Opinion > Commentary

Bullets fly, but the test must go on


Maggie Terry

Maggie Terry

This commentary was written the day last month that 10th graders in Los Angeles were due to take the math portion of the California High School Exit Exam.

Five pops that sounded like fireworks. Short and crisp. Totally misplaced at 8:05 a.m. Who lights fireworks on a Wednesday morning?

But it wasn’t fireworks and you know that. After half a second, I knew that too.

When I saw our dean and one of our campus security guards running toward the gate behind my classroom, to the street where the shots had been fired, I realized they were acting as our first responders, and that sometime today I might get news that one of our students had been killed.

When my colleagues and I began ushering kids into our school’s main hall, away from the outdoor lunch tables where they’d been chatting and eating their breakfasts, we held our arms wide like wings, like we knew exactly what was going on and that there was nothing to be scared or worried about.

In a large classroom, 15 colleagues and I supervised roughly 50 students while waiting for more information about the violent event. We stayed in lockdown for about an hour. I made small talk with some girls I’d never taught before. Complimented their outfits. Answered questions about what I teach and why they hadn’t met me. One student was visibly upset and crying. A young teacher comforted her. But most kids just sat with friends, and some listened to music or did whatever teenagers do on their phones when social media is blocked by the school firewall. After talking with the girls, I peeled and ate some mandarin oranges given to me by our school counselor. I wasn’t hungry but I ate them anyway.

Ten minutes into lockdown, a veteran teacher from the community said, “Who wants to review some math?” And about 25 kids joined him at a whiteboard in the corner of the room while he covered formulas for finding the areas of geometric shapes. Although I’ve been teaching in urban schools for 10 years, this is the first time I’d heard gunshots while responsible for children, and despite my calm and warm exterior, during lockdown I felt angry and scared. I walked over and watched him teach, grateful for the chance to think about ways to find the area of a circle.

And when the voice over the loudspeaker told us it was safe to go back outside and to our classrooms, as a staff we did our best to normalize a situation that everyone reading this knows is far from normal.

But then, I teach in Watts, and like many U.S. urban centers, guns and gun violence have become normalized to the point that safe-passage security guards escort kids walking between school and home. These adults are an invaluable community resource. They improve students’ chances of not getting shot or stabbed while exercising their human right to an education. But it’s not enough. In urban centers, kids don’t play after-school sports, or practice for the marching band, or work on the yearbook, because at 5 p.m. when it’s getting dark and practice is over, it’s not safe to walk home. Unsafe communities preclude students from participating in healthy extracurricular activities that improve their quality of life and enrich their college applications.

Today in Watts, to normalize a morning where someone shot at someone else one block from the entrance to our school, we did our best to follow the day’s planned schedule.

Our 11th and 12th graders hopped on buses for outings to Santa Monica Beach and a hike to the Hollywood sign.

And our 10th graders, without a single protest, walked to their assigned classrooms, to be tested silently for the next 4-7 hours.

Today was the Math portion of the California High School Exit Exam, and every 10th grade public school student in Los Angeles was tested at this very moment.

Many took the test after a good night’s sleep, a healthy breakfast and years of living in a low-stress home environment where they’ve never endured childhood trauma.

Others tested an hour after watching and hearing one human being try to kill another human being. That experience was trauma, and trauma affects cognition.

But it didn’t matter. The test must go on.

•••

Maggie Terry teaches English language development at Locke High School in Watts.

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Filed under: Commentary, Teaching, Testing and Accountability

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9 Responses to “Bullets fly, but the test must go on”

