It was a day of shock (Obama!, Osama!) and a day of sorrow (The Six Million). But for my 9-year-old daughter Talia, that date, May 2, known as Yom HaShoah on Jewish calendars, was merely the day before a bigger, scarier one; the next morning, promptly at 9 a.m., the New York state tests would begin: a series of five, one hour-long exams that would measure her ability to understand reading passages and tackle third-grade math.
My daughter does not normally fear academic challenges. She’s an ace math student, and performs solidly in all subjects. But these tests were different. While they don’t count toward her entrance to middle school, their importance has been drummed into her with increasing frequency by a teacher whose own grade may depend in part on how the students fare. The teacher, it seems, transmits the values of the school principal, who in turn speaks for a larger cultural obsession.
“Congratulations,” the principal announced last month after the children presented “water dances” choreographed in a program run by the New York City Ballet. “These are our third graders,” she told the audience of cellphone camera-flashing mothers, fathers and grandparents. And then, her smile tight, the children triumphantly wiggling in their seats, the principal reminded us all of the upcoming state tests.
It’s no wonder that two other mothers at the “Raising a Mensch” parenting class I sometimes attend at Congregation Rodeph Sholom raged and railed about the tests. It’s no wonder that one of the mothers, who ordinarily radiates a calm, reflective energy, exploded with an unprintable expletive, when discussing the amount of class time devoted to preparation for these exams.
It’s no wonder that my Holocaust lesson for Talia, which I’d been planning for months, was interrupted. It’s easy to imagine that the tests disrupted hundreds if not thousands of creative projects, big and small, physical and artistic and dramatic.
I’d been thinking about Yom HaShoah for weeks before, finally reaching the decision to present a fuller picture to Talia. And with the help of Jerry Raik, her Havurah school instructor, and the aid of Lois Lowry, who wrote “Number the Stars,” Talia absorbed more details about the deprivation and destruction of Jews, during and prior to World War II. But the evening of Holocaust Remembrance Day, Talia’s entire being was engulfed by one concern. “I’m not crying,” she told me as I massaged the tense muscles in her back. “But my body feels as stressed as if I were crying.”
That evening, Talia could think only of the directive she’d received at school: Be sure to get a good night’s sleep. If there’s anything guaranteed to disturb one’s rest, it might be those words. Talia began nervously eyeing the clock at 7 p.m., two hours before her usual bedtime. It was not the moment for Holocaust literature.
I find it odd that the very same public school that reserved so many hours for test preparation also screened the film “Race to Nowhere” in a packed auditorium earlier this spring. I wasn’t the only one weeping in the spellbound audience as we watched students, teachers and psychologists detail the disastrous effects of our test-driven, homework-heavy culture. Vicki Abeles, a Jewish lawyer based in the Bay area of California, made this movie, her first, to expose and explore a school culture that has exacted a stressful toll on her three children.
Since its release in 2009, the film has been screened at more than a thousand schools across the nation, sparking at least one group of parents in Pennsylvania to boycott state testing for its children. But, as you might expect, few would dispute that the “the intensity and anxiety in the New York City area is more pronounced than elsewhere,” as Abeles herself remarked during a Skype conversation with viewers at the JCC in Manhattan.
We must ask ourselves: “What does it take to create a happy, creative and motivated human being?” asked Ilana Ruskay Kidd, the JCC’s preschool director, in a mass e-mail following the screening.
This past week I have often climbed in bed beside Talia, huddling on one side of her twin mattress, attempting to quiet her anxiety, to quell my own anger, to absorb a few minutes of the childhood that is all too quickly slipping by.
On Friday night, though, the stress of school seemed far away. I whispered to Talia: “Now the ELA [English Language Arts] tests are finally over. You can relax.”
“They’re not over,” corrected my daughter, with that same smile that she wears when frightened about getting a shot at the pediatrician’s office. “We have them again in approximately 52 weeks.”
Elicia Brown’s column appears the second week of the month.