Monday, June 22, 2009
When I decided to take the SAT a new realm opened up before me. I had a new project, something to occupy my jilted mind with. This time the promise was of a fair trial. The rigidity of the testing process contrasted sharply with the examinations that I was used to. My calendar shone with highlighted dates, my stock of number 2 pencils was replenished. I was going to take a test and it was going to be honorable. For the first time there would be no cheating. Nothing had been that strict before. I thought it an auspicious beginning, like a yellow brick path that would take me, finally, somewhere.
The age of eighteen found me weary and flippant. An early age to be tired of life. If I had read Camus then, perhaps he would have managed to teach me how, on the whole, men are more good than bad. That precept, had I espoused it in earnest, would have obviated the bitterness I accrued with each passing day. Admittedly, it was not life I was fed up with but living itself, the active participation in everything that happened to me. By this time I had had my share of disappointments, the series of which reached the pinnacle with the sordid burlesque that was the Baccalaureate. The sudden realization that nepotism and favoritism overrode honest work sent me fuming, almost in hysterics. I returned home from each test in a daze.
As I waited for my turn to the oral examinations at the ramshackle school where I was assigned, the human pantomime unraveled before my eyes. Sloths I had taken classes with, who could not speak in full sentences, who did not know how to hold a book, gloated with triumph as they emerged from the building flaunting their grades. Their bought grades. Like everybody else I knew their worth, their worthlessness. The rest of us stood paralyzed before this revulsive satire. The world had been turned upside down. Brutes that were not good enough to kiss our feet were gods, and we were their groupies, their retinue. My peers shook hands with these harlequins obsequiously, as if the wheel of fortune had been somehow reversed and they were now the heavyweights, the masters. Even more than these thieves who were taking the stage, it was those timeserving Pharisees that especially nauseated me. It was like watching Beavis and Butthead, where everyone pretends not to notice how utterly stupid the situation is. Here we were pretending that it is natural for incompetence to conquer all. Why did we feign so well? Perhaps we are too familiar with the souls of mercenaries. We live among them. Sometimes we inhabit them. Whatever is required. In this instance it was required to dissimulate that it is natural for incompetence to prevail, so we delivered.
The performance was unbearable. I allowed myself to be incensed, to seethe with indignation. I even allowed myself the pleasure of contempt and pity for the fatuous opportunists who were now the center of attention. If you ever lived where I lived, you would know that one must get over these things quickly to keep on living sanely. But presently I could not reconcile myself with this particular situation, where success had been so shamelessly travestied.
It is hard to regain your composure in such situations, especially if you are the next one on the list. My name was called. So I played along in the charade, went through the door with apprehension like an innocent little schoolgirl. I knocked and was beckoned to enter. But when I came face to face with my examiners something went terribly wrong. My face was screaming. I was trying to tame my mutinous muscles but they would not relent. A battle was being fought under my skin, between propriety and visceral insurgence. What were you thinking! my face screamed at the pathetic duet before me. They were two women. One of them: your typical crone with aspirations of coquetry. The other: young and quite pretty, but severe and forbidding. Two anonymous shapes, two more pieces in the modular chess game of playing academics. Professors, they call them, these quacks who make a mockery of our merits. What were you thinking, I offered silently. They looked at me blankly. Maybe I smiled, I don’t know. The evaluation began.
I had my notes in my hand; my erudite vocabulary up my sleeve. As I spoke my palms sweated uncontrollably and I had to hide them. The older deviless, impressed, nodded along to encourage me. A smile insinuated itself on the lips smudged with flaming lipstick. She had probably expected nothing of value from me. But the young one, she was a tough cookie. A furrowed brow was all I got. What was truly unpleasant was that I knew why. I was the hireling of no one. I had no warrant, no star next to my name, no one of importance had put the approval stamp on my value. My bought value. As I mused on this my confidence waned and I became transparent. The damsel saw the battle under my skin and she knew what I was about, all conceit and contempt. Who are you to judge me, she seemed to say. Get used to it, kid: this is how it starts. You start all hopeful and starry-eyed and when you come out of the scholastic slaughter-house voila, the pedagogue-humanoid with his wires still sticking out of his head, freshly incinerated and recycled for future use. When you are 30, living with your parents and earning minimum wage you get laxer on quixotic affairs like correctitude and justice. If all this is a pile of crap, then we all partake of it in equal servings. And why should you be different? Come here, grab a spoon, dig in.
