Antonio and Annie, meet Alfie

Welcoming students as they enter the classroom is a great joy of teaching. So many present and past colleagues and I enjoy this ritual. The welcome is a small, sacred beginning to the daily process of learning.

To my way of thinking, light humor and warmth prevail; to my students’ ways of perceiving, the humor persists, maybe. As they enter, playful, curious, or reflective forms of “How is your day?” re-connect us since our last meeting, helping me to gather each student’s cognitivesocial, and emotional readiness for the day. Once in a while, a student will ask me. Such is adolescence.

One Monday a few years ago, Antonio rushed down the hallway, giving me a huge hug.

“Mr. McRaith, I’m dating a former student of yours! She says to give you a big hug.”

Antonio is tall, relaxed, and cat-smart. But, not the hugging type. In the classroom dynamic, his intelligence listens with patience and a hint of stealth, ready to stake large positions, like how Toni Morrison’s great ghost, Beloved, could possibly incarnate a history of middle passage Africans. Or, like Shakespeare’s Lear, the ways in which a father’s suspicion and rage are easier than unfettered love. Often, Antonio’s thoughts evoke from his peers fierce questions and responses, something they, and I, love about him. His intelligence catalyzes a classroom around all the right stuff, even while he is able to maintain his swag, his “too cool for school.” Antonio has a sophisticated understanding of himself in this world.

Our college prep high school sits in the heart of one of Chicago’s toughest and poorest neighborhoods. Antonio, his classmates, and I have an AP English Language class together. Our school’s standardized test scores, society tells us, are too low; confounding those who place all their stock in that, our graduates’ on-track-to-graduate-from-college rate is among the highest in a city of more than one hundred high schools.

Unless destructive evidence demands otherwise, a student’s romantic life is for him or her, not for me or the school. But, his enthusiasm to tell me and, frankly, my own curiosity compel me. “Really, Antonio…who?”

“Annie Gibbard.” He smiles a quick, deep smile. He knows I am surprised.*

“We met a month ago through Mikva Challenge and just hit it off. Last weekend two busloads of us went to Indiana to register voters. We talked the whole ride, nonstop. Annie is the best. I don’t know what it is, but we really ‘get’ each other.” As he walks into the room, no reminder to tuck in his school-logoed Oxford shirt or adjust his tie is necessary.

Annie and Antonio are both seniors in high school. Annie is white and Antonio is black. Three years earlier Annie had been a marvelously quick-witted freshman in an honors English class at my previous school, half of our city away and consistently the number one testing high school in the state of Illinois.

Annie represents one of the many reasons I loved my seven years at the school: bright, engaging students whose creativity around the challenges of learning sprung from irrepressible spirits. Having tested exceptionally well enough to gain access into the school, this school’s students were phenomenal by most any measure, certainly by any I value.

In 1999 Chicago opened this $55 million educational investment**, a selective enrollment high school***, to be the flagship of the nine in the city. To my way of thinking, like the investment in Chicago’s eight other selective enrollment high schools, that was and remains a great investment, a rich return reaped every year as the school’s graduates disperse into the wider realms of our society.

The architecture of this school truly inspires. Generous sunlight pours through floor to ceiling windows in the bi-level library, lunchroom, atria, and hallways – as well as in lots of classrooms. Technology quietly regulates the temperature and humidity in each room. The theater boasts the size and production quality of a small college’s. The well apportioned gym and pool ensure that the physical development of the learner will not lag behind the cognitive and social/emotional. Throughout, polished terrazzo floors reflect the solid promise upon which society builds the future of these young people.

The elementary school building in which Antonio has hugged me exudes lots of century-old character, like wainscoting painted a school color red and classrooms with high ceilings and beautiful built-in bookcases. To me, the building is quaint: when I first arrived almost six years ago, I would smile at having to reach down to the knee-level chalk tray; the students had no context for my hip-level expectation. If one either doesn’t understand or — worse yet — accepts how our society privileges the learning environments of those who test higher, how can one understand the seemingly trivial irony of chalk tray differences? The students at Antonio’s and my school did have context for a few things, though: they understood that we had a tiny, elementary school gym with no bleachers and no library or pool, that our roof often leaked, and that a century-old heating system could make some science classrooms so hot that the students seemed like the experiment. And, the mice, well, lets just say we use lots of steel wool to plug holes in classrooms.

Surely, in a bus ride to increase voter turnout that happened to spark a romance, Antonio and Annie did not discuss Alfie Kohn’s “Standardized Testing and Its Victims” (2000), which was incisive when published and has proven remarkably prescient. Had they met Alfie, I imagine he would tell them that all Antonios and Annies deserve school buildings like Annie’s, not buildings within the same school district, much less the country, whose vast resource disparities are based on something as skewed as standardized testing. In Chicago and across the nation, lots of other things help cause this resource disparity, but maybe not anything quite so deviously as the power to misappropriate human value our society gives standardize test results.

Had they asked why America had arrived at a point where the bright Antonio and bright Annie would attend such differently resourced schools, Alfie might have told them that “the focus among policymakers has been on standards of outcome rather than standards of opportunity.”

On the romantic bus ride that is the America ideal, where “all men [and women] are created equal” — not to be altered later by standardized test scores, America must demand greater accountability in the relationship between its politicians and their educational positions. Our politicians must come to understand that true educational accountability will require two things: (1) schools whose success is based and measured on forest-creates-context-for-the-leaves education (i.e., critical and creative thinking creates context for the discrete skills) and (2) that all schools be funded equitably, not based on such skewed things as the results of leaf-based testing.

* The alliterative names of the two students, Antonio and Annie, are inauthentic.

** $55M includes the original 1999 building and subsequent improvements to the building, grounds, and parking.

*** Two of the author’s children attend a selective enrollment school.