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I Can’t Answer These Test Questions About My Own Poems

By Sara Holbrook


Home > Archives > Volume 31 No.3 - Spring 2017
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When I realized I couldn’t answer the questions posed about two of my own poems on the Texas state assessment tests (STAAR), I had a flash of panic— oh, no! Not smart enough. I checked to see if anyone was looking. The questions began to swim on the page. Waves of insecurity. My brain in full spin.

The two poems in question are “A Real Case,” which appeared on the 2014 Grade 7 STAAR Reading Test, and “Midnight,” which appeared on the 2013 Grade 8 STAAR Reading Test. Both poems originally appeared in Walking on the Boundaries of Change (Boyds Mills Press, 1998).

Let me begin by confessing that “A Real Case” is my most neurotic poem. I have a pile of them, but this one is the sour cherry on top. The written evidence of my anxieties, those evil gremlins that ride around on tricycles in my mind, shooting my self-confidence with water pistols. How in the name of all that’s moldy did this poem wind up on a proficiency test?

Dose of reality: Test makers are for-profit organizations. My poems are a lot cheaper than Mary Oliver’s or Jane Kenyon’s, so there’s that. But how would your vulnerable, nervous, No. 2 pencil-gripping 7th-grade self have felt opening your test packet to analyze these poetic lines:

I’m just down with a sniffly case
of sudden-self-loathing-syndrome
...

an unexpected extra serving
of just-for-now-self-hate.

Seriously? Hundreds of my poems in print and they choose that one? I apologize to those kids. I apologize to their teachers. I apologize to the entire state of Texas. I know the ’90s were supposed to be some kind of golden age, but I had my bad days and clearly, these words are the pan drippings of one of them.

Did I have a purpose for writing it? Does survival count?

Teachers are also trying to survive as they try to teach kids how to take these tests, which they are told to do by digging through past tests posted online. Forget joy of language and the fun of discovery in poetry, this is line-by-line dissection, painful and without anesthetic. One teacher, Sean, working after 10 p.m.,
wrote to me last month, trying 
to figure out the test maker’s interpretation of my poem “Midnight.” This poem isn’t quite as jarring as “A Real Case”; it’s about insomnia.



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