“Happy Mother’s Day! How are you doing? It’s your special day today. You’re the big star. I hope you enjoy your Mother’s Day. I love you so much! You’re the best mom in the world. I hope that’s no offense to Mrs. Pepper.”
The renowned Crayola trifecta—crayons, markers, and colored pencils—finds its way out of the hollow of my cluttered desk only a few times a year. Once I’ve coated this Mother’s Day card with their waxy smear, crayons with names like “Purple Mountain Majesty” and “Carnation Pink” will never stand quite as tall as the rest of the immaculate, 64-strong array. This elusive and redundant cache of drawing stuffs that annually entrenches itself in the middle of a very lengthy back-to-school shopping list now finds itself unboxed, de-capped, and re-sharpened to imperfection.
Mrs. Pepper’s second-grade circus tent is abuzz with a satanic blend of construction paper scissor-snips and the sound of James Taylor’s “Your Smiling Face” on cassette. But I couldn’t have thought up a better soundtrack to saying ‘Happy Mother’s Day’ if I wanted to.
“My Mom is smart! She even knows how to add and subtract fractions.”
“Weekly News: Bits and Pieces of Our Week at School” requires no further description. This anthology of letters to Mom written throughout the school year includes no more and no less than exactly what its title suggests. I’m sure that if she had really had the urge, Mom could have fished statements like, “We do The Pledge every morning” and “We investigated water” and “We’re also learning about adjectives and nouns” out of just about any encyclopedic definition of “second grade” she could get her hands on.
“Hi Ben” appears on the back of each letter, followed by a short paragraph written in stylish, curly pseudo-cursive, once-detached letters that had merged through years of jotting things down too quickly. It’s beautiful handwriting, and it labeled every writer’s notebook, daily lunchbox note, calendar reminder for the dentist appointment, and post-it-noted telephone number that I used during elementary school. It’s not that I couldn’t have labeled these things for myself; I simply didn’t trust any hand other than Mom’s to label the entire suite of school supplies—from every three-ring binder to every 64-pack-crayon-sharpener-in-the-back Crayola box—with such panache.
What “Weekly News” lacks in content it makes up for in the call-and-response between my penciled-in regurgitation of Mrs. Pepper’s classroom schedule and Mom’s feigned interest in just about all of the items on that schedule. “I picked a tree” earned a hearty “What kind of tree did you pick?” “I had three substitutes this week, including the one today” prompted a “Wow! That’s a lot of substitutes!” If I grew caterpillars in a Dixie Cup, Mom wanted to know what I named them. If I made a thumbprint, Mom wanted to know if it was a whorl or a loop.
At recess, I would multiply by two. The splintered wood-grain from the picnic table creates a stencil on each equation like a barcode that, if scanned, would tell you exactly how many of the joys of being seven years old had been squandered on this self-inflicted and definitively endless math exercise.
My goal was to reach infinity, and Ms. Rand was going to help me get there. Each time I multiplied by two-to-the-whatever, I would present my findings to Ms. Rand, the kind, middle-aged lunch aide who presided over my classmates and made sure they didn’t kill themselves on the monkey bars. And Ms. Rand must’ve really been good at math, because she would spend no longer than two seconds looking at my paper before affirming that I was indeed substantially closer to reaching infinity than when I had started.
“I hope I got an ‘A’ plus on my math test. It was challenging, but I think I managed.”
Math tests were a new creature in second grade, and I regularly reported them straight to Mom through “Weekly News” just as I would an experiment using Alka-Seltzer and vinegar, or the construction of a sundial out of a paper plate. The thought of crunching numbers under a time limit made me sick to my stomach, and even if multiplying by two seems rudimentary from the collegiate perspective, it was sheer rocket science to a seven-year-old.
“This week I had the math test. There was also extra credit. Hope I get it right!”
Mom’s responses to my letters belied her hope that I would write about any number of topics other than math tests, in which case her replies would deal with those topics and only those topics. When math tests eventually became the subject of every letter, she stopped responding altogether, save for the occasional, “I know that I haven’t been writing back to you. I guess I keep forgetting.”
Dear Mrs. Pepper,
Benjamin is a very interesting little boy. He, at times, presents himself as a ‘50 year old man.’ In fact, last year at recess, he rarely said that he played with the other children, and preferred to hang out with the lunch aide. … He spent his summer reading and learning his multiplication tables. He does become frustrated easily and strongly dislikes struggling over something he does not know. As always, you may contact me with any concerns, ideas, and comments.
“It’s not about the test. It’s about the learning,” says S. Paul Reville, professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and former Secretary of Education for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. “If you can strike the right balance, that’s what you want.”
For Reville, test anxiety is built into a culture of high standards and high expectations. “A second-grader doesn’t just come to a phobia about testing; when you look behind it, it’s the environment. It may be the teacher, it may be the parent, it may be the school that has engineered a level of anxiety out of their own interests,” he says. Reville laments the “drill-and-kill” attitude that has characterized the teaching strategy in many schools over the last decade.
After second grade ended, “Weekly News” adopted many different forms. To this day, I call Mom after every test to let her know how it went. Our conversation is almost always the same: She always tells me that as long as I tried my best, that’s all that matters, and I tell her that I probably failed, and she tells me that she wants to hang up the phone.
“[Parents] want you to come home and say, ‘It was good, it was interesting, it was boring, I hated it, I’m not interested, I’m anxious and nervous,’” Reville says. “That’s a first-order metric that parents use.” Mom has been using it as a metric for 12 years.
I suppose nothing has really changed since second grade, but there’s something oddly sentimental about that, like a piano with an out-of-tune key you can’t imagine sounding any other way.
“Don’t worry about your score. I’m sure you did great. And if you didn’t I don’t care. Only a few more weeks left to school. Enjoy!”