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It’s the middle of the night and I’m up writing, once again chased from fitful sleep by a bad dream. I’ll piddle around for an hour or two and maybe get back to bed before morning, I never know. This nightmare was a real bad one; no zombies or chainsaws, but real life events. I was taking a test.

Maybe I should call this Post Dramatic Test Disorder. Up until my seventh grade French class, I was fine with tests. I was considered one of the brighter ones, even segregated into a special gifted program; an active, enthusiastic learner. My experience in French class first exposed me to a regime of continuous testing, where the teacher, ensconced in a booth in the front of the room, listened in as students fumbled their way through their first attempt at foreign anything. I performed abysmally. There was no succeeding, only endless testing.

I’d prepare for these tests by painstakingly writing down the meaningless phrases ten or twenty or more times, subvocalizing as I went; hoping to somehow imprint them on my tongue. And I’d perform well enough the night before, but set me into that isolation booth with dislocating headphones with the teacher cueing in helpful corrections, and I’d seize up.

Perhaps, I tell myself now, if I had worn a beret, I might have better performed, for I later learned that I’m a contextual learner. Set me into a context, and I’m genius at figuring it out. Isolate me from any sense of context, and I won’t remember my name.

That seventh grade French class marked the dividing line between my being an active, enthusiastic learner and a paranoid lurker in school. I suspect that the testing did in my enthusiasm, for testing, then and now, quite deliberately isolates from context, as if knowledge were somehow contextless; as if learning didn’t depend upon contextual calculus. For me, context seems primary, knowledge mere decoration; tests, indiscriminate noise.

I consequently carry a dread fear of tests in any form. Behind the wheel of a car, I’m the safest driver on the road, even able to spout endless little known facts about traffic laws and patterns. At the DMV, I barely achieve a passing grade. Computer-based testing seems by far the least contextual, worse than paper checklists, because every DMV uses some form of computer I have no clue how to use. Isolated into another French Class-like cubicle, I have no recollection of knowing anything about the subject at hand; plus, I feel stupid. Or, maybe I should say, I feel immersed in stupidity, which seems to be the primary substance filling in when context gets drained off.

This morning’s nightmare was a math test, which as a class always represented the very worst form of testing because for me, math seems a perfectly context-free subject, completely composed of abstractions, metaphors absent any inherent meaning. I learned much later in life that math actually represents an intricate metaphorical language, but I’ve yet to find any context that might provide a key into that realm, and without context, I just seem to be lost.

Junior High and High School both provided a near perfect medium for paranoia, and, indeed, for learning how to be invisible; how to, in short, fake it. If the very medium by which I was judged successful omitted the context I needed to succeed, the best I could do was pretend I understood and hope for the best. The Muse rarely had to study anything in high school, because she somewhere learned the dark art of test taking. Whatever the subject, she could garner a decent grade on test scores alone. Me? I could usually limp across the finish line with a C or B thanks to contextual classroom participation. I dropped out of that freaking French class and enrolled in a shop class instead, where I didn’t cut my thumb off on the band saw because I refused to touch the damned thing. Humiliating.

I love learning but despise school. School was where I could not succeed. It successfully smothered any desire I had in grade school to become a college man, and gratefully, my high school guidance councilor confided to me that I was not really college material. I sat for the SAT test anyway, though I had no idea what it was for other than to expose me to concepts I’d never imagined before; content-less and contextless, and I had to take a half day off work and pay money for the humiliation.

Occasionally, my dreamscape floods with those helpless test taking feelings, and I’m awake trying to chase away the drama. Sometimes it helps to write about it, to remember the time, to recognize that while my testing experiences were not necessarily my fault, they were quite inexorably all about me. Me, the contextual learner; me, the one who does not remember out of context. Last week, someone asked me for my phone number and I had to take my phone out of my pocket and look to respond. That’s just how contextual learning operates.

Curiously, I later became a teacher, but I never gave my students contextless tests. I offered them contexts instead, where they might explore their actions and notions to perhaps learn something. The testing came in practical application, in context, not suspended outside of where knowledge resides.

I grant that some seem able to hold information out of its native context, and even disgorge it on demand. I suspect that this gift might be much less common than test designers presume, but even if it has always been the norm and most possess it, the standard testing schemes disqualify anyone blessed with a contextual memory. These will become the writers and builders, artisans and entrepreneurs; the so-called creative class. Other than creative, though, they might be better referred to as the contextual class. Give ‘em a context and they soar. Take away that atmosphere, and they smother; later in life, sometimes waking in a cold sweat when another bout of Post Dramatic Test Disorder overtakes them.

©2015 by David A. Schmaltz - all rights reserved

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