To Test or Not to Test



Who likes doing tests?

To see how much you know. To see how much you don’t know. To stare down a bit of white paper and be confused and angered by a question that, to your eleven year old self, makes no sense and is boring. Boring equals hard.

Is confidence built by doing well in a test?

Is confidence lost by doing poorly? Where does confidence go when it is diminished and trod on? What can we do to enliven it again?

What are we testing when we test boys? Their ability to sit still, like girls. Girls are good at tests. They are good at writing neatly and making borders around their work. But some boys like to move to think. Some boys like to throw a ball while they talk. Some boys like to skate. Some boys are messy.

Failure is supposed to help us succeed later. But in the moment failure is just that. It is flattening. It deadens us to that feeling that is success. Success seems slippery. Others have it. Not us. Skipping ahead, around the corner, the girl in the colourful skirt with the pretty curls. The boy child – his body sags and his shoulders push earthward. Shoes laces dragging undone, since doing them up just wastes time that could be spent running. They will come undone once more. The nature of shoe laces. Ugh another test.

And to have to miss Hockey because of a test. No reward seems good enough. He harps on It’s so unfair. My bargaining begins – Star Trek movie and a mint choc bomb perhaps.

And what is gifted anyway? Gifted – handed to you. Unearnt. Something someone else gave you that you played no part in? Gifted through good genes. Gifted and Talented exam. GATE to the parents who, like me, might have signed their child up, hoping for a spot in an elusive school. Saying GATE somehow seems less irksome than gifted and talented. And so if you don’t get in, then you are Not gifted and Not talented. Just a regular eleven year old kid with no interest in a test on quantitative reasoning and abstract thinking. Just an ordinary kid who must go to an ordinary school with ordinary teachers. Only 2.5% of kids can be labelled Gifted and Talented, so it’s a stretch to get in.

The acronym GATE is apt. Maybe WALL would be even better. For most students the GATE is locked and high and barbed. The GATE is not open wide or welcoming. It is latched and chained and bolted. Combinations and passwords and special handshakes required. It is the beginning of difference. Is eleven too young to begin to know? Maybe this is the first real gate they have come across. You have always held the door wide for them. Perhaps you are discriminated, as I am, by steps and stairs and steep driveways. Or maybe it’s the colour of your skin and the curl of your hair that prevents your inclusion. Maybe you can’t relate to people or you relate too much. Maybe English is not your first language. You live in the wrong part of town. Maybe you are a woman.

This afternoon, after school, I must ask him to sit and look at the sample questions so the exam paper does not come as a shock tomorrow. I need to tell him to not rush the paper, in the hope he can leave the room early. Only guess if you really don’t know and have no time to try to work it out. I already know it will be a battle to get him to look at the samples. When the sun is shining and friends are meeting at the park it is less than alluring to ponder a puzzle your mother looks pained to make you do.






Imagine you are ten years old and deciding what to do with your life. Butcher, baker, candlestick maker. You have an unimaginable future ahead of you. You cannot perceive of an illness or accident that would prevent you from doing anything. You haven’t been on this planet a long time and yet you feel you know a helluva lot. You know you like pastry. You know it’s not wise to live off it. You know you like the rain. You know you aren’t quite brave enough to do anything crazy on your skateboard. Your parents tell you loads of stuff in the wizened way of old folks. Follow your dreams. But your dreams are of running. Someone chasing. Selecting for your future has somehow become the thing to think about, all of the time. How is it that they can suck the excitement out of anything with their calculated predictions, their carefully put forward analysis? They don’t want you to make the same mistakes as them.


You wonder if you are some kind of mistake they made.


Sometimes you feel like a piece of play dough. The parents are big-fisted toddlers who are pawing at you. They make you this way. Then they make you another. A thumb to the side of the face. They don’t like what they see. They roll you into a ball and try all over again. You are getting sandy and dried out. But despite their attempts at sculpture, you are already made. Back in your plastic tub you are bursting forth with your own decisions, little arms bud from the body, thin athletic legs spring out.


The lid pops off and the little play dough boy is off and running. Think; the Ginger Bread Man.


They can’t stop where you go now or what you do. You might get flattened. You might dry out. Run, run as fast as you can. You can’t stop me I’m the Ginger Bread Man.


I used to buy him a Ginger Bread Man every Friday from Annie’s bread stall in the market. In a white paper bag I delivered it to school at pick up time. Smartie eyes. He ate his head off first. I called the woman Annie every week for years. I felt as if I knew her. Then one day I heard her called Janice by another customer. I was mortified. How had I been calling her Annie all these years and she had never corrected me? I asked her. Is your name really Janice? Yes, she said. But to you, I am Annie. I like being Annie. Despite this I started to call her Janice. Every time I said it, we smiled. When the shop finally closed she came out behind her counter and we hugged like old friends; a moment between floury, bountiful baker and loyal customer. I had tears in my eyes. No more weekly Ginger Breads for my boy.


On the radio I hear an interview with the man who is the designer of the Academy Award Envelope. As a child he imagined being the man to design the folded paper encasing the name of and the Oscar goes to. What kind of child dreams that dream?


A visit to a high school makes the play dough boy look small and squeaky. Large boys with hairy legs and deep voices, men really, lope around the courtyards. What has happened to teenagers? So large. The girls, too. Shorty shorts with giraffe-long legs. Hairless, naturally. Lipstick disguised as lip-gloss. Can the ten year old see himself here? Will he get lost between the science room and the art department? Something about my own high school experience bubbles near the surface. It’s scary not knowing people. It’s scary being small. What if no one likes you? What if when you speak, you say something that other people laugh at?


But there are many differences between this high school and mine. We were nearly all white. Girls. Here there are Sikhs with turbans, African, Asians, Indians, Indigenous and us. It is the United Nations. A small blonde white kid popping his way out of his plastic tub. Stretching his legs, rolling over his bowling arm, finding a friend to talk to over lunch. Now I have a place to imagine him when he is away from home at high school. Sitting on a limestone wall around a chess court in the quadrangle engulfed in difference, all made to feel equal.

Ginger Bread Man