It’s Hard to Read on the Assembly Line

Every day when I taught in a high school, the front parking lot was full of long, yellow buses. The kids streamed out of the vehicles, talking, sharing jokes, and laughing as all of us squeezed through the open front doors. And I can remember thinking that the beginning of the school day had a lot in common with the shift change at a factory.  Everyone is on  a schedule. Bells signal the beginnings and ends of sessions. The timeline must be obeyed no matter what else is going.  And most of all, everyone needs to comply and do their work if they want to get a promotion….or in the case of high school students, if they want to graduate.

School buses
School buses

At the school where I worked, the graduation test was given four times per school year and once in the summer. I never could find a dollar cost in the budget, but I imagine all of that testing took a huge chunk out of our funding stream. But most of all, there was pressure to get everyone to pass the state graduation tests. One year my principal “offered” prom tickets to seniors if they would agree to take the test for the second time, even when they had previously passed. “Maybe the students can boost their scores so we’ll have better numbers,” she told us.

But saddest of all were the students who still struggled with reading and were denied  help for longer than one year. Instead, because many of them had a special education diagnosis, we could give them an accommodation–which means that we could read the test to them and hope that they would pass.  The goal–of the school system administrators, the principals, and some of the teachers– was simply to get kids to pass the test–there was no looking ahead to the students’ futures. That situation would be someone else’s problem.  But in the 21st century, with so much knowledge about how to teach people to read, I felt that we were doing our students a great disservice to graduate them when they were barely literate.

And when I think about many of the students who were in my high school English and reading classes, I wonder what they are doing and if they still need accommodations.

The poem below is part of my latest collection, No Barking in the Hallways: Poems From the Classroom and was also published in ArLiJo last year.

The Autoworker on the Radio Explains How the Factory Works

You never stopped the line,
no matter what mistakes you saw.
We worked a lot of overtime fixing mistakes
but we never stopped the line.
 “This American Life,” 2010

And I feel the same way about Ben,
my student determined to graduate from high school
still reading reading at the third- or fourth-grade level.

The administrators say,
Ben needs credits to graduate,
reading class doesn’t count
if kids take it more than once.

So administrators find ways
for teachers to push him along,
like the auto factory grinding out
a Ford Focus with Fiesta doors
held on by Explorer bolts.

Nothing fits, and you can’t drive the car,
but we don’t stop the line
for Ben who understands a lot about history
but he can’t read well enough to take the test.

So we give him an accommodation—special help—
and someone reads him the test,
which worked well when he was seven
but seems foolish when he’s 17—
and hoping to get a job, hoping to graduate.
So I ask, Will someone read to Ben at work?

The answer echoes back We can’t stop the line.
But when you peek under the hood—
like the car with the wrong bolts
Ben will need repairs.