The only tangible thing I give students in my English 12 class is a piece of bakery string. I don’t give them tests. I don’t give them jobs. I give them a piece of string they tie around their fingers. Today affirmed for me why it is the only thing many of my students have and will care about.

When he walked into the resource center in his Marine uniform, my memory of his high school self, blood-shot eyes, huge curly hair, and sleepy laugh, made me half uncertain I knew who had walked in. I rose to shake his hand, but it turned into a hug. It was him; a confident, calm diamond that was hidden in a cloud just a few years earlier.

As we spoke, I was proud of his transformation, yet I knew the change I saw was the result of Basic, not the classroom activities he respectfully endured in my class.

I asked if he remembered anything from high school. “No, sir. It’s all down the drain,” he replied without the giggle he once had in high school, yet was still the direct, honest person he was in class. “But I kept your string.”

A hot fuzzy ball filled my throat.

On his first day in my class, he participated in the string exercise which I use to learn students’ names, create a class culture, and demonstrate the lessons I focus on for the year: collaboration, problem solving, reflection, planning, communication, lateral thinking to name a few. For the string exercise, students stand in a circle state their names, share something they love with the group, tie the piece of the string around a finger, then pass the string to someone else in the circle. By the end, every student is attached to every other student by the piece of string and the middle of the circle usually looks like a spider web.

The lesson ends with the instruction, “Return the string to me.” He took the initiative to wrap the string around a pencil so it wouldn’t get tangled.

For the following 40 weeks, he was often late, seldom quiet, and usually high, but managed to pass.

On the last day of class, after dozens of projects, assignments, but not one test, his class went outside for the last lesson. “Here is the string from the first day of class,” I said. “Each person must have a piece tied to a finger. Cover as much ground as possible. Go.”

It took time for his class to untangle the string, but eventually, they made a large oval. “Is this the most ground you can cover?” I asked. I spoke about their year, shared how proud I was of all they had done, and took out a pair of scissors. I explained the metaphor as I cut the string connecting them. The message was simple. It’s relationships that matter and it’s the emotions we remember. Cutting the bakery string was at once liberating and painful for him and his classmates.

With the string between the students cut, the class could circle the globe and keep the relationships and memories from their time in high school.

“I kept your string.” My eyes watered.

For all the time, money, and intelligence spent trying to undo the educational knot and achievement gaps, what will the students remember that is of value from their time in school? They’ll remember the strings that connect us. They’ll remember who was in their circle, who wasn’t, why, and how they felt with the clarity only the heart allows.

Kids need connections. Teachers know this. Parents know this. Human beings know this. Kids do not need to be measured. They already know where they are expected to fit and measuring only confirms their insecurities.

To expect today’s teens to conform to a factory model system of education based on the enlightenment in a time of exponential growth and opportunity is as contrary to progress as giving a 6 year old who has been in the country less than a year an essay to write based on a passage written at level O.

Ophelia’s line holds true here. “For to the noble mind, rich gifts wax poor when givers prove unkind.” It was the intention behind a piece of bakery string that kept it in the hands of a Marine and the reciprocal nature of love that moved the heart of his teacher.

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