In one of the first chapters of José Luis Vilson’s new memoir, This is Not a Test, we see him proctor a district-mandated math test for his middle school students in Morningside Heights. We are offered a peek inside Vilson’s head, as he struggles between his teacher self, Mr. Vilson, and his authentic self, José.
“I don’t want to take this test!”
José thinks, Good me neither.
Mr. Vilson says, “I understand, but don’t you want to do well?”
Vilson’s narration of the scene is comitragic, as he grapples to keep his footing as a school authority in the face of his students’ barrage of reasonable objections.
One way to read Vilson’s memoir is as a journey toward authenticity in the classroom, as he finds ways to reconcile the inevitable tensions that arise from this dual consciousness represented by José and Mr. Vilson. The current NCLB testing regime, with its requirements to rank and sort his students, places the greatest split between these two selves. Vilson is clear what his cause is: it’s not anti-testing as much as it is pro-children. He sees firsthand the injustices and pressures that the current accountability system places on them. But his objections are full of nuance and detail, making them worth listening to.
As a teacher, his connection with his students cuts deep. As a Dominican American, Vilson speaks fluent Spanish and has dark brown skin. His vignettes from the classroom portray the salience of both his Latino and Black identities in his teaching.
Unlike many memoirs, the scenes in the book extend beyond the classroom. We learn, for instance, that Vilson was raised in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, attending both public and Catholic schools. His own experiences in school do more than fill in biographical detail. They provide a deeper understanding of his own conflicted relationship with the institution of schooling. We hear of the many ways his educational experiences lifted him, especially the wonderful Father Jack at Nativity School, who served as a mentor even after Vilson graduated. We also learn of his encounters with racism, particularly in the predominantly white Xavier High School, where he faced a teacher who refused to see his competence, not just on written assignments but in verbal exchanges in the classroom.
Vilson’s story takes a unique place in the genre of teacher memoirs. In part, this is a unique moment in our educational history, with NCLB bringing unprecedented testing and monitoring to our schools. As Vilson himself recognizes, urban schools like his have felt the press of the accountability system more keenly than the “high performing” suburban schools. Since test scores strongly correlate to parents’ income and level of education, there is no surprise in this state of affairs. Yet it has led to a situation where communities with the least power on the federal landscape have felt the greatest impact of the policy. Vilson’s first-person account of the NCLB era, from the vantage point of an urban school teacher, provides important documentation of this policy’s footprint.
In addition, Vilson’s memoir stands apart from other urban teacher stories. With his commitment to his students’ humanity, his writing brought to mind classic memoirs like Herbert Kohl’s 36 Children and Vivian Paley’s White Teacher. Like Vilson’s work, these books delve into the teacher narrators’ personal growth as they develop their practice in face of a system that can be dehumanizing to children. However, the depth to which Vilson interleaves his own autobiography of schooling sets it apart from the memoirs of these white teachers. Unlike Kohl and Paley, Vilson’s identity work as a teacher was not about recognizing the salience of race in education but rather managing his own alignment with institutions that too often ignore it.
In the final section of the book, Vilson finds his teacher voice, one that seems to mitigate the tensions between José and Mr. Vilson. Nowhere is that more beautifully represented than in the poem that gives the book its name, This is Not a Test. He reads it at the Save Our Schools March, an anti-testing rally in Washington, D.C. With its hiphop rhythms and intelligent word play, Vilson advocates for his students and speaks out against the barrage of testing, in a sense bringing the reasonable objections of his students to a national stage. The reconciliation of consciousness, then, comes from activism and advocacy on behalf of students and teachers.
I don’t want to spoil the moment beyond that, but I was moved to find the YouTube video of the rally so I could truly hear these words in Vilson’s voice. Here it is, if you are interested:
In the end, Vilson’s book makes an important contribution in several ways. At a time where only 7 percent of the US’s 3.3 million teachers identify as Black and 8 percent as Latino, we need a better understanding of teachers of colors’ experiences in our educational system. Vilson’s generous recounting of his own experiences provided me insights as a teacher educator about the different kind of identity work teachers of color might engage in.
As a contribution to the teacher memoir genre, it is a wholly original work. Vilson is as likely to cite educational research as he is hip hop lyrics. He is both deadly serious and incredibly funny. Overall it is an engaging and worthwhile read for anyone interested in race, educational equality, and the impact of NCLB policy.