The week began normally enough but was followed by two of the worst days of the school year. You guessed it: standardized testing. In the middle of the week. Freshmen and seniors were allowed to stay home for a day and a half, while sophomores were packed into the gym for a practice ACT test and something called a Prairie State Achievement Test, which includes questions that, without exaggeration, many second-graders could answer. Everyone walks around cowed, pretending that any of this matters. And no one ever protests. The tables in the gym never fail to conjure in my mind scenes from Orwell’s 1984. It’s dehumanizing, deflating, and entirely without worth. Juniors take an actual ACT test on the first day, but why we need to wipe out an entire school day for this is beyond me. Remember the days when we had to make our own arrangements to take the test on a Saturday? 

Then we wonder why other countries report higher test scores? Our response to lower scores? We simply throw more tests at students rather than address the issue of lost class time. It’s like a cop taking the pulse of a dead victim for the 13th time rather than pursue possible culprits. 

Back to our regular scheduled update. On Monday students in small groups role-played various cognitive distortions that all of us fall victim to now and then: “I’m not good enough…I’ll never amount to anything.” Then we discussed various treatment methods used to challenge these beliefs. 

We’ve been doing role-plays throughout the year, and when I informed them that these would be the last ones, I heard a ripple of sadness from a few students. The same happened when I mentioned that there’d be no more study guides! These are twenty-page study guides I’m talking about! There were plenty of other students who I’m sure were thrilled by this prospect, but I was touched by those who said they’d miss my comments. When I speak at teacher conferences, one of the lessons I try to impart is that every paper teachers hand out to students is an opportunity to communicate. You’re not just handing out an assignment; you’re speaking in a particular voice to a particular audience. Here’s what I wrote on page 1 of their last study guide. 

“How fitting that all this ends with therapy because if you’re on the A.P. train, those daily hassles and other stressors have done a number on your coping strategies, which I’ve seen in your droopy eyes and slumped bodies, and you can probably use some consolation about now, the nonjudgmental assurance that everything is going to be all right, a reminder that in the larger scheme, you will forget not only the difference between a variable ratio and fixed interval schedule, but also your score—OK, maybe not the number itself because not many numbers make up the scoring system (a piddly 5!)—but the significance of the score, which will pale because one day, if you decide to start a family, a child will reach up to grab your fingers with her little hand and will want to walk with you, and that child ain’t gone care about what you knew in the spring of 2012 on a paper and pencil test because in her mind you know everything, and if you don’t start a family, you’ll have your moments as well because life is full of them if you pay attention and turn off that cell phone once in a while—or that computer or whatever the heck is distracting you from looking at the person across from you—so finish strong, but have fun and put this test and every other test in perspective.” 

Speaking of tests, for our last unit test on treatment, I allowed students to work in pairs for the last 25 minutes, which worked very well. Students were discussing the material in meaningful ways, clarifying fine points, defending this or that answer, just the kind of engagement we teachers love to see. Then why didn’t I allow students to take tests in pairs throughout the year? I’m not sure. I’m afraid, I suppose. Afraid I’ll get a reputation for being too easy, afraid students will take advantage and not study hard enough. Having succumbed to those fears all these years is a regret I’ll have to live with.  

Next week, all week: review for the big A.P. test in eight days. I usually hate review, but I’m competitive, and I want my students to beat that damn test.

School Week 32. Year 31. Big numbers. I suppose I should have noticed this last time, when I could have written week 31 of year 31, but I don’t see any special significance to that other than the symmetry. 

We had a rare full week. Monday through Friday. No breaks. No late starts. I don’t think I’ve ever seen students so tired, a direct correlation, I’d argue, with the erratic schedule we throw at them. Hard not to feel sorry for them. They need to be alert at 7:30 a.m.; many will be taking multiple A.P. exams in a few weeks; some of them don’t even have a scheduled lunch. But soon they will reach the mountaintop and decide which other peaks are worth scaling. I hope there’s more than an exam waiting for them next time. 

We capped off our unit on mental illness, squeezing in schizophrenia, personality disorders, somatoform disorders, and dissociative disorders (which you may know as multiple personality). Whew. 

While schizophrenia and personality disorders are relatively common, the latter two are rare, especially multiple personality (MPD), which I’d argue is not a real disorder but a condition nurtured during therapy by a zealous, misguided—though well-intentioned—therapist. Poor folks who can’t afford therapy don’t develop MPD, and families of those who allegedly suffer from MPD don’t even notice any personalities until well into therapy.

