I’m sitting at a high school geography teacher’s desk while two students take a practice SAT. My job is to walk up to the dry erase board every twenty minutes or so and tell them that they’re running out of time. That last geometry problem will go unanswered. And your carefully planned five-paragraph essay is a sad four and three quarters.
(These students are, actually, uncannily expedient test takers. So far the final moments of each section have been an uncomfortable staring contest, in which I require them to sit still for the allotted twenty-five minutes and they accost me with their eyes, demanding that they just be allowed to complete the test already.)
This is the second test I’ve proctored this semester. While I don’t particularly like arriving at 8:30 am on a Saturday to oversee standardized testing, this is an easy way for a poor graduate student to earn $60. Because these are practice tests, I’m not required to walk the aisles, scowling away any attempts to cheat. Instead, I work on my own research and writing, or read, or stare off into the distance reminiscing about my own high school days, when SAT scores seemed really important. Those were the days when the SATs included analogies, which was awesome. Because I am the analogy master.
Carrots is to analogies as Yo-Yo Ma is to the cello.
This morning, I’m proctoring at a big high school west of Houston, a school is much bigger than my alma matter in Charlotte, North Carolina. Their hallways require cardinal directions: North Hall, East Wing. The military precision of the school rules posted near lockers and restrooms suggest a student body much bigger than my high school’s. You can only visit the registrar’s office before and after school or in the twenty minutes between Lunch A and Lunch B. And the students filing in for what I’m assuming is Saturday detention are required to show IDs and initial beside their names on a pre-printed roster.
But high schools are like Target stores. No matter where you are in the country, you will be able to navigate through the building with relative ease. There will be recognizable fixtures, standard signage to guide you if you become momentarily disoriented, and even familiar odors. If Target smells like popcorn, synthetic fabrics, and floor wax, high schools smell like copy machines, stale cafeteria french fries, varsity basketball sweat, and puppy-love desperation. When I was in high school, that desperation smelled a lot like an overdose of Blue Water cologne. These days I suspect it might smell of Axe body spray.
I can’t decide if this predictability is soothing or a cruel cosmic joke meant to recall adolescent anxieties. Probably both, because high school nostalgia seems to be organized spatially. The cafeteria recalls lunch hour with Bee, Rin, and Noel. Soothing. The gym evokes at best a heavy-headed malaise about physical education and at worst a desire to leave, immediately, or I may have to participate in some sort of fitness test in front of my peers. (The flight impulse would not be so powerful, of course, if this fitness test includes the flex-arm hang. Carrots is to the flex-arm hang as Roger Federer is to the high-speed serve.) Anxiety. High school classrooms recall either hijinks in Mrs. Baker’s junior AP English class or that stomach-sinking moment when, during a Calculus test, I realize (again) that I am not meant for math.