  1. Rene Diedrich said

    on April 17, 2014 at 11:15 pm

    I did my first LAUSD tour of duty in Watts. I was a sub and what I saw and heard was not unusual to me because I grew up this way and lived in the hoods myself. What stunned and inspired me were always the students. There were a lot of them who became teachers, who will become teachers , though I no longer encourage it. It’s appalling how teachers are treated in light of the bullets and abuse we take . I want better for our students and my son.
    I recall when a boy on a bike rode by my son’s ES and shot another one , who died on the yellow lawn as little kids gaped at him in fascination. It was back to school night and Latinas dragged ninos towards the school, speaking is soft Spanish. A few black mothers in PJs were solitary and surly, sometimes sour booze and stale smoke hung over them too.
    I knew why that evening as I swiftly ushered students into the quad, grateful to know the shooter was blocks away , having sped off on his BMX like a bat out of hell.
    Inside I told the teachers were all oblivious in their rooms getting ready to showcase the children’s work, all were calm but some simmered as they recognized the terrible thing their students had witnessed and the danger all of us were put into. When the principle arrived from dinner cop lights were rolling against a dark moonless night. The brown moms were forlorn , praying and the scowling black ones Sat near me as I was clearly making some sense as I muttered to myself. . The principle introduced herself and made an inappropriate remark about the hub bub outside , acting like we weren’t part of THAT . The kids were running around , buying pizza and pop as the adults sat at tattered old picnic tables waiting for this lady to shut up , went on about how great she looked for her age
    She did too, but she didn’t live in a hood. Iand she didn’t care about it either. When we left the coroner was arriving . Wondered why I wasn’t crying. I would have felt so much better if there were tears .

  2. eelo said

    on April 17, 2014 at 11:35 am

    Students and parents have the right to refuse to take these tests. Your teachers are much more capable of determining whether or not you know the material. These ridiculous standardized, one-size-fits all tests do not benefit anyone other than the corporations that write and manufacture the tests. Those same corporations will be glad to sell school districts millions of dollars of “educational programming” and “test prep” and when scores go up *on the tests THEY write*, they’ll claim success. Don’t be fooled. Choose to refuse.

  3. Michael Elliot said

    on April 15, 2014 at 1:16 pm

    34,000 New York children refused to take the ELA state tests. Many more will choose to refuse the math, especially now that principals and educators are speaking up. Watch and spread the video. Parents have a right to refuse!
    http://youtu.be/2ayYajsQjg8

  4. navigio said

    on April 12, 2014 at 9:56 am

    Thank you Maggie for your moving piece, and for your commitment to the students at Locke.
    What goes on in and around that school and neighborhood on a daily basis could not be more different than what happens in even the rarest cases in the lives of most people who read this blog.

  5. Don said

    on April 11, 2014 at 4:08 pm

    Floyd, I think you’ve left the readers in shock. Did you read this article? The test wasn’t canceled. Like the titled says, the show went on. The author was simply trying to relay her experience and how the students reacted to a shooting. She wasn’t commenting on the validity of testing, or the union position or any other political or policy matter. This was a human interest piece and a sad one. Too bad you couldn’t set aside your ideas for just a couple of minutes to listen to her story.

  6. Floyd Thursby said

    on April 11, 2014 at 3:12 pm

    You see the flaw in this don’t you? If you cancel the tests any day someone shoots off a gun, people will shoot them off to get the test canceled. The teachers look for any excuse to cancel every test and keep every teacher on the job. When the union defended Berndt, we all know it’s on auto-pilot and can’t be trusted. In what situations are you for testing? Or are you just looking for some excuse to oppose it? Are you telling me if gunshots hadn’t gone off, they’d have been enthusiastic to show the results of so much wasted money, ineffective teaching, and relaxing weekends of students who blame poverty but are overweight and watch TV all weekend and don’t bother to study at all weekends or Summers, and only a quarter as much as Asians of the same income do? No, they want to avoid the test because the test raises tough questions and proves home life and teaching both matter, not poverty. Smart parents will want their kids taking as many tests as possible. This is real life and if you don’t test well forget a good college. It’s the real world not Kumbaya time.

    • Rilabear replied

      on April 17, 2014 at 3:25 pm

      Read the article once again. If you think this falls into the category of “excuse,” you grossly miss the point. Smells like a mole in an old house. So called red herring.

  7. Ken hall said

    on April 11, 2014 at 9:22 am

    Wow! Thank you for sharing.

  8. Michael Elliot said

    on April 11, 2014 at 9:08 am

    33,000 New York children refused to take the ELA state tests. Many more will choose to refuse the math, especially now that principals and educators are speaking up. Watch and spread the video. Parents have a right to refuse!
    http://youtu.be/2ayYajsQjg8

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