General Mills

More Than Just Soggy Cheerios

Jonathan Lee


“Here they come!Here they come!”With the first sight of the NYSPSC ‘STOP High-Stakes Testing’ banner, the hoard of media wildly rushed around, grabbing cameras and tripods, pencils and steno-pads.The march was here. 

Sitting beneath the graphically-graffitied red-crotched (yet green bodied) statue in front of the New York Capitol Building, I bore witness to the irony of ironies.Fifteen minutes prior to the main event, a tour group of middle school-aged students walked down the steps of the building.As they lined up before me, I overheard their tour guide lathering their brains with facts about the cost of the capitol building, the date of its completion, the name of the top state officers who played key roles in the development of New York’s (apparently) ‘illustrious’ history.How funny.This type of statistic-oriented learning was precisely what was about to be protested (in the very same locale).The kids were poking each other, pointing at the news ‘celebrities’ in attendance.History - learning - was at the back of their minds.It was not funny, but I had to laugh. 

As the group of 1500 moved down the right-hand side of the building, another thought entered my mind. A few years back, SUNY-Binghamton played host to the SUNY Board of Trustees.The rumors flied.We all heard about the boardmember who was receiving six-figures from SUNY, but who also was VP of Fleet Bank (another hefty paycheck) - a major conflict-of-interest blunder.True or not true, and needless to say, protest ensued.Students marched on the University President’s office verandah, they marched on the ‘peace quad’, they marched on the vast concrete ocean separating the library from the rest of campus.And, for the most part, the protest was thoughtless.By this, I do not mean rude or insensitive.What I mean is, simply, ‘without thought’.Many of the students did not know what they were protesting;they did not understand the meanings of ‘privatization’ or ‘corporatization’, nor did they have a clear notion of how the conflation of the two creates an entirely different monster.They wanted, simply, to protest.My favorite sign said it all:‘Trustees Suck!’.Come on!Trustees don’t suck - it is what these particular trustees stand for that sucks.Thoughtless

The NYSPSC March on Albany was radically different (pardon the pun).As the students, teachers, and parents filled in, we were bombarded with tens of smart and thought-full placards and call-and-response patterns.‘Hey hey, ho ho, high-stakes tests have got to go!’‘They are trying to destroy our schools, turn us into testing fools!’‘High-stakes tests are anti-enlightenment!’‘Teach Fascism in schools, but not by example!’It was quite impressive.

As the main event unfolded, the mass was treated to a mix of parents, teachers, politicians, national icons, and - most importantly - students.More precisely, three of the most articulate and poised high school students I have ever seen.On the steps of this national landmark, and in front of hundreds, these students, these products of positive alternatives, these examples of educational promise and system potential, spoke clearly and directly.Yes, we know that they were there to protest the tests.But, rather than focusing on that, these students called for higher standards and more work.They pleaded to be prodded by the system to the fullest of their abilities, and demanded to have their brains worked to the bone.They wanted a system where they had to justify their work and defend their actions, not one where they simply filled in a bubble sheet and started summer vacation.They wanted to learn about the community.They wanted to learn about learning, and they were not taking no for an answer. 

As Assemblyman Richard Brodsky said, “this is a grassroots movement against a mindset”.His mindset, included.For, just after he made that statement, he told the crowd that he was a ‘child of the sixties’, and it felt great to be back!I say, no no no!We are not back.Yes, this is a grassroots protest, but it is much more than that.In the sixties, borders were clear and boundaries were set in stone.But this protest is one of all colors and pay-scales and levels of materialism.The freedom we seek is not one defined by any physical or legal jurisdiction (at least not like forty years ago).This freedom is mental and without demarcation.I tutor a high school student from Africa, who is having trouble with the English Regents.It is not because of a language barrier or a nationalistic divide.Plainly, the tests in Africa allowed the students to explore all potential options and interests before writing their exam.But here, students are stifled and pre-destined.Or, as she put it, they have no freedom.Ironic, no? 

What is clear is that the army, led by General Dick Mills, needs to be stifled, itself.Referring to the title of this text, General Mills needs to stop creating its easily-soggified academic zeros (Cheerios of sorts).Seeing these students and hearing their words and thoughts, this fight and its justification is very much a caricature of the pro-test contingent:a no brainer.

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