The Kid Across the Hall
The Fight for Opportunity in Our Schools
Reid Saaris



“OK,” said Walter Thompson, once most of the social studies teachers had taken a student desk chair. Walter sat to the side, with one thigh on his teacher’s desk, and one tasseled brown leather slipper on the floor.

“A few things we need to check off today.”

Oh boy, I thought. Departmental priorities, from our chair! A chance to talk with the whole team about the education stuff.

“Attendance, end-of-course exams, and referrals. Now, let’s run through these so we can get the hell out of here. But first, raise your hand if you’ve already picked up the set of textbooks for each of your classes from Mrs. Grunt.”

About half the hands went up.

After Fry and I had combed through the textbooks and developed our essential questions and caches of primary sources, we’d decided not to check out any textbook sets for the students.

“That’s what I thought,” said Walter. “We need better access to these books. It’s been hard to get the secretary up to the storage room on demand to get these things distributed. And we can’t start Monday without them. So raise your hands if you still need at least one class set.”

A few hands went up.

“Reid!” he said. “You didn’t raise your hand for either one.”

“I . . . don’t need them,” I said.

“You have a set for each class?”

“No, but that’s OK. Fry and I are working together on other readings.”

“OK, both of you need to get a textbook for each of your students. That’s what transfers the responsibility to them.”

I felt the urge to argue, but figured I’d better not. I could check out the books and keep them in the cabinet in my classroom so that the kids could access and analyze them alongside our other sources.

He pushed his reading glasses up on his nose, marked his paper, clicked his pen, and put it into his pocket. “There are a few other things here,” he said. “I’ve been asked to review the new attendance policies with you again. Then I’ll report back that you have all been fully briefed, and the responsibility’s yours from there.” He pulled some handouts from his clipboard and gave each teacher a small stack.

We’d already spent most of yesterday’s all-staff meeting in the auditorium talking about what was in these handouts, and Walter was repeating it. Frustrated, I doodled math in the margins. They were asking us to take four different types of attendance for each class.

“After you enter it into your gradebook, you should fill out the attendance worksheet, which will be picked up by a hall monitor each period, along with the diversity count form . . .”

I figured maybe a minute for each of the four different types of attendance. And students attended seven classes a day.

Someone asked if just entering the information in the online gradebook during class time would be sufficient.

A hundred and eighty days of school in the year . . .

“No, your hard-copy gradebook”—he patted his on its dense, textured brown cover—“is the legal record. You should start there and work your way through.”

They’re talking more than eighty hours of lost timenearly three weeks of classes, just gone! That can’t be what we should do.

“OK—next item on the ol’ docket here,” Walter said as he scratched the dark, curly hairs coming out above his third shirt button. He bounced the receded tip of his pen off his clipboard. “End-of-course exams. Those are laid out behind me,” he said, pointing back with his thumb. “So come and get what you need there.”

I looked around the room as we waited in line. There were ten of us, all white. What the students of Battery Creek—two-thirds of whom were Black—would learn in high school classes about all that had happened in human history, it ran through us.

Over the door hung a huge clock, which Walter pointed to once we were back in our seats. Then he tapped his wristwatch too. “Let’s get through this so we can get outta here, huh, folks?”

Murmurs assented while papers shuffled.

“Now, these are last year’s exams, and they are subject to change this year if agreed to by the teachers responsible for each course.”

For all the debate about whether testing kids was good or bad, my view was that bad tests were bad and good tests were good. A bad test will distract from the things that matter, and mislead teachers, students, and parents about how we’re doing.

And for history, what I had in my hands now was definitely a bad test that couldn’t help me check our progress on meaningful learning. It was asking kids really low-level stuff, like what date something had happened, or what a vocabulary word meant, or the name of an event. So when a few hands went up around the room, I was relieved that others, too, seemed to have concerns about the test.

“What percent do they need to get right to pass the end-of-course exam?”

“Sixty percent,” said Walter. “Yes, Mr. Kimball?”

“Last year, the Scantrons got backed up and it took forever to get these things all auto-graded on the last day of school. Any chance we can get some more Scantrons this year?”

“Thinking about next summer already?” said Walter, chuckling. “I don’t know if we can get more Scantrons, but you’re welcome to come in and use mine here. It only takes me about ten minutes to run the answer sheets through and get all my kids’ final tests graded, so I’m happy to share—just within the department, of course.”

