Tuesday morning the phone rang and my stomach fell.
With cell phones, texting and life-on-the-go I rarely get calls in the morning. If I do it’s either an emergency or my neighbor-life vest-parachute-partner-in-crime.
To my relief, it was my neighbor. But my stomach still plummeted to the floor and the butterflies fluttered up as I sang out, “Hello!” in my most-trying-to-be-normal voice. Six eyes watching me as I did so.
“How are you?” I chirped. Holding my breath. Hoping for an upbeat answer but anticipating a mirror reflection of my last 16 hours. The countdown from when my younger children got off of the bus Monday afternoon until the time they headed back to school the next morning. Let’s just say there was not a lot of sleep happening.
“We need erasers. Do you have erasers?” She asked in a very calm, collected … mother-to-mother telling voice. I let the air out of my lungs, relieved that this was something tangible I could solve. “Sure! I can do that.” Erasers I could do. I’m pretty sure I heard an exhale on the other end of the line. The relief in having something external to calm the internal storm. Out of the corner of my eye, I watched my children’s faces relax as my friend and I navigated this stressful morning together.
With the phone to my ear, I went to our art supplies and pulled out erasers. Lots of them. In happy rainbow colors. Erasers were needed for testing. Tuesday was the first day of our children’s two week state testing marathon. While only two of my children are testing, all three catapulted themselves off of our counter stools and swarmed me like seagulls on trash. Pecking at the erasers.
I joked that apparently erasers are a hot commodity. My hunch, however, is that erasers in pockets are like talisman for the day. Imbuing our children with courage and strength and reminders that they are connected to us and to each other as they leave the comfort of their homes, their road and their mothers. Both of us, waving them off; cheering them on as they left us.
I turned to my friend as the bus doors closed. Feeling a wave of nausea pass over me. Trying not to cry. I don’t know what to make of the common core curriculum and state testing. All I know is that it doesn’t feel right in my heart and it doesn’t make sense in my mind.
To me it feels like the government implementing big farm agriculture — swooping in to make something “better” and in turn making a huge mess out of everything. Taking farming away from the people who know how to farm. Leaving us years later, bowing our heads in disbelief. Looking at what we’ve done to our planet, to people and to our declining health. We are in a crisis. We’ve backed ourselves into a corner.
We missed the big picture.
As I send my children to school I feel like I’m backing them into a corner. Taking education away from the people who know how to teach. Allowing test companies instead of educators to lay the foundation of learning. I am afraid of the inevitable crisis — the epidemic — this will cause.
Teaching for tests dishonors children’s potential and interest in learning. Children are naturally curious. They want to learn. Unfortunately this year, in my house, school is a source of tremendous anxiety. Children are not recognized for their awesome learning potential. Instead they are test scores.
Putting a score or a label on anything is a very slippery slope.
Doling out erasers reminded me of the times I’d place Band-Aids on my youngest’s knee — having bumped it with no obvious wound. He was always so relieved that I put the bandage on. Somehow taping it on honored the pain he felt inside despite having no evidence of it on the outside.
All children in both houses already had all of the erasers they needed for these damn tests, but somehow the calling out for erasers elicited an external focus and connected our houses and children. Articulating in an abstract way — there is an internal stress and struggle. Both families acknowledging this fact and finding relief that our own experiences were not unilateral but universal — there is test anxiety. It is real. We know. We hear you. We see you. You are not alone. Not just one mother, but two, are holding a space for your worry.
I say this a lot to my children, “I see you and I hear you.” What may follow is a discussion about what I’m seeing and hearing — we may not always agree and I may not fully understand what I am observing — but first and foremost I try to bear witness to their experiences. Without judgment or criticism. Without negating or diminishing. Once they have been seen, have been acknowledged and have had their experiences and feelings validated, we can go from there. We can have a heartfelt connection which lends itself to cultivating a safe space for discussion.
My experience is that without this initial acknowledgment there is an undercurrent of uncertainty. An unknowing of whether or not we are truly connected. Feeling safe and connected lets us know that we are truly seen. Being truly seen is critical to our experiences of ourselves as whole, authentic people.
In being seen there is the possibility for so much growth. We are each other’s soul-nourishment as the sunlight and water are to the plant. We need each other to fully flourish.
I do not think our children are being seen.
