Giving this crazy effed up CST test to my courageous students has put me in mind of this short story by one of my favorite authors. Enjoy:

The Spirit of America

By Vincent Precht

Boys and girls, please be seated and let me have your attention.  It is Thursday, April 6, 2011.

First I have a few announcements.

Number one.  We have a new student.  Hervé.  Hervé’s father is from Martinique.  Where is that, class?  It’s here, on this dusty globe.  As he cannot speak English, we must all learn French.

Number two.  As I have told you before, my mother is very ill.  I may have to leave you to be with her at any moment.

Number three.  The state exam is upon us and we must all study very hard.

We must study, children, because last year our school did very poorly.  The state has put us on “watch.”  What is a watch?  Does anyone know?  Perhaps our puppet friend, Trot Old Joe, can help us.  Here he is in his little box.  I’ll wake him up.

Trot Old Joe, wake up.  Wake up.

Morning, Ma’am.  Morning, children.

Trot Old Joe, you look mighty dirty.

Been riding the range.

Joe, do you know what a watch is?

Well, ma’am, ain’t that what you got there on your wrist?

No, Joe, it’s what they put the school on when its test scores get too low.

Like being grounded by your ma and pa?

Worse, Joe.  The state says that we must improve our test scores because if we don’t the state will take over our school.  And if the state takes over our school there will be no more field trips.

Like to UCLA?

Or the zoo, Joe, or any of the other nice places we’ve visited.

Or the Goodyear blimp?

Yes, even our planned trip to the Goodyear Airfield would have to be cancelled.  That is why it is incumbent, Joe, that we get a good night’s sleep the night before the test is administered.  That is why it is incumbent that we eat all of our breakfast in the cafeteria.


Un, deux, rios.  See?  Now, I know French.  Isn’t that good, Hervé?  I am taking a class at the community college.  I know how to say the numbers now and “How are you?” and “My name is Miss Dent.”  Hervé’s father is from Martinique.  He plays professional basketball.  The local team hopes to use him while their starting center recovers from an injury.  How is your father doing, Hervé?  Has he scored many points?  I’m sure he has, and that he’ll soon be making lots of money and taking you away from our little school.  How are you doing?  Ça va bien? Are the children being nice to you?  Is Francisco treating you well?

Un, deux, rios.  Children, why are you laughing?  Does French sound strange to you?  Do you think it’s funny for a grown-up to take a class?  You shouldn’t.  Many grown-ups take classes.  They want to better themselves.  Miss Dent is 46, children, and she is still learning.  46 is what the French call, discreetly, a certain age, not “middle-aged,” like we do here.  They would never dream of calling a woman in the middle of anything. That would not be prudent.  That would not be kind.  What if the woman had unhappy memories?  What if her father had left her in childhood, her husband in adulthood?  What if she’d lost her first and only child?  What if her mother were dying?  No, a woman doesn’t want to be in the middle of anything.

But I digress.  Je flote, as the French say.

It is April 20, 2011.  Have we all been studying hard for the test?  Good.  Learn your times tables well.  Have you brought your permission slips for the field trip to the Goodyear Airfield?  Karla, the class president, will collect them from you.

Let’s talk about blimps.  Let’s share what we know.  Did you know that a blimp has two parts, a car called a “gondola,” and a bag called an “envelope?”  Did you know the Pilgrim was Goodyear’s first commercial blimp?  Did you know that it was the first blimp to use helium and the first to have a gondola mated to the envelope instead of suspended from cables?

Miss Dent grew up in Carson where the Goodyear blimps are kept.  That is how she knows the little that she does.

Has anyone seen a blimp take off?  It is quite a spectacle.  The ground crew walks the blimp to the middle of the airfield, a field of grass, children, near the 405.  When they have the blimp where they want it, they use their bodies—human weight and muscle—to pull down on the sides of the car (because the car is mated to the polyester bag, when they pull on it, the skin of the bag looks like human skin pulled from the bone) and push up (for a split second, the car’s roof pushes into the bag, as if into the folds of a flabby belly, before the bag carries it up, up, and away.)  Suddenly the great motors rev up and a deafening snarl fills the misty air.  With the long tether lines dangling like great whiskers the beast mounts the sky.  The beast, the monster!  The benevolent monster moving with the sluggish patience of a bygone time.

