He looked like a 7th-grader’s version of a gangster. Skinny as a minute, practice tattoos from his friend dotting the tops of his fingers, laughing at everything. He wore lots of red: a flat-brimmed baseball cap pulled low over his eyes, a red basketball jersey over a white T-shirt, red shoes, his neck roped with silver chains.
“Hey hey, Miss Gangsta Teacher, what’s up?”
His laugh, high and silly. And charming. I found myself looking forward to the fact that he would laugh at even my worst jokes.
“Mrs. Loughlin IS a gangster,” I said, laughing with him, teasing my friend and colleague, Elaine, who’d brought me over to the high school to help her teach night class.
“I’m not Miss Gangster Teacher, I’m Mrs. Loughlin,” she said, thoroughly unamused.
“No, you Miss Gangsta because you teach me to pass the test.”
And we wanted him to pass. My pride wanted him to pass to prove that what we were doing in our classes worked on even the most hopeless cases like Tuan. At 18, Tuan was down to his last try on the test for graduation. I told him that if he passed, I’d take him to dinner at the expensive Japanese steak house. He laughed and said I could just bring it to him take out.
We sat with him night after night, giving him various test hacks to help him get to the magic numbers that would give him the barest passing minimum. We helped him think in Vietnamese, then translate that over into English through visual annotation of practice tests.
Elaine pushed him — and me — to stay focused. Between us, we struggled to find a narrative he could use to crack the writing portion. He only needed to get 52 lines of a workable story, written in basic grammar, legibly printed, to pass.
“Me and my friend, we like to go and have fun,” he told us when we probed his memory for noteworthy stories. Rounds of clarifying questions uncovered a thin anecdote about how he and his friend, Phoung liked to go bowling. Tortuously, he transcribed this story over and over, memorizing it so he could repeat it on the test and make it fit whatever prompt he faced.
Miraculously, all of this worked and Tuan passed his test.
Beyond proud, my ego used this information to fill a hole that the difficult school year cratered into me. Super teacher, it said, spackling the flattery over all the emptiness. You’re a super teacher who can get kids to pass when nobody else can.
But there’s a final detail: nearly a decade ago today, Tuan was arrested and held on $500,000 bond.
“He and his friend are the ones behind all those robberies on the boulevard. They’re both in jail,” our principal explained, interrupting us as we sat planning how to get Tuan that steakhouse meal. “He put a gun in a woman’s face right after she drove home from closing the restaurant. They were waiting at her house and he pulled open her car door, screaming at her to give him the money in the bank bag. Her kid was with her. Apparently, they also tried to rob a house and shot the man who owns it. He’s probably not going to live, so he’ll be looking at a murder charge.”
Elaine and I looked at each other. What was there to say? That our boy was going to get his diploma in jail? As I read the details in the newspaper the next day at my desk, I felt like someone kicked me in the ribs. Tuan, according to the timelines, was walking out of our tutorials, meeting up with his buddy Phoung, and executing a string of robberies.
And all I’d picked up on was his silliness and how hard he worked on his test prep. The silliness kept me from paying attention to anything else about him. Over the summer, scenes from our classes played in my head. Guilt shaded all of it; I believed I was complicit in enabling an alibi for him. I wondered why I should even keep teaching when this was what happened. You’re a super teacher alright, my brain said. Super naive.
Eventually, I came to view Tuan as an instruction on what we mean we tie test scores to notions of ‘success.’ No test can tell you what will become of the tester with any accuracy, at least in Tuan’s case it couldn’t. Tuan failed the most basic test of humanity, but according to his scale score — and to some of the rhetoric from reformers and consultants — he’s a model of how a focus on “the test” yields results. Elaine and I were amazingly successful with him in that regard. We gave him No Excuses. We insisted on Hard Work.
A consultant in our district, when he sees me, takes the opportunity to continue our ongoing argument about tests. He’s a master at getting students, especially poor students in elementary school, to pass standardized tests. Because of this, he is in constant demand. He delivers a speech about how we fail poor kids when we don’t help them pass those tests in elementary school that’s dramatic and heartfelt. That’s his story and that’s the one story, the one narrative that becomes almost a narcotic to us as teachers. We’re successful if our students pass it. Our students are successful if they pass it. All that matters is that score, that magic number.
But, I argue with the consultant, is the test really all we want for our kids? Isn’t there a danger in telling ourselves that test scores are the only thing that matters? I don’t get to say much because he tells me all the ways I’m wrong. So, this post is my way of telling another story. Especially at this time of year when teachers and students have shame hammered into them via low test scores.
My story: Tuan and Phuong, Instead of Bowling, Commit Armed Robbery After School — is the more powerful narrative for me. Success for students is in their ability to become good people. Our success as teachers is everything we do to help kids with those old-fashioned ideas of citizenship, of courtesy, kindness, and decency.
“His parents, they call him dust boy,” one of my other students told me about Tuan, using the Vietnamese expression for the term. She clapped her hands together in demonstration, pulling them apart and puffing against them as if she were blowing on a dandelion. “It means he is nothing.”
My friend, Jennifer reminded me of of all of this again in a text. She’s waiting on scores that she knows won’t make her or her students look or feel successful.
“I was thinking about the turn of events in their lives, she wrote, and if passing or failing a test could determine who would be a success in the future. Your story put it all back into perspective.”
And I hope it does that for you. Stories are powerful medicine for me. Joan Didion says we tell ourselves stories in order to live. For me as a teacher, as a coach, as a department chair, as a leader, I tell stories as a way to keep me alive in my work.
Image: Austin Ban/Unsplash0