July 26th, 2011



I always feel out of place proctoring tests at the nearby catholic high school because everybody is either a teenager, a heavyset bleached blonde woman, or a nun. There is a spattering of Franciscan brothers and one or two non-religious male teachers, but everyone is either in the midst of their adolescence or in their early to mid 50’s, so my being there never really makes sense to anyone. I am thirty years-old, smack in the middle of everyone, and when I come in, when the main office buzzes me into the school the teachers always go, “Hi, can we help you?” which means “You are too old to be a student and too young to be a parent and you are obviously not a delivery man so what are you doing here?”

And I say, “I’m with SAT prep—I’m here to proctor the mock exam.” And the teachers make a face like, “Ohhh, of course,” and start walking down the hallway, fumbling for the janitorial ring of keys which every teacher in this school seems to have. It has been twelve years since I was in high school but all high schools seem to look more or less the same. There are heavy wooden doors and floors that always appear to have been mopped in the past 10 minutes and endless cinderblock hallways painted a light, canary yellow. I don’t know why they always paint the walls that color but probably it’s supposed to be calming. When I was very young I used to walk along the walls, dragging my finger in the lines between the bricks until a teacher told me to stop doing it, saying the walls would make my hands dirty. The hallways have no windows and are lit by a recurring fluorescent rectangle every few panels in the drop ceiling, or by the sunlight that streams in through one of the classroom doors, if one is opened. The schools always seem dark and the walls always seem endless but once in a while a piece of the wall will be painted over in a mural or there will be a bulletin board with so-so student artwork or a trophy case with filled with seemingly epic accomplishments—all-county trophies, photos, medals—against a backdrop of stapled construction paper. In this particular school there is an enormous picture of a hockey team posing on the ice, post-game, grinning and holding an enormous cup high above their heads. The bottom of the photo reveals that it is from 1996, which to the current students must seem ancient—it may as well be from the middle of the 12th century—but it is only 14 years ago. It is the year I was a sophomore. The boys from this photo are probably all working in accounts payable departments in Manhattan or selling dental equipment or working as “online media editors” for companies that did not exist in 1996. Most of them no longer play hockey but some of them have infant children and make their 3 month old sons wear onesies with the New Jersey Devils or Toronto Maple Leafs logo across the chests.

The bleached blonde woman in the magenta V-neck T-shirt goes, “We’ll put you in 103 today,” but upon reaching door 103 finds that the room is being occupied by the football team, whose polo-shirt wearing coach is standing at the blackboard, drawing dozens of curved lines with yellow chalk. The teacher peeks through the square window in the door and sees this and goes, “Nevermind. We’re not going to put you in 103. Let’s see if we can use 106.”

The lockers in this school are the big sort of lockers—the ones they had on television shows like “Saved by the Bell” or “You Can’t Do That on Television,” that nerdy, unpopular students were always being shoved into. There is a girl with a single orange streak in her hair applying mascara and blinking into her locker mirror and underneath the mirror is a photo torn out of a magazine of a young heartthrob-type boy who I do not recognize. She is sucking on a lollipop and I remember being in 6th grade when the Blue Raspberry Charms blowpops were infectiously popular and all the girls had them, even though they turned your mouth a shade of blue that made you look like you were dying of asphyxiation. Girls would sit packed tight around a cafeteria table, gossiping and laughing and sucking on Blowpops with their dark blue lips, looking like fashionable, extremely popular drowning victims.

The woman takes me to 106, which is not locked. She opens the door and there is a nun sitting at the large metal desk, writing something on a yellow legal pad. The nun looks up and I think to myself that there is something very quiet and beautiful about coming upon a nun, alone in a classroom, writing. She looks up at us with a calm, innocent face, like a deer.
“Hi,” she says, and I say “Hi,” and she smiles. I have met this nun before, at the SAT program sign up, where I was sitting behind a table and she was meandering through the hall. She had stopped briefly at my table to say hello and how was I doing, and a woman signing up her 16 year old son for the SAT program looked at the nun and then looked at me and then looked back at the nun and said, “Are you two…related? Are you sisters?”
And my first thought, with a dramatic sigh, is that clearly I do not dress provocatively enough, and my second thought is that yes, we actually do look a little bit alike when I look closely at her face. She is older, and wearing a floor length black dress and I am wearing khakis and a turtleneck sweater, but judging from our faces it is entirely possible that we are related. I politely tell the woman, “No, we’re not sisters,” and make the joke that, “well actually she is, but I’m not,” and both the woman and the nun get a kick out of this and the woman continues signing her son up for the program.

