Monday, April 16, 2012

The Long Shadow of Harsh Words

One day when I was in junior high, my entire grade was herded into the school cafeteria to take a Kuder assessment. We had no idea what the assessment was all about until later. (Or maybe I was just doing a lousy job of paying attention, which would have been par for the course.) The goal was to provide some guidance as to of what kind of vocations would best suit us.

They made a big deal of explaining how the assessment process was to work. In fact, they spent so much time on the explanation that everyone that was not a schoolwork zealot was dreaming long before it was done. Some of us were just daydreaming, while others had their slumbering faces plastered to the cafeteria tables, which provided fine surfaces for collecting pools of drool.

Finally the big moment arrived when they passed out the test packets. No matter how many times they told us it wasn't a test, it sure looked like one. Moreover, the teachers and administrators treated it like the most serious test we had ever taken to that point in our educational careers.

The packet was sealed and came with an intriguing metal pin. One end was fashioned into a ring, into which we were to put our dominant index finger. The other end was blunt rather than sharp. We were told that we were to jealously guard our pins and that no one would be allowed to leave the cafeteria at the end of the event without first turning in their pin.

The 'test' was unlike any other exam I had ever taken. Instead of writing, we used our pins to punch through the desired answers. The assessment was timed. I remember feeling like I was under a lot of pressure.

They finally instructed us to open our packets and begin. No one talked. All you could hear was the rustling of papers, the sound of pins being punched through answer sheets, and the standard white noise that results from more than 200 bodies going through normal examination motions.

The assessment was broken into segments. I remember seeing some kids put down their pins and sit up when I still had lots of questions left to answer during the first segment. I tried to answer the questions to the best of my ability. Even all these years later, I remember some questions being about objective factual things, and others soliciting subjective opinions. The longer the exam lasted, the more it seemed as if some questions were tediously repeated or nearly repeated.

Finally the exam was finished. Teachers came around and collected our pins, much to the chagrin of at least some of the boys. Each of us was issued a pencil. We were then instructed to turn to the rear of the packet, something that had been prohibited up to that point.

What we saw was a grid layout that had various symbols. Holes made by our pins had been punched all over through the grid. Some of the holes went through some of the symbols. We were instructed to count how many of a particular symbol had holes and to then record that number in a special square at the top of the sheet.

One of the history teachers then asked anyone that had a score of 15 or higher to stand up. A handful of students stood with beaming smiles on their faces. I remember feeling badly because I had achieved a score of only nine. As I looked around, however, it seemed like the ones standing were not among the most astute students in our grade.

"Congratulations," said the history teacher, "those of you that are standing have managed to invalidate the results of your assessment by contradicting yourselves more than 14 times." He then added, "That means that you lied. You can turn in your packets over here and return to your seats."

I immediately felt awful inside for the students that had scored 15 or higher. For one thing, I knew that I had done my best on the assessment and had still, by their definition contradicted myself nine times. How simple it would have been to achieve at least six more supposed discrepancies.

I also felt chagrined because I immediately recognized that the history teacher's snarky display was wholly inappropriate. This teacher was fairly popular with many of the students, but his abusive approach to this situation severely reduced my opinion of him. I'll admit that I felt justice had been served when I heard a couple of years later that he had been permanently excused from the teaching profession for some type of undisclosed indiscretion that nobody would talk about in public.

Looking back from my current perspective, I suppose this man had already had a stressful day. He was partially responsible for correctly administering the assessment and it likely chagrined him tremendously when he saw students that he felt had not taken the matter seriously. We're all human. But his harsh treatment of those students was still unacceptable.

We had to tally up a few other things from the rear of our assessment packets before turning them in and returning to class. We received the results some weeks later. They took us by small groups into various rooms and talked with us about our future career options. All I remember about the list of potential vocations for those in my room is that it included the position of personnel (human resources) manager.

We were asked to select our top three desired careers from the list. They gave us a handout for each of these that described the kind of steps that we would have to follow to qualify for each profession. I recall being more intrigued by the slick, colored glossy printouts than by anything that was written on them.

I also remember that a couple of years later in high school, they brought us together in small groups and resurrected our old Kuder assessments, which by then were a distant memory; ancient history. I can remember thinking that this was ridiculous, because I had (I thought) become a very different person with different interests in the intervening time. I couldn't take the matter seriously.

I have worked at many different kinds of jobs during my lifetime, but I never did end up working in human resources. I didn't follow any of the plans laid out for me back in junior high. I found that real life offered many different intersections that led other ways to options of which I had been totally unaware as a young teen. Moreover, vocations popped up that the assessment designers had never dreamed of.

In short, I'm not sure that I got anything of much use out of the assessment, which must have cost the school district a pretty penny. The strongest thing I garnered from the experience was a visceral distaste for the history teacher condescendingly insulting students he had been hired to nurture. Although I was not among those directly mistreated, the revulsion of that moment is still sharply etched in my mental and emotional memory.

I wonder how many times in my adult life I have given others a similar reason to detest my behavior.

1 comment:

Bradley Ross said...

I remember taking a similar test, though I think it was based on the ASVAB test. I recall being told I should consider being a truck driver or a preacher. Neither of those panned out for me either.

The long shadow is also interesting. I suppose it serves a valuable function for us to remind us that we must never treat young ones like that. They remember!