The small independent all-girls middle school in New York City bustles with activity at 8 am on a Tuesday morning in April. I am immediately greeted, “Good Morning…”Hi”…when I walk into the building. It is the first day of the English-Language Arts New York State Test–a day that has been kept in the back of students’ minds since September. The girls bustle about in their homerooms turning in homework, gathering books and pencils, highlighters and water bottles. Anything within reason that will help them sit anywhere from 90 minutes to 2 hours and 15 minutes answering questions about topics that bear very little relevance in their lives.
8:20: “I got chills, they’re multiplying, and I’m losing control, ‘Cause the power, you’re supplying, it’s electrifying! You better shape up, ’cause I need a man. And my heart is set on you. You better shape up; you better understand to my heart I must be true. Nothing left, nothing left for me to do. You’re the one that I want; you are the one I want, Oo, Oo, Oo honey! You’re the one that I want; you are the one I want Oo, Oo, Oo honey! You’re the one that I want; you are the one I want, Oo, Oo, Oo, the one that I need; oh yes indeed!” plays on speakers throughout the school signaling it is time for assembly–a 15 minute period that offers a chance for the entire school to come together as one, offering inspiring words, making announcements, taking attendance and closing with a prayer. The girls file out of their homerooms giggling, talking, sharing stories while streaming into the assembly room. Yellow walls, painted with inspirational quotes from the school’s namesake adorn two of the walls. The third wall houses statistics on dark blue plaques highlighting the success of the school’s girls.
8:23: The girls sit down in orderly fashion by grade level. The staff file in as well and sit on benches around the perimeter. Assembly begins. 4 girls get up in the front and begin to sing, “Let it Show, Let it Shooow, Let it Show!” followed by other witty lyrics referring to their ability
to succeed and do well on the upcoming tests. Overtime the chorus begins. Both staff and students start singing along and arch their right, then left arms in the air. After a giant applause, the girls return to their seats.
8:27 The principal says, Attendance.” Two sixth graders, begin “Good Morning to the staff and students. “Good Morning…and proceed to greet every staff–much to my surprise I am included, despite the fact that this is my first time in assembly in years. After staff, all 80 girls are greeted by name. This is followed by announcements. Teachers raise their hand and are called on by the principal. They announce the beginning of track practice and the start of baseball season. They are reminded they need permission slips to start either. They are reminded there was no homework club. After announcements, the principal moves the assembly along to prayer, “It’s time for prayer,”
8:30: A teacher stands at the front of assembly room and says, “Congratulations!” She pauses briefly before continuing, “you’re probably wondering, why I am telling you congratulations. Well, yesterday when I was thinking about prayer, I remembered when I was in the 7th grade, and my teacher came up to me before my tests and told me Congratulations. I looked at him confused; I hadn’t yet picked up a pencil to start and was actually worried I may have spelled my name wrong because I was so nervous about the test. What had I done to deserve a congratulations? He then tells me, you have done all the hard work. You were doing the hard work back in September, and on through November and into January. You continued the hard work through the early months of the new year and now here you are. Ready. You just need to show what you know. You’ve done all the hard work–Congratulations.” She paused again and finished her prayer, “Congratulations.”
8:32: The girls file out of the assembly room, giggling, talking, sharing stories while settling into lines by grade outside of their classrooms. Chatter continues, until a teacher stands in front of the two groups, “I know you all know how you need to be acting right now; you do this every morning. Once you are in line you need to be quiet so you can hear the directions.” The sixth graders quiet down and walk into their rooms to await the directions for test day one. Their teacher proceeds to read directions and in a semi-silly semi-serious voice lists all of the electronic and electronic related devices they are not allowed to have. This is followed by him passing out answer sheets, test booklets and reading more directions. I have been leaning against the doorframe observing this scene amused and impressed. It is a few minutes before a major test, and these girls are smiling and calm.
8:42: I step fully into the sixth grade classroom, before he reads the final set of directions, I interrupt, “Excuse me Mr. S, I need Julie, Maria, Ellie, Joy, and Catherine.” The girls get out of their seats and line up armed with water bottles, sticks of gum and a granola
bar–testing fuel. They are all entitled to take the test in a separate environment with limited students, distractions and receive extra time. Some of the girls who are staying give final “good lucks” as we walk out the door and down the stairs.
Two hours and 30 minutes later, I walk out feeling happy and light thinking about the woman who started it all over 20 years before; her spirit, her joy, her laughter live on. I turn right onto First Avenue and into the warm spring New York sunshine.