“I hope you people have been paying attention to this. We’re going to have a test tomorrow. Be prepared for it!” Mr. Heston knew, before he said the words, that the reaction would be a collective groan and he was not disappointed. I think it was a little louder than even he had anticipated. It made no difference. The subject was torture for most of the students seated behind the tables spread horizontally across the room. Every student in the state of Texas had to have at least one semester of Civics and most of them were in this class only because they wanted to graduate. Not I.
I loved the class. The study of our government and political structure, along with the judicial system, was one of the few subjects that I really loved. The purpose for the class, of course, was to help us to understand where we as individuals fit into the whole puzzle. It was exciting to learn that the entire system depended on participation by each of us as citizens. It seems that we may have lost sight of that concept as the years have passed, but to this fresh young teenager, the realization of power was nothing short of inspirational. I was in! And, I was all ears, taking in the original concepts and the history, as well as the theory. I couldn’t get enough, taking copious notes daily as Mr. Heston, a short, compactly built man, looked at us over the top of his half-lens reading glasses to be sure that we were drinking deeply at the well of his knowledge. There weren’t many who did.
If the groans seemed loud as he announced the test, you should have heard them when he told us calmly the next day that the test consisted of one question. An essay question. “I don’t want to know if you studied the terminology in the text book; I want to know if you’ve been listening,” the quiet man explained. I read the question and set to work, writing line after line to elucidate the subject at hand. After a few moments, I realized that I was the only one still writing. A quick glance around told me that everyone else had written a sentence or two and then quit. I kept writing. This was good stuff! I understood this material and was in my element as I completed most of a full page in my messy handwriting in answer to the single question Mr. Heston had asked.
I was to hear the groans related to that test just one more time. The next week, as the short man walked around the classroom, depositing the papers in front of us with a flick of his wrist, the groans arose, this time just one by one, as each student saw the grade on his or her paper. I was almost embarrassed as I received my paper back in the same manner, but the teacher had a grin on his face as he flipped it in front of me. While most in the class had received a failing grade, the “A” marked across the top of my paper made me the odd man out. I didn’t care. The extra note scrawled across the bottom couple of lines was even better than the grade. “This is exactly what I’m looking for!” the man with the red pencil had written. It was a proud moment for me, even though I hid the note from prying eyes. I had few enough of these proud moments academically in high school and it felt good.
You remember your favorite type of test, don’t you? Multiple choice? Those were easiest, especially when the teacher used the exact wording from the textbook. Next came the true/false variety. Well, you had a fifty/fifty chance on those, so the odds of receiving a passing grade were still good. How about the fill-in-the-blank type? Not so easy, especially for someone like me, who sometimes has a hard time remembering the exact terminology. But last in the ranking for most? Most of my friends disliked, no…despised…the essay test. It was just them and the blank paper. The words had to come out of their brain, hopefully a brain that comprehended the subject. Frequently, they drew a blank and so, the essay was mostly white space. Teachers don’t like white space.
For me, the essay test is my top choice for any subject of which I have a basic grasp. Ideas can be formed with words, arguments tested, and conclusions drawn–all in front of the readers’ eyes and hopefully with the correct outcome. With the standardized tests, there was no room for discussion; you either knew the answer or you didn’t. My guess is that no one is surprised to learn that I found the test which required using more words to be desirable. Some things never change.
But, speaking of that, it seems to me that even the pattern of our lives is actually just one long essay test. Oh, I know that along the way, a true/false quiz creeps in momentarily. We need to know right from wrong and have an quick response. Sometimes we don’t know the answer and we guess and get the wrong one, paying the price for a period of time. Other times, we have a number of choices facing us and we decide which is appropriate, as the multiple choice tests in life come to pass. Again, the right answer can be elusive, but hopefully, we learn before the next of these comes along. And sometimes, we just look ahead and realize that we have to do something, to plan a course of action, and we fill-in-the-blank. But through it all, day in and day out, we live our lives, each moment writing some part of the essay. There is no stopping point, no juncture at which we lay down the pen and say, “I’m done.” From the day we arrive on this earth, until the day we stop breathing, we are writing. The progression of thought and action can be seen in one long, unbroken stream.
There are parts of this essay test upon which I would not want to be graded. They are there, none the less. It is of interest to understand that the very word “essay” is actually based upon a French word and originally meant: “A trial; an attempt.” And, isn’t that what all of life really is, after all? We try and fail, or we try and succeed; moving on to other trials, other attempts. All through life, we test, we push, we struggle. And in vying to do, to accomplish, we leave a record for others to heed, perhaps even to emulate. I’m not sure if my accomplishments warrant that yet. Eventually though, I hope that there is enough of the legible record which will be worth following. Like the Apostle, I’d like to be able to encourage others to “imitate me, as I imitate Christ.” I’m not there yet. The errant words still blot the lines, but I’m moving on. Every day is an essay, an attempt, to do better.
Maybe you’d like to be in my study group. I could sure use the help.
Then, what I’d really like, one day, is to turn in the completed essay to The Teacher and to be able to read at the bottom of it:
“This is exactly what I was looking for!”
“The master said, ‘Well done, my good and faithful servant. You have been faithful in handling this small amount, so now I will give you many more responsibilities. Let’s celebrate together!'”
“The difference between school and life? In school, you’re taught a lesson and then given a test. In life, you’re given a test that teaches you a lesson.”
(Tom Bodett~American humorist and author)
© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2012. All Rights Reserved.