His grammar and spelling were, for the most part, correct (a rarity in this company), and he wrote with a nascent style and fluidity that made me instantly take notice. I let him know that I could see his talent–discreetly, of course, so as not to embarrass him.

Even after I began to figure out the scene, however, I felt nausea at the prospect of fighting for control of each 75-minute class. My wife called me “To Sir With Love.” After that humiliating first day I always came out swinging, throwing a writing assignment at the students before they had a chance to get too relaxed. I talked constantly, reading passages aloud while they followed along on photocopies. We’d walk through the essays and questions from sample MCAS tests, with me tossing out tips on how to approach them.

After a few weeks I grew tired of my own voice and fell back on beautifully laconic, even silent (my mother’s advice), reprimands for the whispering, the giggling and drumming, the bewildering array of mouth noises, the passing of notes, the getting up to throw away a piece of paper the size of a fingernail, etc., etc. But actions spoke even louder than words. As academically indifferent as my pupils seemed, a pop quiz could always make their faces drop. It seemed to resonate in a way that verbal reminders didn’t.

Sometimes my students accused me of treating them like children, but I couldn’t help but notice that it was usually after I asked them to take some personal responsibility for their studies. I told students to bring a book of their choice for analysis; half of them would “forget” every day. So I learned to photocopy passages and bring sharpened pencils. I gave the true amnesiacs–Prism, Tabitha, and Agnes, especially–photocopies of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. One morning Prism responded to an assignment with an obscene observation on boredom, so I gathered up my full aura of authority and ordered her out of the class. She refused, and I couldn’t find anyone in the building to help me evict her, so she stayed–and fell asleep.

Meanwhile, Javier constantly tried to upstage me. He sprawled back in his chair, sneaked up beside me as I wrote on the chalkboard, and made a show out of dozing at his desk–anything for a cheap laugh. My two-year-old son was easier to control. One day, as I was addressing the class, he fumbled ostentatiously in his pocket and pulled out a condom. “Mr. O’Brien, this is too small for me,” he said, “and since you already have a son, I figure you need it more than I do.” It was hard not to laugh; Javier tried so hard to entertain. But sometimes I looked at him and felt his life was already over.

His sidekick Michael proved to be more of a problem. When the MCAS math teacher–George, a longtime veteran of urban schools–reprimanded him one day, smart, talented Michael morphed into a real thug, walking a tight circle around the teacher and threatening to “fuck him up.” George told him to get out. Michael punched the concrete wall with his bare fist and stomped down the corridor in a ludicrously stylized way, head and shoulders tracing a wide arc, baseball hat carefully askew, oversized pants swaying back and forth. After school, George and I were startled to find the boy’s parents waiting for us, both of them soft-spoken and worried, his mother literally wringing her hands. They pleaded with us to let him return, but within a week Michael had stopped coming to class, and Javier with him.

They were not the only ones. Tabitha, then Prism, then Agnes stopped coming as well. Half the students were gone long before the six weeks were up. I can’t say I missed any of them. With each departure, my teaching became noticeably more productive. By the third week, after the truly hard-boiled element had excused itself, a creaky give-and-take emerged that was something like learning. During a lesson on word roots for vocabulary building, I got a succinct explanation of the principles of hydraulics from Greg, one of the skateboarders. I promised the students that if they continued to focus they’d get to watch, and write about, a movie (Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V, which gained approval after I reassured the skateboarders that it had plenty of gory battle scenes).

It’s hard to know what I accomplished those six weeks. For my students, I gave my best shot at putting MCAS on their radar, and within their reach. Several seemed more likely to pass than before, but consistency and discipline remained problematic for many. For myself, I learned to care selectively and pick my battles. One battle I won was for control of the class. By the end, the time spent on enforcement was greatly diminished, the time spent learning commensurately increased. But that victory–both personal and educational–came at the cost of too many young people who could contribute to the classroom only by leaving it.

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As for MCAS, I still don’t know how the test does or doesn’t fit with education reform. The problems my students brought to the classroom last summer were much more of an issue than the test itself, but basic motivation to learn (or lack thereof) is not something I see addressed by MCAS. There’s nothing wrong with teaching the basics of grammar and literary analysis and nothing wrong with expecting kids to learn them. The real problem for me was the knee-jerk hostility to authority that hit me like a brick the moment I walked in the classroom, and monopolized so much of my time.

As much as I, the object of that hostility, resented it, I still couldn’t help but feel for my reluctant charges–poised at the threshold of adulthood, yearning for the liberation of it, yet shrinking from its weight. For too many of them, responsibility was not instructive, but merely tedious.

Musician and teacher John O’Brien writes from Hampshire County.