As a thirty-year-old woman, I may not be the target demographic for most cartoons being produced today, but let me tell you this: I know a good cartoon when I see one. And Steven Universe is a good cartoon. There are a lot of things I really like about it: the fantastic character development, the sweet sing-along-able soundtrack, the way it taps into a wide spectrum of emotion.
But as an educator, one episode that really got me right in the feels was a season one episode called “The Test.” In this episode, Steven finds out that a previous adventure was used to assess his readiness to join the Crystal Gems on their planet-saving missions.
“It wasn’t something we planned behind your back,” leader Garnet tells him. “We just saw an opportunity…” Sounds like informal assessment to me!
Steven is aghast, because he thinks he failed the test he didn’t even know about, and insists on being re-tested.
The Crystal Gems then design a very video game-like dungeon to test Steven. It seems like a combination of puzzle and peril, but it turns out there’s more than meets the eye.
Steven realizes before finishing that the test is impossible to fail — it’s rigged. Whatever he tries on the puzzle succeeds, and the dangerous bits are illusions that won’t actually hurt him. In fact, he exploits a glitch (told you it was video game-like!) and overhears the Crystal Gems discussing the point of the test. Unlike before, when they wondered whether he was ready for adventure, now they want to “give him another success.” Like them, Steven has superpowers, but unlike them, he is still learning to use his, and emotional state is a huge component of controlling them. He has experienced successes but also setbacks throughout the show up to this episode.
“The point is he’s come so far,” says Pearl. “We have to give him another success. He can’t lose his confidence like that again.”
Then, after a pause, Amethyst says, “We’re bad at this.” Her point is that, while they’re probably the best suited to serve as Steven mentor’s, she still feels ill-prepared.
“He needs us to show him how to be a Gem!” Pearl says.
“Steven is not just a Gem. There has never been anything or anyone like Steven,” Garnet concurs. “We don’t know what he needs.”
As an educator, I find this struggle relatable — that for all the years I’ve lived, all the time I’ve trained, all the books I’ve read, all the lessons I’ve planned and reflected on — sometimes I still don’t know what a student needs. We can differentiate and support and scaffold out the wazoo, but to truly understand what it’s like to be inside a student’s head — anyone else’s head, really — to some degree that’s mysterious and forever unknowable. And most of the time, that’s okay, we’ll still go on adventures. But sometimes, when you know a student needs you most is when you know least what you can or should do for them.
I won’t tell you how the episode ends — I encourage you to seek it out, I found it through Hulu Plus and also Amazon Prime, though it may also be elsewhere — but Steven acts on what he overheard in a way that ultimately lifted my spirits. It doesn’t answer the questions about what he really needs from his mentors, but it is reassuring nonetheless.