It’s getting closer to that time of the school year in which the end-of-year assessments, and end-of- twelfth- year final tallying of what students have educationally absorbed since age 6 begins, but I forget; everybody has kindergarten now, with many having years of “educational” day care preceding it. Alas, I probably suffer even to this day from my state of “kindergartenlessness” (Germans love to construct one great big word out of the piecing together of many, so being part-German, I here, have done my best). When the first lungfish crawled onto the land in the “hopes” of becoming the first amphibian, it began its educational path in the “ways of the world” (the dry one), and we seem more and more to be emulating such “early learning”. If a GED pertaining solely to kindergarten is ever offered, I may take advantage of it to learn what I missed long ago, with the hope of possibly becoming a more complete person. This leads me into reflecting on my memories of grading and tests, from the first grade through my twelfth educational year.
At Granite Quarry School, we began learning to write the letters of the alphabet ( print, then cursive) on special graduated paper made specifically for that purpose. The paper’s quality was pretty poor, resembling a couple of steps up from a paper towel. When I later heard that some kinds of paper were made out of old rags, I thought back to that paper upon which I had initially practiced my drawing of the alphabet’s letters (a type of “art” necessary to both speech and thought) and recalled having seen tiny, different-colored “strings” scattered within it as part of its make-up. Just being for practice, and not for written dissertation, the great quantities of this cheaper paper fit the bill as “fodder” for learning.
If we had drawn those letters well, gummed stars of differing colors: gold, silver, red ( in a way, like the Olympics, with red corresponding to bronze) would be fixed to the paper, signifying differing degrees of proficiency. Everything we did back then was being looked at and judged, including our swirls of impressionistic fingerpaint, with stars of achievement then being attached to each swirling work, many somewhat reminiscent of “Starry Night” (Van Gogh, more than Don McLean)
In classes of later years, on homework and tests, the gummed stars were replaced by check marks of black or red to note proficiency or lack of it, respectively, the whole summed up numerically at the top, which might just as well have had the accompany “%” mark beside it. These numbers translated into the letters of grades: “A”, “B”, “C”, “D” or “F”. If the teacher was so gracious as to grant the student a second chance for a grading period, the letter “I” might be given to him.
Over the course of several years, some of us took these measurements of learning “to heart”, internalizing them, becoming competitors and sometimes even our own worst critics, in which case the major competitor was frequently encountered in the mirror. One time, and for a short while in the seventh grade at Granite Quarry School, an unspoken academic competition existed between me and fellow schoolmate Larry Williams ( but only in my mind, not his). I think that I might have only bested him on a couple of tests, and by only a couple of points, after which he continued on, doing much better than I, but in that competition it was at least comforting that a “Williams” won out. I remember Larry complementing my progress, which just goes to show that the qualities of great intelligence and kindness are often no strangers to each other within the same person.
Somewhere in the sixth or seventh grade, I think, we realized that our repeated assignment together meant that our progress was being tracked ( in a paraphrase: “Watched by greater intelligences in the just- past middle years of the twentieth century”, sort of like in H.G. Welles’/ Orson Welles’ “The War of the Worlds”) possibly due to some educational theory. Evidently, the long arm of “college prep” had reached down into middle school for its recruits. Previous multiple-choice tests had involved circling the appropriate letter for the correct answer, but the answering of certain subsequent multiple-choice tests soon took on a new form. Instead of drawing a circle around the correct letter, our answers were now to be made by making a vertical mark within surrounding vertical parallel lines consisting of printed dots, and only with an appropriate No.2 pencil, in preparation for the “great test” which would come at the end of our high school career.
These “standardized” tests appeared in those last years at Granite Quarry, and ranged through all four years at East Rowan (when I think of the word “standardized”, I presently find myself inadvertently humming the old 60s song “Little Boxes,”). If you hadn’t learned that lesson of dexterity (and just plain neatness) taught years before regarding “coloring within the lines”, you might make your No.2 lead- pencil answer- mark outside of the dotted lines of its prescribed marking, a mistake “hazardous to your educational health”.
There was the “Great War”, also referred to as the “War to end all wars” (which it didn’t), and there was the “great test” at the end of high school (after which many more tests were administered in college). This “ultimate” test was given to me at Salisbury High , which I had grown up knowing as “Boyden”. That means of educational measurement, was , of course, the “Scholastic Aptitude Test” (SAT). At Saint Paul’s Lutheran, Pastor Floyd W. Bost had taught us that salvation was not to be gained through our own works, but by God’s grace; however, that most benevolent grace was not going to save those of us, college bound, from having to take the SAT.
Sitting there, being given instructions by the test monitor, I realized that the sharpness of the acidity in my stomach was equal to the sharpness of my just sharpened No.2 pencil. As the test proceeded, the burning sensation in my stomach defied gravity, reaching up to within my skull.One of the Little Rascals once had a “headache in his stomach”, but I was experiencing the opposite. If “A day is as a thousand years....”, then each 20 or 30 minute section of the SAT was the equivalent of certain years of my educational career, and life.
After completion of the SAT, my stomach and head ached, but not just my head, my mind also. Trying to re-grasp those things which I had learned up to that point, my mind ran anxiously back down many earlier paths of my academic life, over which some grass had grown and some acorns had sprouted, but since I was still young, thankfully the grass only needing a little trimming, and the acorns had only become non-obstructive treelets.
People who are close to death, but return, often remark :”My whole life flashed before me!” Seated in that desk at Salisbury (Boyden) High ,my whole “educational life” seemed to pass before my eyes in a blur of No.2 pencil preparatory standardized tests, preceded by a multitude of black “checks” , red “x’s”, (an “I” or two) and number grades, arriving finally at my earliest days of Granite Quarry School, surrounded by what appeared to be constellations of gold, silver, and red stars affixed to a finger-painted firmament by the means of a little gummed glue.