Like Lambs To The Slaughter, Or At Least To The Multiple Choice

They are looking at me with beads of sweat running down their faces. The sheer exhaustion of the test is running out of their pores and down their noses, falling on desks and tests. The TAs, both of them, are pressing handfuls of paper towels to their wet foreheads, telling them to focus.

This is the first test that they have ever taken.

My sixteen students are largely six years old, but several are only five. One is four. It’s a miracle that any of them can hold a pencil and write, much less in their second (third?) language. They are pulling the very best I have as a teacher out of me, bit by bit. They do not ask for my very best; the demand it. They are the kind of class that leaves your uniform completely unsuitable for the next day, covered as it is in sweat both from exertion and the biazzare metered dance that the flashcards require. The air conditioning is an utter failure. It lazily blows air even hotter than the classroom onto my face and the relatively neat rows of sweating children.

It’s the first test that they have ever taken, a Big Kid test with five pages of white paper covered in English and cartoon characters. The lessons were simple:  “What’s your name?” “How are you?” “How do you spell your name?” We traced letters and we wrote basic sentences. We tried to throw a ball, but they don’t quite have the motor skills to do so. We tried to roll a ball, but they started attacking each other. Right, ball games are out.

They are looking at me. They have the eyes of utter confusion. I made them move their desks into straight rows, five of them, stretching through the classroom so that there is almost no space in which to circulate and monitor them during the test. I put up three rules on the interactive board (which, for whatever technologically karmic reason, actually cooperated tonight).

1- No Talking
2- No Sharing
3- Be Quiet

Rules one and three overlap, but then, I thought it prudent to say it twice. Being quiet is the most important part of a test, and this is so different from our normal classes. They are struggling to copy the names of the characters. They are struggling to read and check the right person or sentence. They are struggling most of all with listening. It makes no goddamned sense to a four year old that you must “Listen and number.” What the hell is a number? What the hell is listen? He, and the others, sweat more profusely. I can practically hear his little gears turning in his head.

This is the first test they’ve ever taken.

And it might as well be kindergarten. I didn’t feel the full weight responsiblity until the next morning. Sure, I covered my bases. I set out my expectations. I was clear. I showed instructions. I showed consequences. I modeled how to take a test. But the weight is a lot bigger than that.

You may not know about exams in China. In Northeast Asia they are a huge deal. I once had a thirteen year old student in Korea tell me  in pristine English that her life was over because she scored 98% and not 100% one (ONE!) of her middle school exams. The girl read Tolstoy in Russian and could already speak Chinese, too. She scared the living shit out of me as a teacher because she is so smart. One exam, and she thought she would never go to college.

Exams in China are a big deal. They have been since at least 655 AD, although some sources suggest that the Imperial Exam system was in its infancy 200 years before Rome began building its empire. Only those who achieved the highest possible mark (jinshi 進士/进士) were able to hold public offices or take a place in the imperial bureaucracy. This system is no longer in place, because, duh, their is no imperial system anymore! Still, learning to sit an exam is essential in China.

This is the first test they’ve ever taken.

They struggle through the test, marking indiscriminately. Some of them write their names on the paper. Some of them don’t write their names on the paper. Some of them begin hitting each other with pencil bags. I’m sweating harder than ever now. Come on kids, come on. I know that you’ve been sitting for 35 minutes. I know there are no stars awarded during the test. I know that your pencil is broken. Here, take this one. Finish. Finish. Write. Write. Write.

They are taking their place in an educational system that may reward those who do well on a test. They are taking their place in the many millions of Chinese students who sit exams each year. They are taking their place in school, real school. They have not yet been to primary school. This is the first of six tests in this class. This is the first of 48 tests if they follow their classes at my school from here to the end of the elementary school classes. This is the first of the many hundreds of tests that they will take in the education. The first one that leads to the Gaokao (高考), the entrance exam for universities.

They are looking at me and sweating, still.

“Teacher, finished!” The chorus begins.
“Teacher, finished!” “Teacher, finished!” “Teacher, finished!” “Teacher, finished!” “Teacher, finished!” “Teacher, finished!” “Teacher, finished!”

They slowly file up to put their tests on my box. Two have no names on them, even though this was the lesson.

They sit down and we patiently wait for everyone to finish. It makes no goddamned sense to a five year old that they have to wait for the test to finish, silently, and without talking. I am a broken record, “No talking. No talking. Wait. Wait. Wait.” I am participating in the practice that will make them ace test-takers by the time they reach middle school. I am making them into test-takers. I am participating in that system. No, I am that system.

This is the first test they’ve ever taken.

The Results
The Results

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China

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