Since school began in September, two of my students have had to leave school to deal with their depression, and the parents of other students have emailed me about how stressed out their children are and if I could please be flexible with deadlines. Not long ago a student at my school died, and since the parents did not say what happened, my assumption is suicide. Most of these students are freshman, high school freshman, 14- and 15-year-olds.
You know, we can talk and talk and talk and talk about tests and scores and evaluations and how poorly our students do on math tests compared to Norwegian children, and we can talk about how creative our students are compared to Korean children, and we can talk about how our students only know one language compared to multi-lingual European children, but really, what does any of that matter if in the process of proving something about ourselves and our superiority or our power to destroy in order to rebuild or prove something about our vision of education or priorities, we let our children slip through our classrooms without the compassion needed for lasting learning and personal stability?
These education reformers who want everyone, even kindergarteners, to be accountable for their learning understand nothing about what matters to a child’s development. I assume that as people on their deathbed don’t mourn not having worked enough, neither do they talk about having passed annual state-wide English, math, science, and history tests. Don’t we carry with us on our path that sense of self and possibility that has built in us over the years, and woe to us if we are burdened with never having received the encouragement to reach in and rejoice in what we find. Maya Angelou said it perfectly; “I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” How can we give to children that which they will forget? The paradox, of course, is that we haven’t given them anything when we have been entrusted with giving them an education, and instead give them the emptiness of our own ambitions.
In the county where I work, the guidance department is no longer called guidance, rather it is student services. What a difference. It is the difference between an acquaintance who recounts, and a friend who offers and asks for support. There is a coldness, this thrusting children away from hearts and toward to-do-lists. Which children are benefitting from this type of education? Could it be the children who are like the educrats, who prefer to trade baseball cards rather than build forts and castles?
While looking for a quote by Nelson Mandela to teach my students about who he was, I found this: “There can be no keener revelation of a society's soul than the way in which it treats its children.” There is nothing more powerful than the selling of our students to for-profit corporations, whether upping the seat count in a charter school, or purchasing books from a corporation, or taking tests written by a corporation, or enrolling in online classes run by a corporation—all ultimately only benefit a pocketbook, proving so evidently the veracity of this quote.
Depression comes from many places and can’t be pinpointed to a single cause, and certainly not to a test, but students are children, they are not test-takers for someone’s enrichment, they are more fragile and precious than a bottom line, and we need to resist this encroachment into our classrooms and our children’s souls. We, the collective adult “we” that establishes the moral fiber of a country through its very act of being, must prove that we are worthy of emulation by not conceding the classroom. A few years ago I took a class with a teacher who said that she closes the door and gets to teaching. She was lauded for her bravery. What a shame. Shame shame shame that to do what is right is to do what is wrong. But, I guess, it has always been that way.
We owe it to every child who deals with his/her pain by hurting his/her self or others to care more than to lip sync concern.
The “children of today” cannot be undervalued because they use the tools that we gave to them, nor can they be undervalued because we perceive them as the reflection of what is wrong with society when our actions are the true reflection. As the adults in the room we need to stop replaying our endless tapes of our pithy selves and start listening to the small voices that are crying out in pain because, surely, they are the canaries in the coal mine that has become our society.