Oh, you will marvel, children, how something so massive can take to the sky.


It is April 25, 2011.

Number one.  I apologize for missing the last three days of school.  My mother is very ill.  She lives all the way down in San Diego, class, but I had to be with her.  The substitute said you were all very well behaved.  Except Francisco.  She said that our class president, Karla, was very helpful.  Karla showed the substitute where Miss Dent keeps her pencils and paper, where the substitute should place her coat and go to the bathroom, how many steps there are to the cafeteria (103) and which meals to avoid.

Oh, but we must hurry.  Just look at the time.  Miss Dent would forget her head if it weren’t screwed onto her shoulders.  Look.  She’s even misplaced her pills.  Has anyone seen a little amber bottle?

We must talk about the state exam.  It is fast approaching, children.  It will be upon us very shortly.  It’s a test, a very important one.  But what exactly are tests?

A.  Tests tell us how well we all are doing.

B.  They don’t tell us anything at all.

C.  We must constantly take them.

D.  All of the above.

Of course, the answer is D.  Tests are many different conflicting things over which we have little control.  And they are thorns that can torment a teacher, especially if the scores of her students keep dropping year after year.

So remember your test-taking strategies.  Remember that you can make your own times tables on scratch paper, how you can use your fingers to multiply by nine.  Remember to read the questions first, and that the test questions on the reading section are sometimes in the same order as the answers in the story.  Remember to bubble in a bubble for each item, but to bubble in only one bubble per question.  Remember to work as fast as you can.  If you don’t know an answer, guess, guess, guess.


It is April 22, 2011.

First, class, we must be kind to Hervé all day.  His father has been put on the bench, and may have to stay there a very long time.  Nous sommes desolées, Hervé.  We are sorry.  Your father is such a strong man, but he lacks what the commentators call “touch.”  His instincts for the game are poor.

Second, Karla wants to know why the multiplication chart has been removed from the wall.  I have taken it down, Karla, because the state does not allow children to see anything on the wall that might help them during the exam.  That is why, children, we’ve practiced and practiced our times tables all year.  So we will remember them.  I know that some of us probably can’t remember them, but that’s what the test people demand.  Even children with memory problems must remember their times tables.  Even our second language learners must know their sounds (you’ll notice I’ve removed our letter cards too).  I have spoken to our principal about the injustice of this on countless occasions, but he is too busy to listen.  He is too busy with his fundraisers.  Doing ridiculous things for money.  Getting dunked into tanks of water.  Sitting on the roof of the school.

Karla also wants to know about my mother.  I cannot tell you, Karla.  A teacher’s personal life must never be shared with her students.

Which brings us to blimps.  Are we all excited about the trip?  We must not be, because several of you children have forgotten to bring back your permission slips.

Has Miss Dent told you she grew up just blocks away from the Goodyear Airfield?

Her father was a minister at the Carson Baptist Church.  She used to have a naughty brother.  He would try to hit the Goodyear blimp with golf balls from the course near the airfield.  He would do it for fun, boys and girls.  Can you imagine if one of the balls had hit the blimp?  It might have ruptured the skin.  The blimp might have crashed.

“You’ll kill them,” I used to tell him.

“Aw, I don’t care,” was his reply.

At our school Christmas Pageant, he played one of the innkeepers who turned away the Holy Family.

He relished his role.

“Be gone,” he would bellow with joy, pushing Mary and Joseph so hard they went sprawling to the floor.

What became of him?  He became a fireman.  He died in a fire.  His comrades claim his last words were directed to the flames that leapt out around him.  “Be gone.  Be gone.”


Class, I am sorry for missing the last week of school.  Here we are, already in the middle of May.  We must get ready.  We must get ready.

Remember that on the math test there is a simple way to do division.  The exam is multiple-choice.  For each division problem there are five possible answers.  Some of these answers will be plainly incorrect.  Don’t choose one of the plainly incorrect ones.  Look at the answers that are remaining after you have eliminated the answers that cannot work.  Then multiply the answers with the divisor until you find the right choice.