Schizophrenia, on the other hand, afflicts about 1% of the population and is all too real. In their study guides, I asked students to write a short journal entry from the point of view of a schizophrenic. Two students wrote they felt uncomfortable completing this task, fearing it might be disrespectful, which I honor. I was impressed by their empathy and maturity. And they reminded me, again, which happens daily, how much I learn from them.

Finished the Kurt Vonnegut biography. I’m still shocked by the many contradictions between his persona, which he honed after learning what his audience expected, and his real self. For example, in his writing, he embraced his role as a Luddite, someone who resists the trappings of technology. As an example, he describes leisurely strolls to the post office, where he can talk to customers and flirt with the postal worker behind the counter. In reality, he may have taken these trips to escape his shrew of a second wife. 

One interesting note. When he was starting off in the 50s, teleplays were becoming popular on television, and he feared that fiction would disappear because of such convenient consumption that would satisfy the same need. One wouldn’t need to delve into a book anymore with such quality on the tube. With all the fine television being produced today (The Bachelor and The Apprentice notwithstanding), seems that his fears are turning true. And while I love good television, I will continue to be part of the resistance and clutch my book against the storm.

Another truncated week. Monday was institute day, a day when students sleep in and teachers endure unnecessary meetings on matters that matter to no one and that will never benefit students in even the remotest way. And I’d like to talk to the person or committee that decided we needed a student late start on the very next day, Tuesday, so teachers could continue their critical meetings! The higher powers did schedule three full days to finish off the week, so I suppose I should be grateful. 

OCD and mood disorders were on the docket this week. We had a contest for the most unusual OCD behavior, and I heard some good ones, though I don’t feel at liberty to disclose those here. If you’d like to list yours, feel free to comment. I tend to count and organize. For example, if I’m at a choral concert, I will count the number of singers on stage, from left to right, then section by section to see if I arrive at the same number, then maybe right to left. It’s not a frenzied counting, and I’m still able to enjoy the music, but I’ll admit this is unusual and irrational and cuckoo. I’m also a tile counter, a cabinet door closer, a divider of letters to see if words are symmetrical (TOYOTA is a perfect word, three letters on each side, and—this is really cuckoo—the three letters require nine strokes each). 

Depression is a little trickier to talk about because of the stigma that still pervades. Do I invite sufferers to share their stories? Or do I remain clinical and more impersonal? There’s some middle ground, of course, and that’s the area I treaded. Coincidentally, our award-winning school newspaper featured on Friday a first-person account by a student who had been hospitalized for depression. This was a brave and generous gesture that I trust will go a long way in lifting the stigma of depression in our little world at school. 

We had a pretty good discussion, I thought, students offering mature and balanced insights into the reasons for the stigma and possible causes and treatment. But I’m always amazed by how much we have all bought into the medical model for depression, specifically, that some chemical imbalance exists and that magic pills exist to alleviate the depression. All one needs to do is find the right pill and the precise dosage. The evidence for a chemical imbalance as the cause of depression is mixed at best. But I don’t think anyone disputes that the drugs themselves create imbalances in the transmission of neurotransmitters. The commercials don’t mention that part. They also don’t mention this: if the drugs are working so well, why has the rate of depression soared in the last 40 years, according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH)? 

I’m not advocating that we trash all our prescriptions, but I do fall in the camp that suggests that depression is more symptom than disorder. I’m not minimizing the suffering; the symptoms are severe and brutal. But before we start popping pills, let’s find out about vitamin D levels and thyroid functioning, and let’s examine our diets and sleep schedules. 

We also discussed bipolar disorder, another devastating affliction, one with which students were less familiar. I showed them a clip from a Frontline episode that highlights this interesting fact: since 2005, there has been a 4000% increase in the number of children diagnosed with bipolar disorder. And the psychiatrist who led this movement by proposing a comorbidity between ADHD and bipolar received $1.6 million by Johnson & Johnson for his consultation fees. Without his published report, no increase occurs, in either diagnosis or sales. Which calls to mind what every person who has suffered a serious illness knows: you have to take charge of your own health and not blindly entrust it to this company or that expert. 

Over a million children are now diagnosed with bipolar disorder, which strikes me as criminal.

First week of the final quarter. Hope renewed. Effort doubled. Commitment deepened. Actually, we’re limping along. A little slaphappy. Thinking about the A.P. psych test looming in May. One final push, and we’ll get there, the promised land, where the grass is lusher and skies are bluer than here, today, now. 

