My oldest son took the ISTEP standardized test recently in a conference room at a local Ivy Tech center. He’s home-schooled through the K12 virtual academy, so he’d never met any of his classmates, though he’d spoken to some of them online, and I could tell he was a little self-conscious going in there. He didn’t want to carry his lunch bag for one thing because it was a brown paper bag with his name on it, and one time in second grade somebody called it his “barf bag.”
We sat down in the corner of the conference room, while we waited for the test administrator to tell us what to do. The room was all grey with floor to ceiling wipe boards, which is a nice upgrade from the chalk boards we had in school that had to be washed at the end of every day. I had a chemistry teacher in high school who had a grey helmet of hair like Newt Gingrich, also, an ever present blurp of foamy saliva on his lower lip, and when he wrote on the board, his round stomach simultaneously erased everything at his gut level. He’d turn around to face the class and have entire equations written on his stomach.
The K12 crowd is interesting–not your typical home-schooling menagerie. There’s no faith component to the curriculum, which also means no skirts, no saints’ garb, no gaggles of toddlers or babies trailing along. The curriculum is all online, and parents are “learning coaches” who supplement the virtual teachers’ work rather than bearing the weight entirely for schooling the kids (this is the only reason I am able to home school–it is not my natural calling). Learning coaches, therefore, come in all shapes and sizes. There are grandparents, absent parents, disinterested parents, single parents, hip-hop parents, and a few of all stripes that seemed verily engaged in the educational process, asking questions of the test administrators, and sticking around during testing in case their child needed anything.
One dad sitting next to us talked to his very distracted teenage daughter for forty-five minutes about how he could win back her mother. She sat looking at an Ipod with a sort of a dark, closed-in expression, while he asked her to interrupt Facebook for a moment to google the cost of sending a dozen roses. “I don’t care how much it costs,” he kept saying. Before he left her there to do her test he asked, “Do you have enough money, in case you need to go to the vending machine and buy some candy?” This is a question my parents never asked me.
The kids in the crowd were equally unpredictable. Most of them stuck close by their learning coach if one was present, but a tall gawky girl who was pretty under her glasses and wore a pink t-shirt labeled “Cowgirl” went to introduce herself to a quiet, mousy girl in a purple t-shirt labeled “Rockstar.” The cowgirl shook the rockstar’s hand awkwardly and asked what foreign language she was taking.
The Rockstar was taking French; she listed the French words she knew, counting them off on her fingers.
The cowgirl was taking Spanish and also sign language. There was a lady who signed at her Church, and she spent the services watching and learning. “This is how you sign Jehovah,” she said, demonstrating. “Have you ever seen anyone sign while holding a knife?” she asked the rockstar.
The rockstar answered that yes, she had seen three or four people sign while holding a knife. “It’s funny, isn’t it?” they agreed.
Shortly after that, they shook hands again and said, “It was nice to meet you,” and the cowgirl went back to her seat. The whole conversation was so awkward and vulnerable. I felt like I shouldn’t be watching it. It was like that time at Church when it was so hot, the old lady two rows ahead of us stood up and her skirt stuck to her backside so that we could see her girdle. I didn’t know whether I should leave my pew to go pull the skirt from her crack, or just pretend I couldn’t see it. Fortunately, she flexed a critical muscle and the skirt fell on its own.
In any case, I sort of fell in love with the cowgirl, being that she was the only one in the room willing to put herself out there and try to make conversation with a stranger. If I were Trump, I’d give her the job. It reminded me how much I have depended on people like her in my life, because I am much more like the rockstar, hiding behind my hair hoping to be noticed, then answering questions with a brag, trying to garner admiration, but really just raining on the parade. People like me best in small doses.
Especially my son. “When are you leaving?” he asked me.
“Right now,” I said. “Good luck on your test.”