Writer’s Log, September 1st: Unicorns on a Racetrack

It’s hard to be a parent in the 21st century without having to grapple with standardized assessments of your kids. There you are, puttering merrily along, enjoying and supporting your kid quirks and all, when out of nowhere a letter arrives in the mail reducing said kid to a series of rankings, percentiles, and scores. In five seconds flat, you’re projecting twenty years in the future, trembling with the kind of specific, long-reaching projections even biblical prophets wouldn’t dare to make.

It’s entirely possible that you’re harboring just a smidgen of PTSD over however you were also unwittingly pigeonholed at a young age. Thanks to a very literary household, I started reading when I was four, but I was placed in the lowest reading group in second grade because I was much more interested in staring out the window than answering questions about the cat on the mat. And it only went downhill from there.

Maybe, like me, you’ve found a silver lining when it comes to navigating these tests for your kids, learning how to advocate for what they are, rather than get tripped up by what they aren’t. But even if you have, I’d wager good money that you haven’t extended the same kind of protection and support to yourself. Yet how can we teach our children to stand up for themselves if we’re not doing the same for ourselves? How can we tell them to carve out a meaningful place in the world if we insist on keeping up with the laundry instead of staking out time to write, or answering every email within 24 hours instead of fiddling around on the piano, or seeking a promotion we’re not even sure we want instead of staring out the window?

When I was studying education in graduate school, I continued to feel like I was swimming upstream, struggling to find a toehold for a more fulsome concept of lifelong learning. With so much work to be done on the K-12 front, it’s understandable that many of my colleagues looked at me askance. But I still believe that the most beneficial learning environments are community based, that our children will only be willing to remain curious, open, and brave if the adults who are asking this of them are also working to remain curious, open, and brave. It can be so hard, though, particularly in a society that views education so narrowly.

Last year, my fifth grader was applying to an accelerated program for sixth grade, so we were navigating tests galore. When the admissions team emailed to ask what I made of his glacial processing speed relative to his other scores, I thought of my sweet, daydreaming, pokey son, and was immediately transported back to that window view that fascinated me when I was younger. “I suppose it’s a bit like putting a unicorn on a racetrack,” I wrote back. “Sure, he might run the race, but if you focus only on his speed, you’ll miss all the magic.”

Similarly, I often get unpublished clients or students bemoaning how little they’ve accomplished, or pawing at unyielding ground and twisting their tightly braided forelocks when asked if they think of themselves as writers. But what is a writer if not, simply, someone who writes with intention, care, and hope? Why must we continue to measure even artistic success by the stalest of parameters?

So I ask you: What can you do to release yourself from false constraints? How can you honor your truest self, no matter how she might be measured? How can you start your own, small rebellion from within?

Art: James Emmerson, Sunlight through Stained Glass

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