This particular nun (embarrassingly I do not know her name) seems very nice—not like the Nurse Ratchett-y nuns of my father’s youth that he is always taking about. She is about forty or so with rectangular wire framed glasses. She is wearing flat brown imitation-leather shoes and has a little bit of brown hair peeking out from the front of her habit. She has a small watch on her wrist whose shiny black band is frayed. The watchband has split on the side and you can see that the inside is white like the belly of a fish. The woman with the magenta T-shirt says, “Sorry to bother you, sister. Can we use this room to proctor the test?” and the nun goes, “Oh yes, of course,” and picks up a sheaf of papers from the desktop, placing them in a folder and tucking them into a drawer. I say, “Thank you very much,” and the nun nods, and goes, “Oh, of course,” again, and smiles at me and walks out of the room and I think that of course she gave up her room for me—that is what nuns do. They give things up. They are not supposed to have things, like big bank accounts or stereo systems because they give everything away.

I pull out two pieces of paper with the name of my SAT company. I search the desktop for a marker but there is nothing so I open the upper right hand drawer in the desk. And I have done this many times before, looking for markers or a stapler or tape, but I feel strange doing it because it is a nun’s desk and I do not want to rifle through her things. But I am looking in the drawer and it is identical to the drawers of other teachers, albeit a bit neater. There is a small bottle of purell and a calculator and a post-it note pad and I wonder who the first nun was to use a Post-it note or what nuns use Post-it notes for. Mine at home are stuck on every available surface, screaming reminders such as, “LAUNDRY” or “CALL VERIZON RE: BILL” or “6PM APPT WITH DR. PATEL,” each of which is followed by a string of at least 3 exclamation marks. I imagine that nuns might use them to write down inspirational sayings or quotes that will remind them to love God more. Maybe there is one beside her bed that reads, “Remember to Keep an Open Heart” or one on the mirror where she brushes her teeth that reads “Courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point.” And maybe nuns do not have mirrors in front of which they brush their teeth, since they do not want to spend time looking at themselves vainly, but at the same time, how else will they know they have done a really good job brushing? Perhaps they do have mirrors and every once in a while a nun will be overcome with the joy of existence and will watch herself in the mirror, holding her toothbrush like a microphone, lip syncing Bon Jovi’s “Livin on a Prayer,” while imagining that she is Gina and God is Tommy. And when she is done she will smile sheepishly and look up to God to forgive her for the outburst. And God will obviously forgive her because it’s not all that terrible of a thing to do, and also the song had the word “prayer” in the title.

Using the nun’s sharpie I write “SAT Mock Exam room 106” on two pieces of paper and using tape (which I also found in the upper right hand drawer) I tape the signs to the two main entrances of the school and then go back to the classroom to wait for students to arrive.

I am not sure how exactly I fell into teaching and proctoring SAT courses, but it is something I am doing for a while to pass the time. I am good at it but not amazing. I did not have a calling to it, the way a nun has a calling. I did not wake up one morning to a blinding ethereal light as the voluptuous clouds parted and a deep voice said, “You have been called to teach,” because I would have asked, “To teach what? What am I called to teach?” and the voice would have responded, “Algebra I and Algebra II and critical reading.” And I would have said, “Really? I who earned B’s and C’s in high school have been called to teach Algebra and critical reading?” And the voice would have cleared its throat awkwardly and said, “Uhhh, yes. And basic geography and grammar. And essay structure,” and I would have narrowed my eyes skeptically, pulling back all the curtains in my house to see if there was anyone standing behind them.

I am standing next to the doorway of the classroom, occasionally running ten feet away to the white porcelain water fountain that is mounted to the wall three feet off the ground. I drink, wetting my perpetually dry lips and walk back to the room and wait as one or two students mills in and sits down. I tell them the test will begin exactly at 3:30. I go back and sit at the desk waiting for more students to arrive and while I am waiting I check for new messages on my Blackberry but there is only a reminder for an Evite that I have already responded to, for a fall-themed party a friend of mine is throwing. I sit and wait as more children—many of them wearing hooded sweatshirts with the name of the school across the chest—meander in and sit at various spots around the room, dropping their Northface backpacks beside their desks. The room is filled with inspirational posters—one with the “Footprints” poem above a picture of a sandy beach and one with a picture of three prarie dogs, two of which look as though they are hugging one another, printed with the words, “The simple act of caring is heroic.” There is a small crucifix hung on the yellow cinderblock wall above the blackboard and over the back bulletin board is the quote, “Never believe that a few caring people can't change the world. For, indeed, that's all who ever have.”

I look again at the kids and out of twelve children, eleven of them are texting and the twelfth is playing with a trendy black rubberband on his wrist which, when removed, reveals itself to be the silhouette of a microphone stand. I cannot imagine what the doe-eyed nun has to say to a class of children who seem so far removed from her—a class of children who use smartphones in lieu of post-its and who stare at themselves in their bathroom mirrors for ages—examining their hair and the weird dark spot on their face that they wish would go away and worrying over how their teeth look. I sit quietly, glancing at the ubiquitous institutional clock placed to the upper right of the classroom door. I have ten minutes. I stand up and introduce myself and make sure everyone here is in the right classroom and explain to them how to fill out their test booklet, which they begin to do. Three boys stand up and form a line for the wall-mount, hand crank pencil sharpener and a girl raises her hand and asks if I have an extra calculator. Two students did not think to bring pencils, which I find mind boggling, and two well-prepared students pass extra pencils to those who need them, both students’ arms stretching, bridging the gap between the rows of desks. When everyone is set I instruct them to fill in the bubbles for practice test 4A, which is the test they are taking.

