Sunday, May 20, 2012

Taking It One Test At A Time

(from today's Times and News-Star)

In her wonderful book “Bird By Bird,” Anne Lamott tells the story of her older brother who’s faced with completing a grade school report on birds he’d had three months to work on. The night before it was due, he sat “at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead,” Lamott wrote. “Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, ‘Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.’”

One of my favorite stories.

In the past couple of weeks I have seen students in a similar situation, trying to get the shutters closed and the hatches battened down as the end of another school year comes. You’ve got your ants, who have been storing up food all winter, and you’ve got your last-minute one-armed paper hangers, praying for relief and a miracle. But whether in the long run or short run, the only way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time.

Bird by bird.

“Bird by bird” is an uptown cliché for the athletic “one game at a time.” I am all about athletic clichés. I can count on them to bring me joy when few other things will. I have been reminded lately that the whole end-of-the-school-year conversation could spill out in nothing but locker-room or sideline clichés.

“We go now to Mr. Hedy’s English classroom, where the American Lit final will take place tomorrow at 10. How are you today, Mr. Hedy?”

“That’s Hedley. Hedley.”

“Mr. Hedley. Of course. I’m sorry. And how are you today on the eve of the class final?”



“Well, it all comes down to this. I mean, this is what we teach for, what we train for, what we study for, what we conjugate verbs for. It’s why we read and write and carry on with infinitives so. This is what English class is all about. I’m excited.”

“Give us an idea, Mr. Hedley, of the personality of this class.”

“We’re young. Inexperienced. But we’ve studied together and gotten better – jelled, you could say – as the year’s gone along. Everybody thought we were toast after we struggled with Hawthorne. But we came back and have a chance at the final now. We’re excited.”

“Did you think you’d get to this point?”

“I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t worried, but this class made me a believer. The kids deserve to be here.”

“Mr. Hedley, your class has a chance to raise the GPA of the whole school with a good showing on the final. What do you think is the key today?”

“Well, we’ll have to play both sides of the symbolism, no question. Be ready for sonnets and short stories and similes. And alliteration. We respect a guy like, say, Eliot, and know he can come at you with conceits, with your metaphors, and you better be ready. I think our kids are. We’re all pretty excited just about being excited, about the excitement.”

“What do you think your pre-test speech will be?”

“Oh, I’ll just tell them we’ve come a long way. Hey, nobody gave us a chance. So the key now is just to relax. Don’t cheat. Let the test come to us. Give 100 percent. Leave it all on the exam. We’ve just got to take it word by word.”