Monday, May 31, 2004


Imagine that someone you love and trust takes you to a building you've never been in before. It seems nice -- there are books you know and posters you recognize on the wall -- but the explanations about why you are there aren't ringing true.

Someone measures your height and weighs you. A woman asks you questions -- can you count these blocks? If a horse is big, then a mouse is...? Can you hop on one foot? Show me.

Finally, the woman gives you a red rubber ball and says, "What can you tell me about this?"

Well, what would you say?

John was completely taken aback. We were at his kindergarten screening, and so far he'd been doing just fine. But for some reason, the open-ended question stumped him.

"Well. You can roll it?"

The screener nodded. Heartened, John continued. "And you can...bounce it!" He demonstrated. Another nod.

" Spin it?"

He was quiet then, for about half a minute. Finally the screener said, "Can you tell me what it is?"

"A ball."

"What color is it?"


I tried not to breathe a sigh of relief. Now he would know what was expected. The screener handed him a large button.

My heart sank. He has no clothes with buttons, except for a dress shirt he wears three times a year.

But John said, "Oh! With this, you can get a big piece of string, and put one end through this hole and the other end through this hole, and tie the ends together, and then you wind it up like this, and then pull on the ends, and then you have a spinner! It spins and it hums really fast!"

But once he was done with that, he was stumped again. He had to be prompted to tell her what it was, what color it was, and where it could be found ("on a jacket?").

The final item was a toy truck. He told her it had four wheels, that you could play with it, the wheels were red and the truck was yellow. She prompted him to tell her what it was.

He could answer specific questions, but the open-ended ones threw him. Why? Toward the end, I realized he had his "are you serious?" face on. If I had been asking him the questions, he would have said, "Are you kidding me?" (his phrase of the week). But with a stranger, whose purpose, power and intentions were unknown, he was at a loss as how to proceed.

Three questions aren't an indicator of how he will do in school. But it was interesting to me to get an insight as to how his brain works. And what must he have thought, hearing those questions? What would you have thought in the same situation?


  1. What a strange and stressful day! I wonder what kinds of answers they expect about the red rubber ball.

  2. Oh God, that brings back memories!

    In my first year of school they went between thinking I was retarded/autistic and thinking I was an absolute child genius because of questions like that. The problem was, like John, I had this attitude of "are you kidding me?" The answer they wanted ("that's a red ball. That's a truck.") seemed so incredibly obvious to me, I didn't believe that was the right answer. Why would they ask such an obvious question? So, just like your son, I would scramble to come up with as much other information as I could and answer creatively. That resulted in comments like "circumspect speech" and "indirect reasoning" and both "overly concrete/literal" and "overly abstract thought patterns" getting tossed at me, I later discovered. What I saw at the time was, adults are asking me these weird questions, I am giving really great answers, and they are getting upset.

    So what did I do? I tried harder. Instead of going from "that's something you can spin and bounce and it's made of rubber and is really shiny" to "red ball" I went to "well I'll bet a seal could have a lot of fun with that shiny, brightly colored, sphere-shaped toy!" You get the idea.

    And in a system geared to mediocrity and conformity, they honestly couldn't tell if my creativity, vast vocabulary, and unorthodox thinking meant I was mentally retarded/ill or a genius. Hah, really they still can't.

    Sorry to ramble, just I remember those tests you describe so vividly. For me it was the beginning of hell; but you're a lot more savvy than my parents, so for John it's probably just the beginning of a weird, whacky adventure called "school."

  3. The funny thing is that when we were done with the open-ended questions, the screener said, "John scored the most points of any kid I've screened this week." So apparently his way of answering still garnered plenty o' points.

    It certainly gave me a heads-up on how he thinks, though. And in standardized-testing-world, it might be hard on him, like what you're saying, Lily.

  4. I love the answer to the button question! That is creative. The first thought that jumped into my head was that you has a little engineer on your hands.

    I personally think open-ended question would stump a lot of kids. Like you said, they are in a new place, with strange people. They want to give the "right" answers, but aren't sure what the stranger is looking for. Leading questions are much easier. :)