I am not a fan of testing. I’m not. I think testing children is like trying to plant a tiny seed on a patch of asphalt. It gets too hot or too cold. If it rains, the water splattering on the concrete may wash the burgeoning seed right off — rendering it eternally lost as it sloshes down a storm drain. My hope for the seed is that despite being dropped in an improbable place for it to thrive, the wind might blow, caress it in its gusts and carry it to just the right patch of soil for it to truly develop.
There is alway hope.
Personally I do my worst when I’m tested and measured. I get that deer-in-the-headlights thing; I freeze and my brain goes numb. That’s my response to fear. I shut down. Knowing my childhood trauma — this makes sense. That said, I do a lot of inner work to push the limits back. Most of my triathlon racing has become about me learning a different way of relating to myself when I am afraid. Most of my life work is about this — learning how to be mindful of my experiences and not simply react to them. Or run from them. Or hide.
If I told my children not to be afraid or said that the tests aren’t a big deal, I would devalue their experience. I would create a gap between us. We would lose our connection. The tests are scary. They just are.
The best gift I can give to them is to acknowledge this. I hold the worry with them. I bear witness to it. I am mindful about it. There is relief in that exchange. Only then am I able to draw upon their resiliency, their life experiences and the times in which they have conquered fear and worry and anxiety. I try to empower them without giving any power to the emotions and thoughts. Imparting: I see you and I hear you. Stating: right now this is where we are — we don’t like this but you will be okay.
Sounds good in theory. Works well in practice too … but I also know that we are imperfect. Being empathetic for others and applying that same compassion and mindfulness to ourselves are entirely different beasts.
For me, some of these skills are practiced. Many are new. All will be my lifelong process and my commitment to myself. My investment in myself. To stay present, to not disassociate or shut down when I’m nervous or afraid. To ask for help. To seek out erasers and friends to hold my hand in the messiness and clutter of life.
Tools I was never given as a child. Life skills I want to impart upon my children.
I am vehemently opposed to testing and it breaks my heart beyond measure that my 3rd grader has been nervous about these tests, talking about these tests and stressing about these tests since the second week of September. Testing stunts wonderment and awe. He often comes home stating that he is stupid. Which is anything but true. “I don’t test well under stress,” I say. I see you I hear you. “Let’s try to implement some strategies to help you stay calm.”
I cannot claim to have the answers about state testing. I can only navigate from my own family’s needs and experiences. I do know one thing for certain — this year my son needs to experience himself getting through these exams. He needs to know that he can survive them. After all of these months of worry, he needs to know that he can sit for six days and endure 420-timed-minutes-of-torture, feel the anxiety, feel the stress and then tap in to a deeper part of himself. The part of himself that remembers experiencing himself on a richer, more authentic level. Times when he’s been victorious in the face of fear. Times when he’s tried his hardest and failed.
Both outcomes are life lessons — teaching him that he can and will be okay. That he can tolerate discomfort and suffering and not be overrun by them. Appreciating that he has tools in his tool belt to draw upon instead of reacting or avoiding. Knowing he can be mindful — yes this is uncomfortable — about it. Learning how to sit with the discomfort and trusting that he will be alright.
Honoring his experience. Naming the tests for what they are — horrible, unfair, ridiculous, not age appropriate, upsetting, anxiety producing … you can inject your own adjectives here — makes it possible for him to hold a space for his experience. Having us hold it with him enables him to have a positive experience of himself while tolerating fear and anxiety.
We convey to our children — you have all of those tools in your tool belt. Today you’ll add another notch to your belt. At the end of the day, and more importantly, at the end of the exams you can look back and say, “It was awful. I hated it. But I did it and I’m okay.” And as my daughter added, “And I’m loved.”
Yes. You are loved. No test can devalue that. No test can take that away from you. No test measures your inherent worth and dignity and value in the world. You are okay.
We waved to them as they turned away. My friend and I. Bearing witness and feeling awe at our children’s ability to walk away despite being afraid. Wondering how to cultivate change in addition to mindfulness.
How we can return the seeds to the farmers …
“I love you,” I whispered in their ears as they scurried to the bus. Smelling their chlorine-tinged hair as I did so. “Be brave. I’m with you and I’ll be here when you get home.” Always.
Much love to you and yours. Take good care.