It's 8am on a picture-perfect May morning, and I'm standing outside my oldest son's elementary school. In just a minute I will throw myself into the deep dark abyss known as EOG proctoring - that's End of Grade Exams, if you didn't know. It's a staple at every North Carolina school for third grade and up; the standardized test to end all standardized tests and supposedly determine a student's academic worth and whether they are suited to progress to the next grade.
EOG's are very much like a collective consumption of the worst kind of cough medicine, except instead of the few seconds of a quick gulp it's more like an intravenious administration; a slow drip-drip dragged out over 3-4 hours over multiple days. No one likes these things - not the students, not their parents, not the teachers, not the administrators. About the only fans of EOGs I can fathom are paper manufacturers and whatever company produces those number two pencils. Maybe if they called them OWL's and had the principal dress up like Dumbledore it'd be a little more interesting. A little.
This is my second year of proctoring. I take some pride in knowing that I'm important enough to be required by the state. The list of what we can do is far eclipsed by the list of what we can't. We can't eat or drink, read a book, chew gum, play on our cell phone, talk to the kids, touch the test materials, leave to go to the bathroom, leave before the last test is done. On the "can" side, we're allowed to breath oxygen and stand or sit, so we've got that going for us.
It's a long three to four hours.
So why do I do it? It's a question I thought about at length today during my final EOG shift (add "thinking to yourself" to the "can do" list). Here's what I came up with:
Someone has to do it. There aren't many folks eager to give up an entire morning to do this sort of thing for free. So the school administrator commissioned with finding proctors are always very grateful when you say yes. I admit, it gives you a good warming feeling to make someone so visibly happy that they smile ear-to-ear, yelp with glee and put aside common decorum to give you a full-body hug. I try to remember that smile, yelp and hug about two hours into the affair.
It's a show of solidarity. They didn't have EOGs when I was in grade school, and it's a darn good thing or I may still be there. The standardized tests we had (CAT tests, anyone?) were more about assessing smarts and less about determining grade placement. So much emphasis is put on these tests - not just for the student's advancement, but for the teacher's professional success and the school's reputation. I've always felt that these standardized tests measure how well one tests rather than how smart one is. But it's what we've got; and if my kid and their school are having to go through this, the least I can do is go through it with them.
It's ministry, just different. Don't worry, I'm not proseltyzing. I can't talk, remember? Besides, that's not my style anyway. No, here's the thing: these kids are nervous. The teachers are nervous. They put on a brave face and they decorate the hallways and stuff, but you can feel it when you walk in the front door. I'm not doing ministry in the traditional sense of the word. But in my head I'm holding these kids and their teachers up in the light; and if my presence can be any kind of calming influence, then I feel like I've fulfilled my calling.
But the main reason I proctor EOGs is a pretty selfish one: I can't do a freakin' thing. The rules are clear from the minute the teacher begins her scripted speech until the last test is taken up. During that time, the outside world does not exist. I have no choice but to focus on those eighteen kids and one teacher, in that time, in that space. I can't email folks, plan a sermon, read my latest study book. catch up on the news. My entire world is in that classroom.
And I need this, I really do. Time and space are fluid entities for folks like me who tend to multitask not in two dimensions but three. My goal in any moment of a day is to determine how I can wring the most out of it; how much I can accomplish and cross off the perpetual "TO DO" list. Proctoring EOGs, though, prohibits me from doing that, forcing me to live in the moment and only in the moment. To "be present" in a very basic and essential way.
I'm not going to lie to you - there are only so many ways one can stroll around a room, maneuvering between desks and making sure the students are staying on track. There are only so many times you can read the feel-good positive posters and slogans plastered on the classroom walls (my favorite: the one designed like a road sign that said, U-Turn in your Homework, U get better grades). There comes a point where you're almost uncomfortable in your own skin, and you'd give anything to see that warm sun and blue sky or check the email inbox you know is filling up by the second.
But if you relent and allow yourself, you just might wind up in this Zen-like state where time slows down. Or maybe it doesn't slow down, you're just not as aware of it anymore. You're not thinking about your coffee meeting later that afternoon or the bottomless email inbox or the unwritten sermon. You're just there, in that room, with those kids and their teacher. And it's sacred ground, because it's where all of you are, right then and right there. You're living in the moment, and turns out it's a beautiful place to be.
That's why I proctor EOGs. Well, that and the snacks in the teacher's lounge before and after. Someone made a killer cheese dip this year. Delish.