“Wonderful. Thank you for that,” said Mr. Kimball.

“Mr. Cutter?”

“All set. Everything’s good. That answered my question too.”

Everything’s good? I looked over at Fry. He was squinting at something on the back of one of the packets, and I couldn’t catch his attention, so I decided to jump in on my own. Our jobs were to bring these subjects to life, and explore the most important questions, so I tried to ask such a question after Walter saw that there was no one else he could call on.

“Mr. Saaris,” he sighed, pulling his floor-leg up onto the teacher’s desk.

“What was the Civil War fought over?” I asked.

“I’m sorry?”

In my teacher trainings over the years, I’d had more than enough of the idea that a bubble-in test is the greatest measure of a teacher’s success.

“This question, number 31 on the test? ‘What was the Civil War fought over?’” I asked again.

He grabbed a test and flipped it over. “Oh, OK. The answer keys. Yes! So those are on the back of the tests.”

Fry raised his hand slowly and, when called on, offered, “I was just actually looking at the answer to that Civil War question myself. And I have the answer key, but it still doesn’t make sense to me.”

“Let me see here,” said Walter.

“The test provides four options, but I don’t think you’ll find the answer in that key,” I said. “What would you say the Civil War was fought over?”

He wasn’t about to. He shook the paper flat and looked down at it through his glasses. “This could be an answer to that question,” he said.

“Sure, it could,” I said. “And there are so many others—so many more possibilities, so much to discuss about a question like that. Different ways it’s been answered at different times, by different people, for different purposes.”

“Well, maybe you should form a book club or something to talk about it,” said Walter.

Isn’t this the social studies department meeting? I thought. I just want—sometime during this week of training and preparation—to discuss social studies!

“What about this question?” asked Fry. “‘Where is the US-Mexican border?’ with options of four different geographic features to choose from.”

“Take it up with an atlas,” replied Walter, reddening. “It looks correct to me.”

Building on Fry’s question, and remembering advice that Dolliver had given me when he’d helped me prepare, I asked: “Shouldn’t we be talking with students about why a border is where it is?”

“I don’t know. Maybe?” said Walter, twisting his mouth up toward one of his nostrils. “For now, we’ve got one last agenda item between us and the end of the day here, and I, for one, don’t want to be holding back the whole group to nitpick a couple end-of-course questions.”

“I mean, let’s make this about more than the test,” I said. “What do we want to teach our students? What do we think they should learn and be able to do by the end of a year working together?”

Walter was quiet for a moment. Then, “The questions match with the textbook, and they’ve been tried by the teachers here who actually know our students and what they can do. OK, we’ve got to let other people in here too, Mr. Saaris.” He squeegeed both hands back the full length of his head, as if drying off from a swim. “I’m going to give us two choices here. Who wants to stick to our agenda and get this last required item done so we can go home?”

Except for Fry and I and one other teacher, all the hands went up.

“OK, the majority has it!” said Walter. “On to in-school and out-of-school suspensions. I assume everyone has plenty of these referrals from your mailboxes downstairs?” He held up a pink slip with multiple carbon copies affixed, which reminded me of my hefty middle school demerits collection, from when I used to roam campus during class time.

“Got ’em.”


“Thanks for getting us more of these this year, Walter.”

“You bet. I know they’re in high demand this first week or two, and so I insisted that you each be provided with fifty to start. And you can request more as soon as you’re low. Pull one out now, and we’ll talk about the two types of suspension options we have, as well as options that could escalate to arrest and/or expulsion.”

This was our chance to talk history, and we were talking expulsion? As I looked at Walter, I experienced a feeling that would come back to me again and again. I’d start to unknowingly seek it for comfort and solace when things weren’t going well: a neurochemical cocktail we’d studied in Dolliver’s class, and which I was now developing an addiction to. There was some rage that pumped adrenaline through me, accelerating my heart rate, bringing me energy, widening my eyes and dilating my pupils so I could scrutinize someone who seemed like an enemy to my cause. There was the intellectual stimulation of ticking through all the reasons I thought I was right and this person was wrong. And there was a conclusion I’d wrest from those spiteful chains of internal logic to calm and relax myself: the sense that I knew better, was better.

It didn’t cross my mind that Walter might feel equally righteous, energized, stimulated, and vindicated when he scrutinized and condemned some of the students or—as things developed that year—me.