“Are you, are you, coming to the tree?”
Chilling. These words, from Jennifer Lawrence’s rebel ballad in The Hunger Games, have burned themselves deeply into this school teacher’s psyche. But why?
You may remember the scene: While running from the Capitol forces, Lawrence’s character, Katniss, stops and sits alongside a river. She sings these lyrics among the mockingjays, harmonizing her voice to the whistle of the birds. The song is glorious. The message is bone chilling.
Watch and listen here:
What does the song represent? And, why oh why, does this song roll, over and over, in my mind, as I walk up and down the aisles of my classroom, watching my students dissolve into their exam booklets, during the long hours as I administer the required state tests? Why does this melody bring such a sense of sadness and hope, all at once?
In The Testing Games that we call ‘American Public Education’, what is our hanging tree?
“Are you, are you? Coming to the tree?”
Many have attempted to decipher the meaning of this question in the ballad. One Huff Post contributing writer, Julie Wherry, describes: “This is the singer beckoning the audience to return not necessarily to a physical place, but rather a state of mind and remembrance of a purpose (to be free) and of who the “real enemy” is.”
Now, that description makes sense to me. The ballad is a beckoning: a call to return to a state of mind, the hanging tree. So, when Katniss repeats, “Are you, are you, coming to the tree,” she is asking, ‘Are you willing to stand up and fight with me, no matter the cost? Are you willing to be brave?’
Are you coming to the tree? I am.
In fact, I would say, I have gone as far as taking out a pocket knife and engraving my name, conspicuously, on the trunk of that tree. The life I have been living, lately, certainly feels like the life of one running to her hanging tree. Let me explain.
I am a public school teacher in Florida. There are a few things you can’t say here, by Governor decree. Climate Change is one.
See, I said it. I am a rebel. Carve that into my tree.
Another phrase highly discouraged happens to involve the same initials – CC. No not Climate Change, but it is something just as controversial these days: Common Core. See. I did it again. Saying those two words in Florida equal a big ‘no no’. Our state leaders have, in fact, in an act of all great deception, I mean wisdom, re-branded those two words. Now, we educators are to use the phrase: Florida Standards.
Works for me – I just call it the F word. You can carve that into my tree, too.
Honestly, though, those words are not my fear. The initials I have carved into my hanging tree – the words that will not only save me, but doom me, involve the letter O.
Two O’s, to be specific … Opt Out.
I know. I know. I am climbing up my hanging tree to say this, but I feel the need to return to what I believe. I believe we should end the toxic overuse of high stakes testing in our public schools. I believe we should end all contracts with testing corporations, such as Panem, I mean Pearson, and spend the billions of dollars on our children instead. I believe we should spend that money on needed programs such as art integration, physical education, diversity and cultural awareness, occupational mentorships, language immersion programs … anything but tests. I believe in authentic education. I believe in local control. I believe the local schools belong to each and every parent. I believe local schools are essential to the success of our country. I believe this is why I went into teaching twenty five years ago and I believe it is time to return to my core.
And, yes, despite the consequences of my admitting this out loud, I believe in the right to opt out of high stakes testing.
There, I said it. Sound the alarm. Burn down the tree.
“Strange things did happen here …”
The meaning of this particular song lyric has also raised many questions. Huff Post Wherry continues: “This is acknowledgment of what humans do to oppress, control, and exploit each other and the atrocities that result when people fight against this oppression for their freedom.”
I agree. It is a strange acknowledgement when you discover the means some will take to reach their ends, especially when their ends, such as privatizing public schools, are so profitable.
But, this line of the song sparks even greater meaning to me as a parent. As a parent, especially, of a child who chose to opt out of Florida’s FSA test this year, I have seen many strange things. I have seen letters full of threats straight from our FL Commssioner. I have seen communities torn apart over the fight for every dollar attached to the testing. I have seen organizations of individuals pit against one another. I have seen brother turn against brother, in the ultimate betrayal of solidarity.
I have seen the tree cut down and chopped into bits.
So, when in the song, Katniss sings of strange things happening, I have to wonder? Could the revolution be those strange things? After all, like the people of the many districts of Panem who have been living with the horror of their Hunger Games for quite awhile, our American public has suffered under harmful education reforms for decades. Just as the Capitol has worked hard to maintain control of the people, and has been very successful in that undertaking, leaders like Jeb Bush and Arne Duncan have made the act of oppressing parents, and students, an art form. Like in The Hunger Games, the idea of revolting, or refusing, just never seemed plausible to the people … until now.
Many would agree, the opt out movement among parents, teachers, and students is, certainly, a strange situation to imagine. Who could ever imagine that American parents would have to face legal threats, and down right intimidation, to exercise their freedom to refuse a standardized test for their child? That concept just seems preposterous, doesn’t it? Yet, that is exactly the strange situation, wherein we lie.
After years and years of No Child Left Behind rolled into The Race to the Top, the American public finally believes they can put an end to the testing insanity. Getting control of their local public schools once again seems plausible. And, while education reformers are intent on shaping students into diligent test takers, ones who will compete endlessly, and blindly, to achieve a higher score and label for life, parents are more intent on protecting their children from these destructive policies than ever before.
Parents know the truth: to force students to compete, knowing their school’s funding, their teacher’s job, and their community’s real estate values depend on their ability to pick the best answer from the better answer on a multiple choice test, is abuse.
It is their personal, unforgivable, hanging tree.
So, in a sense, Katniss is correct: “No stranger would it be / If we met at midnight at the hanging tree.”
Considering the situation, it is not strange, at all, that parents, teachers, students, administrators, and researchers would come together to fight against high stakes testing. Most agree that these high stakes tests, administered repeatedly to students in our public schools, are a serious concern. It is also not strange to consider that, when attacked, individually or as a whole, parents, teachers and others, will join together to fight back against this testing machine.
Like a call to the hanging tree, those opposed to the destruction of public education by means of testing and curriculum mandates, will rally together, win or lose, for the children.
“Where I told you to run, so we’d both be free.”
Read the full series here –> The Testing Games