Spring is a season of new birth, warmer weather, and in America’s public schools, standardized testing. Several springs ago I was a high school English teacher. The day arrived when all 10th graders across the state of South Carolina would take the first of a series of tests called the HSAP (High School Assessment Program). At my high school where 99% of our student body was African American and most of the students were eligible for free and reduced meals, this acronym spiked fear in students and teachers alike. We knew we were a low performing school: our standardized tests scores for the past few years were extremely low. No one wants to belong to a low performing school. Low performing schools drag down the mean for a district’s more affluent schools and prompt district administrators to eye the principal, teachers, and students with suspicion and resentment.
I wasn’t teaching 10th grade that year but I had a 10th grade homeroom. I understood very well the pressure the test presented to all of us. We weren’t unprepared—administrators, teachers, and students had been planning and practicing for this test for months. We even partnered with Americorps that year and brought in a group of fifteen young college grads to help. While they knew little about education, they knew a lot about hard work. I remember the visible enthusiasm of each team member when they received their assignment. We deployed them as one deploys members of the military, sending them to different classes where they worked one on one with students needing extra attention in math, writing, and reading. A few of the team also created posters, banners, and signs including a countdown calendar, purposed to pump enthusiasm and inspiration into this now very nervous group of students.
Test Day finally arrived. Students entered the classroom and found their usual seats. My eyes searched the room as I took the roll. Our students wore uniforms, khaki pants and royal blue shirts, in an effort to distinguish the legitimate students from the menacing gang members who lurked beyond the school’s entrances. Thankfully, everyone was accounted for. According to district policy, a proctor would arrive soon to assist in distributing the exams and insuring that no cheating took place. But for now, the students were chatty and anxious.
“We need to pray, Mrs. Young,” announced Chaunte, the unofficial class leader. She was a petite, brown skinned girl who nonetheless carried herself as if she were in command. “If we’re going to pass this class, we need all the help we can get.”
“Yeah,” piped in another student. “We should pray.” Their request made sense. They lived in Charleston, a large tourist driven community, but often referred to as “The Holy City” due to its large number of churches. On the peninsula, several churches could be counted on one city block. This was certainly the case in the area surrounding our high school. Representing several denominations, they faithfully served the least of these—the indigent, the elderly, and families who did not have the means to send their children to schools in better neighborhoods.
“Can you lead us in prayer?” Chaunte asked me. They knew I was a believer and that my husband was a local pastor.
I hesitated. I was employed by the State of South Carolina. As a state employee, I knew I was authorized to do a lot of things outside of teaching. I could comfort, console, and reprimand. I made phone calls home. I kept hand lotion (the good stuff) and Vaseline in my desk drawer and provided plenty of Kleenex during flu season. I stocked one of my cabinets with extra pencils, pens, and loose leaf paper for the forgetful student or the student who simply could not afford to purchase them. I read their journal entries where they wrote in simple language about a story we had read recently or about a situation they felt was unfair. I even listened patiently when they nonchalantly recited the misfortunes of “so and so” in an effort to gain some advice for themselves. But I could not lead my students in prayer. That one action could cost me my job. “I can’t lead you in prayer,” I explained carefully. “If I do, I could get fired.” Their faces fell and I could see that they interpreted it as yet another blow, another rule that worked against them when they needed someone to cut them some slack. And then I added, “But nothing can stop you from praying for yourselves.”
Chaunte looked at me.
“Okay,” she said, almost defiantly. “We’re going to pray.” The other students dutifully climbed out of their seats and formed a large circle in the front of the room. Without being prompted, they grasped the hand of the person beside them. One lone male sat stonily in his seat, refusing to move. Chaunte glared at him.
“Jarod, get over here right now!” she ordered. Jarod reluctantly got out of his seat and took the hand a student offered him.
They bowed their heads and repeated the Lord’s Prayer in unison. As I joined them in reciting it aloud, I noted that many of them knew it by heart. And then they sat down quietly.
The proctor arrived and we began the test. As they sat in straight rows, number two pencils in hand, I marveled at how this group of young people had enough sense to realize that when the stakes are truly high, we should ask God for help. And then I marveled at how privileged I was to be able to teach students who didn’t come from the finest homes and weren’t headed for the coveted spot of valedictorian, yet nonetheless clearly understood that God existed and that He cared.
As they bubbled in their test booklets what they hoped were the right answers, I silently gave God thanks that prayer had come back to school.
"As they bubbled in their test booklets what they hoped were the right answers, I silently gave God thanks that prayer had come back to school."