The clock hands read 3:30 and so I say, “Ok, open your test booklets and good luck. This section will be twenty five minutes,” and on the board I write, “Section 1: 3:30-3:55.” And then I watch them write.

The girls seem petite—lost in the enormous folds of their black hooded sweatshirts. The boys are all dark haired and swarthy, except for one who is blonde and a foot taller than most of his classmates and who writes clumsily with his left hand. I am amazed that I was this age once and that the boys I liked were boys this age—something which now seems as foreign as having a crush on a three year-old. I heard a male stand-up comic tell a joke once about how when he was younger he had a crush on Winnie Cooper from “The Wonder Years,” and how when he watched the show years later as an adult he was hit with the revelation, “Holy shit, she’s a little girl! I had all those dreams about her and she was a little girl!

The first section of the SAT—the one they are taking on the practice test right now—is the essay question, which will ask them something philosophical and open ended, and to which they (hopefully) will answer using a thesis statement and concrete examples. The question will have a quote—something like:

That which we obtain too easily, we esteem too lightly. It is dearness only which gives everything its value.” -Thomas Paine

And following the quote will be a question. Something like, “Do we value only what we struggle for? Plan your response, and then write an essay to explain your views on this issue. Be sure to support your position with specific points and examples.

And the kids will lean forward, elbows on their desks, hands pulling their mouths askew as they holds up their heads. And I wonder to myself if we value only what we struggle for but it is too much for me to think about at 3:45 on a Thursday so I flip open the New Yorker I have brought with me, turning to the cartoon caption contest on the final page. There is a picture of two men clinging desperately to a ship that is sinking inside a teacup. The contest encourages you to submit your answer at the website but this is an old issue, since I can never read the issues as fast as I get them, and this contest has already been won by someone like, “Alan Fried, Saugertes, NY” or “Diane Harrison, Minneapolis, MN.” One of the men in the drawing has his mouth open and I try to brainstorm what he would be saying—something about the Boston Tea Party or the expression, “Tempest in a Teapot,” but I cannot think of anything good or witty so I close the magazine and lay it in front of me on the desk. I glance at the clock and say, “You have five minutes remaining,” which makes the children sigh loudly and temporarily sit up straighter, furrowing their brows as they write furiously, trying to sum up their ideas. A few have finished and are sitting listlessly at their desks and I want to say, “No, write more! They want you to write more—you will get a better grade if the essay is longer!” But it does not really matter all that much. The advice I give most often after the test is not to dwell on what went wrong. Some of them will be unhappy with their essays and will continue to think about what they could have done differently throughout all the other sections of the test and I encourage them to learn from their mistakes without dwelling on them. Some of them will do incredibly well on this test and still not have any idea what they are doing with their lives and some of them will do nowhere near as well and will be happy and well-adjusted by thirty.

I have hit thirty and am not sure what I want out of life other than to do something well and to someday win the New Yorker cartoon caption contest. I am trying as hard as I can, but I would like to be a better SAT tutor and a better person. I would like to live by all the sappy rules on the inspirational posters that ring the classroom but I know that I will go home and beat myself up for something stupid, like not having a job in an office or buying the French Vanilla yogurt when I meant to buy plain or for deciding to cut my own bangs and then immediately regretting it.

I hear a slight tap and every student’s head jerks up from their papers and when I turn the nun is peering through the glass of the door. I make a motion for her to come in. She smiles sheepishly and mouths the words, “I’m sorry,” and after walking quietly toward me whispers the phrase, “My keys.” I open the wide shallow desk drawer and there they are—her keys, sitting in a nest of paperclips. She makes a mock gesture of hitting herself in the forehead with the palm of her hand and takes the keys and mouths the words, “Thank you.” Some of the students wave to her and she waves back. Their heads go back down to their essays and the nun surveys them as they scribble. She turns to me and smiles and says, “Keep up the good work,” and I cannot help grinning, happy to be acknowledged by her. I think to myself, “You too!” but do not say anything. I nod graciously, and with that she grasps her keys in her hand and walks gracefully out of the room.

I am envious of her that she knows exactly what she is doing with her life while I will spend the evening scrolling through the craigslist want ads, but at the same time, “That which we obtain too easily, we esteem too lightly.” I may struggle for a few additional years, but there is no need to beat myself up about it. I pull a post-it from her drawer and debate what I should write to inspire myself. “Courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point,” I think, but then decide that no, as true as it might be, it seems like something a nun would write. Grasping my pen lightly I write the words, “Defrost Chicken/Remember Mail Netflix!!!” and smile, plastering it onto the desktop.