But we have to wade through a long chapter on mental illness first, a fascinating and troubling unit because it applies to all of us to some degree or in some respect. For me, I’m an expert on anxiety and phobias, which I first discovered after a claustrophobic MRI experience many years ago, followed by an unfortunate seat assignment at the back of a jet and adjacent to one loud turbine engine. (I’m not sure if it really was a turbine engine or what in fact turbine means, but I like the sound of the word.) Over the years, I’ve been working on my panic and getting better (flying in the front row of the plane helps, and Southwest Airlines has been accommodating; no, I’m not earning free miles for the plug). What I’ve discovered and what I hope was useful for students to hear, especially the ones who also have High Anxiety (a great Mel Brooks movie) is that we are not in fact afraid of the things we think we’re afraid of. Really. 

Here’s a simple activity I use to clarify what I mean. I had them write down on a small slip of paper the thing that causes them the most panic and dread. Spiders, needles, small spaces, Lady Gaga outfits. They then crumpled their papers and tossed them to the middle of the room. This was not some 1960 feel-good mantra session where fears are shed like flowers in her hair, flowers everywhere (if you can identify that song, you are over 50). What I mean is that you don’t fear the needle but the physical dread that accompanies the needle. If someone could guarantee that your pulse wouldn’t rise up into your throat when you saw a spider, you’d be fine, yes? It’s the dread and the anticipation of the dread that you fear because that’s a terror you don’t wish on anyone. This seems like a subtle shift in perspective, a cognitive sleight of hand, but the effect can be remarkable. This little trick allows you to examine the dread as if it’s outside of you. And it’s up to you whether you’ll let it in. 

Before doing this activity, I had them fill in a fear inventory and asked them rearrange their seating according to their level of anxiety, from lowest to highest. The low group got a chance to convince the high group why they shouldn’t be so anxious, mainly to demonstrate that everyday logic isn’t usually effective in trying to alleviate another’s fears (the previous activity notwithstanding). Interestingly enough, sitting according to one’s anxiety level creates no anxiety for students. I point out to them that I would never suggest such an arrangement for next week’s topic, depression, and everyone understands immediately. Why is there still shame attached to a condition that afflicts nearly all of us from time to time? 

If you happen to be an expert on depression, feel free to comment and I will share your wisdom with students.

1. Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain by David Eagleman. 
2. Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. 
3. And So It Goes, Kurt Vonnegut: A Life by Charles Shields. 

If you’re too busy writing or grading papers or mowing the lawn or changing diapers and can’t read, here are a few thoughts on the books and a few lines to take in. 

Eagleman: “Your brain is built of cells called neurons and glia—hundreds of billions of them. Each one of these cells is as complicated as a city.” Phew. And all these tiny, elaborate “cities” work in concert to help us make sense of the world. Eagleman is a neuroscientist who comes across as a witty and intelligent, like a neighbor you want to spend time with. 

Kahneman’s writing is relatively less engaging, but his material is engrossing and accessible. And his book is a perfect companion to Eagleman’s. Kahneman explains how we think, which we often believe is sound and rational. But there’s an entire system that pushes and pulls and often leads us astray. 

Vonnegut quoted: “Each person has something he can do easily and can’t imagine why everybody else is having so much trouble doing it. In my case it was writing.” I haven’t read much about Vonnegut, but I’m most struck by how his work and life seem in contradiction. I’ve always regarded Vonnegut as a giant in literature, yet he felt slighted by the lack of recognition. And he doesn’t have many nice things to say about his mother, father, or brother. 

Listening, in the best car stereo I’ve ever had, to…

1. Wrecking Ball by Bruce Springsteen. This is an excellent CD. Twangy, urban, soulful, soft, hard. You can hear dozens of influences from a variety of regions. I don’t know how he puts out such consistently good work. I haven’t listened closely to the lyrics. This is usually a gradual process for me. I immerse myself in the music, not knowing titles or lyrics, and over a period of months or even years, I begin to glean what the songs are about. 

2. Oscar Peterson for Lovers. I don’t know if there’s a better jazz piano player than Peterson. I’m pressing Repeat often, especially when Bill Henderson sings I’ve Got a Crush on You

3. Best of Patsy Cline. I feel a little strange listening to Cline as I drive around my suburban neighborhood. I feel as if I should be in Nashville. But Crazy sounds right anywhere. More Repeats on that song.