Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Dear Professor James, #YOLO :)

Any Stein scholar would be struck by this story about a Texas high school student, Kyron Birdine, who wrote "YOLO :)" ["you only live once"]* on his standardized test paper and tweeted the photo to school officials. Birdine was punished with four days of in-school suspension.

The first thing this made me think of was this famous story about Gertrude Stein:

It was a very lovely spring day, Gertrude Stein had been going to the opera every night and going also to the opera in the afternoon and had been otherwise engrossed and it was the period of the final examinations, and there was the examination in William James's course. She sat down with the examination paper before her and she just could not. YOLO :) ** she wrote at the top of her paper, and left.

The next day she had a postal card from William James saying, Dear Miss Stein, I understand perfectly how you feel I often feel like that myself. And underneath it he gave her work the highest mark in his course. (Stein, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas 740)

The story is often quoted as evidence of Stein's whimsy, of James's good will, or both. Last semester I told the story to my American Lit students, who immediately asked me (as students always do when you tell this story) whether the same trick would avail in my class. ("Ha, ha, you can try." Never let it be said that I am not a loving teacher.)

But of course, nothing will happen to a Yale undergrad who doesn't take a final exam, except that they'll fail the exam (which, in my course, only counted for perhaps 15% of the grade, and so would have by no means have kept the student from passing the course—and you know where a C average at Yale can get you).

Nothing was going to happen to Gertrude Stein, either. She didn't even plan on taking a degree at Radcliffe until the very end, when James persuaded her to try medical school. "There were no difficulties except that Gertrude Stein had never passed more than half of her entrance examinations for Radcliffe, having never intended to take a degree. However with considerable struggle and enough tutoring that was accomplished [yes—she accomplished getting into the college she was already attending, which by the way was Harvard] and Gertrude Stein entered Johns Hopkins Medical School" (740). She later flunked out of same and went to Paris and that was that.

Contrast this charming tale of the 1890s with the artisanal home-canned pickle we are now in. Gertrude Stein took an exam when she absolutely had to, and sometimes not even then; that she could even attend Radcliffe was a mark of her privilege. Kids These Days, in contrast, are constantly subjected to high-stakes tests, consequential for them as individuals and for their school districts. Contrast Stein's story with the myriad gymnastics (figurative and, if literal, often Olympic-grade) students now go through to get into Harvard (7.9% admission rate) or into medical school anywhere (we all have our pre-med stories).

To refuse to take a standardized test is to practically refuse both present and future—even if the test doesn't really mean anything. By all accounts standardized testing is even more constant and more emphasized than it was when I was in high school (I was pre-NCLB), and even I remember how frequent the tests were, how arbitrary-seeming, and above all, how boring—the SSATs, the PSATs, the (and oh, did we laugh about it) Virginia Standards of Learning (SOLs).

Kyron Birdine's exceedingly mild rebellion and its consequences suggest, too, that if anything they are even more rigidly policed than they were in the 90s. I remember how each student was interpellated into the role of a potential cheater, a potential violator. Make sure you have the right kind of pencils, make sure you have extra, eyes on your own paper, also cover your paper in case someone else might look over because if someone else cheats off your paper you are then a cheater too. I don't know about cell phones; in Virginia in the 90s they were considered evidence of dealing drugs and banned from public schools.

But the testing is also as arbitrary as it is compulsory. From the Gawker article linked above:
As the Dallas Observer notes, Kyron are being forced to take both the new State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR) test and the old Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS) test, even though only the TAKS will count.

"He and any other Texas students who entered ninth grade before the 2011-12 school year are still evaluated on the TAKS test," the Observer explains. "They're still required to take the STAAR, but mainly so the state can get data they can use to tweak the test before it really matters."

"It wasn't for a grade," Kyron told WFAA's News 8. "Colleges don't see it. It didn't benefit my personal life at all."

Students in Birdine's year were, in other words, being used as a data source to help calibrate the new test. I know I had to do this too, on the SAT--I took an analytical reasoning section, but the scores didn't count for anything because it was new; they just collected the data and used it to calibrate the scoring. I'm sure that's a standard procedure now as in the 90s. It disturbs me a little, though, that it's never occurred to me before that standardized testing companies shouldn't get to waste students' time and collect their data for free—let alone compulsorily.

Kyron Birdine staged his mild protest with good humor, as his self-deprecating "#freeKyron" tweets indicate. And although in the grander scheme of things the punishment seems unjust, the four days of suspension probably won't have much impact on his life. Yet he seems aware of the power dynamic surrounding him, and the ease with which school conduces to criminalization.

"Some people are acting like I tweeted nuclear launch codes. I expressed my opinion on red lines. No more, no less," Birdine writes. He's right; it's not a crime.

A friend replies, with the brutal honesty for which we so prize teenagers, that Birdine's protest was used as a cautionary tale in a class called "MYF."


"'mapping your future you know... The fuck around class where we do nothing[.]"

Nothing could be as important for mapping your future as obediently taking whatever test is put in front of you, it's suggested. Follow the rules. Avoid criminalization.

Another friend responds by joking about the danger that Birdine poses to the Arlington school district:

Birdine jokes back, but the joke has an uneasy undertow. "don't say that. Haha. They might see that as a threat."


I often feel like that myself.


*It delights me to no end that Birdine not only uses an internet abbreviation but renders the smiley face on his paper as an emoticon, using punctuation, then tweets a photograph of the analog message. Somebody get this kid in a media theory class.

**As given in the original, what Stein wrote on that paper was "Dear Professor James,...I am so sorry but really I do not feel a bit like an examination paper in philosophy to-day."

Stein, Gertrude. The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. In Writings, 1903-1932: Q.E.D., Three Lives, Portraits and Other Short Works, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. Ed. Catharine R. Stimpson and Harriet Scott Chessman. New York: Library of America, 1998. Print. The Library of America 99.


Lindsey said...

it's not even that companies get to collect the data for free--in the case of the SATs, students PAY THE COMPANY ($50 plus a bunch of possible other fees) to have their data collected!

JaneHu said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Natalia said...

You're right, Lindsey! Now there's an industry that needs disrupting...