The first midterm I ever took was freshmen year at Princeton. It was Computer Science (COS). I’ll never forget it because I was supposed to write code that would perform a Tukey test, but at the end of the test my code wouldn’t even compile. In a ‘for’ loop, I had written ‘i = 0’ instead of ‘int i = 0.’ You see, when I think of human thinking, I picture Superman, able to fly across oceans in seconds. When I think of computer logic, I think it’s also capable of crossing oceans in seconds, but it needs clearly defined stepping stones, like ‘int.’
So I definitively failed* that exam because I couldn’t think like a computer**. I think even if my code had compiled I would’ve failed because a Tukey test is statistics and I am poop at statistics.
One girl in our class actually cried during the exam, but I had the wherewithal to wait until I saw my score in the privacy of my own dorm room.
It’s funny now because that score didn’t even matter. It didn’t jeopardize my chances of getting into the M.D./Ph.D. programs I didn’t even apply to because I realized I didn’t want to do that with my life. It didn’t jeopardize my chances of getting honors that I realized didn’t really matter for much except some words on a piece of paper. It had no affect*** but gave me a funny story to tell later – “it didn’t even compile! LOL!”
Maybe it gave me empathy? The reason I thought of this midterm experience is because the kids I teach just had midterms. Yes, that’s right. In Taiwan, even 1st graders have midterm exams****. This seems dumb to me but I guess it’s just preparing them for the future where all they do is TEST (Portal anyone?).
On Friday, after school had ended, I was walking to the teacher’s office and noticed a group of 3rd grade kids BAWLING while the Director spoke to them in Chinese. At first I thought it was a disciplinary thing: Oh boy, there are like 8 kids in there. There must’ve been a BRAWL! I asked one of the Mandarin section teachers for more info and he told me the kids were crying because they did badly on their midterms.
I was in shock. He went on to say: “they’re crying because they’re afraid what their parents will do.”
This was easy to sympathize with but harder to empathize with. I put the most pressure on myself throughout life, not my parents. Sure, my Mom would bring up Harvard Medical School quite often those first few years at Princeton, but who’s Mom wouldn’t? And when I called about the COS midterm, she was not angry, but supportive and constructive. “It’s okay.” “It’s just one test.” “You can still get a B, right?” “Maybe you should get a tutor?”
I went up to one of my students as she came out of the Crying Chamber. “Debbie, it’s OK. It’s just a number on a piece of paper.” (I’m not sure how well this concept, which requires an existential mindset, can be understood by an 8 year old.) Between crying hiccups, she responded: “My… dad… said he would… drive me to the mountains and leave… me… there.” I wanted to say he’s only joking!, but I had no way of being sure. So I said: “I think you’re a great girl Debbie and a test score doesn’t change that.”
In truth, I think Debbie’s kinda annoying. But 3rd graders do not deserve this! Life should not be hard for them yet. They don’t have to deal with taxes and periods and phone contracts. They should be enjoying their lives instead of going to school all day (literally. School is from 8am-5pm then a lot of kids go to cram school in the evening and don’t get home until 9/10pm.)
I wish I could tell them that it doesn’t matter. Like how I wish I could’ve told myself it didn’t matter when my program didn’t compile or when I got my first B in pre-calc. I wish I could tell them not to cry because this is easy and it will only get harder.
I wish I couldn’t just tell them but that I could MAKE THEM BELIEVE ME. Because that’s the problem. Older people tell you what to expect but you never believe them. It doesn’t matter what it is, you just expect your experience to differ. Or you can’t image anything being harder than what’s hardest for you now. This is the shortsightedness of the human brain.
I think they just need to figure it out for themselves. Maybe it’s a good thing they’re crying now. Maybe they’ll remember crying over their 3rd grade midterm and laugh when their child comes home crying with a B on his or her midterm. Maybe they won’t laugh, but hopefully at least they won’t drop them in the woods.
*Not the “failed” as in “I got a B.” I mean 30% failed.
**I redeemed myself second semester when I got a 92 (!) on my COS midterm. Never mind that the average was a 94… Also, it’s sad that I remember this stuff.
***Unless the universe in which I aced this midterm instead of failing is the universe where Mitt Romney was elected President in 2012, in which case, wait, no, actually things would still be pretty much the same. (BOOM. POLITICAL JOKE.)
****I don’t actually teach 1st grade. I’m grades 3-6. But it sounds more ridiculous to read about 1st graders with midterm exams.