Is this cheating?  No, it is a test-taking strategy.  Miss Dent would never dream of teaching her students to cheat.  She won’t even discuss what some naughty children do.  That they use cheat-sheets to help them.  Times tables, for example, or fraction equivalency charts.  That they place cheat-sheets in their baseball caps or their front pockets or print them on the back of labels affixed to water bottles, like the ones I give you when the weather is hot.  No, Miss Dent will not tolerate cheating of any kind.  She’s a simple woman with traditional values.

Before we start, Karla, the Inquisitor, has a question.  She wonders when I’m absent, way down in San Diego, helping my mother, how I can still be seen shopping at the local Ralphs.  I answer Karla that she probably saw someone else, my dopplegänger perhaps, my evil twin.  I was with my mother.  She is very ill.

My mother is a very strange woman, Karla.  As a little girl she was very smart, a good writer like you.  She would have done great things as a woman.  But something happened that she never expected: she became my mother.  She was an unhappy woman.  She took pills for her unhappiness, but there was more to her unhappiness than a pill could cure.  (Francisco can vouch for that.  Do your pills erase your terrible home life?  No, they do not.)  She became angrier and more secluded.  She said unkind things to me.  How did I react?  Being a child I behaved as a child.  I believed that a mother should love her children in a certain way.  In a warm way.  But for some people love is a cold thing, like a piece of ice held in the hand.  It makes the fingers ache, the joints stiffen.  I didn’t realize this until I started to love exactly the same way.

Mais je flote.  Je flote. Have I told you children too much already?  I believe I have.

A dopplegänger, Karla.  You saw my double.

Has anyone seen my pills?


Class, we must do something for the school.  Trot Old Joe will help me explain.

Howdy, ma’am.

Howdy, Joe.  I have a favor to ask of you.

I’d be happy to oblige, ma’am.  How can I help you?

Joe, during the state exam, I want you to answer any of the questions the children ask.  It’s a secret we must keep to ourselves, children.  Trot Old Joe will help you with the answers.  But if we hear the principal turning the key of our door, Trot Old Joe will gallop away.

Ain’t that cheating, Ma’am?

Why, yes, Joe, as we know the word.  But we know the word inaccurately.  Let us turn to our dictionary.  The word cheat comes from the French word escheat, which comes from the French verb eschoir.  Eschoir means “to fall to.”  If the answers to the test fall to us, there is nothing wrong with taking and using them, especially if they fall from the teacher.

Or the teacher’s puppet.

Correct, Joe.

But I’ve almost forgotten.  Hervé has good news.  Hervé’s father has started playing much better basketball.  He’s getting more time on the floor now.  He has finally found his shot.

And my mother is getting much better.  She thanks you for your cards.


Class, I have some sad news.  I must leave you.  I must leave you now, before the exam, with which, malheureusement, Trot Old Joe can no longer help you.

Why must I go?  I must go, Karla, because I’m the one who is very ill, not my mother who died ten years ago.  And not with cancer, like my mother.  But with her other ailment, one that was hereditary and passed down to me.  The principal from his perch atop the school thinks me unfit to teach.  Listen to my words: a man who sits on the school roof claims that I am crazy.

Well, maybe I am.  Maybe not.  But I must leave you.

I’m sure you’ll all do well, anyway.

Juana and Jose will do well with their wonderful English.

Josue will control his temper and stay in his chair.

Kelly will refrain from drawing flowers on her test booklet.

Danny will arrive at school on time.

And I’m sure Francisco will keep things in his brain.  That the short circuit that makes him flash and flicker will disappear, like a light bulb that gets tightened in its socket.

I’m sure you’ll all do well.  Some of you will become doctors and lawyers.  Not many of you, but some.  Who will be a lawyer?  Look at one another closely in the eyes.  Will it be you?  You?  You?

Unfortunately I must leave you before you go to the Goodyear Airfield (though the principal promises me that your next teacher will take you there). When you go, this is what I want you to look for: the shear immensity of the blimp, that despite its immensity, how easily the ground crew can move it around.  And look how the men launch it.  How easily they pull it down and push it away.

The test is tomorrow.  Do your best.

And remember to drink plenty of water.  I have left a case of it in the cloakroom.  Clear fresh water in see-through bottles.  Make sure to look at them closely before you begin.


Photo by: soozums











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