There was silence, suddenly. I had finished answering the questions. I quickly assessed my harvest: I had managed to impress an unsuspecting old hag, who gave me a 10 and continued to praise my vocabulary as she scribbled down her notes. I had also managed to secure the animosity of the young witch, who insisted on a 9 for a technicality. Apparently I had pronounced a word wrong, or something equally insubstantial. I should have felt it unfair on my skin, itching, like eczema. Instead my perception was all warped and I felt like they had made me a gift, been kind to me when they could have wronged me so much worse. An absurd debt weighed on me. For all the reading, the culture and the vocabulary I had behind me I felt shamed. I cannot explain it. My conscience told me that I owed these people something, perhaps the respect that I could not summon. My mind was plagued with too much contempt and I felt guilty for it. So I bowed respectfully and carried off my crippled grade. I played the angel until the last moment. I was an exemplary doormat.
The door made a horrible sound behind me, like a pendulum clock marking an inexorable, most regrettable moment in time. The corridor was dark, ominous. At the end of it there was the door. I was going to go through it, outside, where the crowd was waiting to applaud its soldiers of fortune and offer its contrived sanction. I felt lightheaded. I sat down against the wall. Reality came back to me in a cascade. I was trembling with anger again. I reviled my own weakness. How could I have been such a softie? How could I have not protested? I had compromised my pride in a detestable manner. There are few things more detestable than detesting yourself at any given time.
I sat calmly, matter-of-factly on the floor. I did not pull my hair out. I did not cry. I understood well. This was not a test: it was a compromise. The Baccalaureate in Romania is the empirical test of identifying the choking point. Let us ascertain, then, how much crap you can take. Come on, another spoonful. You can do it. Just swa-llow. Gooood. The doses increase, of course, as one proceeds through the thicket of instructional hierarchy. In college we use the ladle instead of the spoon. Later it is one whole cauldron at a time. There is an adjustment period for ingesting morally repulsive dishes. People can get used to anything. Even to murder, according to Meursault. Ah, Camus again.
Sure enough, the crowd is waiting outside with bated breath. I tell them. I don’t know what is wrong with me. I should keep silent and wait to assuage my demons in privacy. But Providence has other plans for me. As soon as I disclose my grade one of the fiends elbows his way out of the audience and confronts me. He and I shared a classroom for four years. I know that he does not know how to spell or how to multiply. He knows nothing about me except that I use words that he does not understand. This ignoramus has decided that he is better than me. It is like a scene from Beavis and Butthead, I swear. He throws me a cold supercilious look, the look of kings. I am a mendicant before him, a destitute literatus begging for alms. I look him up and down. He is wearing a football shirt colored in bright hues, like a talking parrot, and snow-white sneakers, a famous brand I am sure. His neck is adorned with a heavy gold chain. He has healthy-looking skin, amber-colored by the sun, like a peasant. He looks puffy on the inside and outside, like one who is well-fed and well-anchored.
It takes eons for his words to find their way into my skull. “What did you get? he asks, although he knows. He wants to hear it again, the confirmation of his grandeur. I should turn around and leave, I know it. Masochists they are called, if I am not mistaken, the ones who seek hurt and harm on purpose. So I remain and say: 9.5. Pfui! he dismisses me. I got a 10, girl. You’re lame. And then he tilts his head in such a way, like John Travolta in Pulp Fiction, like a thug. He has his hands in his pockets and he flicks me off, he just flicks me off, as if I were some kind of irksome insect. Satisfied with the information I just delivered he is bored with my existence and presently his gaze wanders off to the next person coming out through the door, the next possible victim of his disgusting braggadocio.
I have no recollection of how I arrived home. No one came with me, so I must have walked. I remember climbing the four flights of stairs under a spell. My father opened the door. That is when I transformed. I became another person, a shrieking, frolicking monster. I lacked the enzyme required to digest the baseness revealed to me today. I was incredulous about the whole thing. Maybe I dreamed it. I am not one of those who stop eating and sink into silence when depressed. No, I rationalize my way through everything. I have to talk, speculate, predict. But there was no logic to find in this rigmarole, no formula to weed my way out of the labyrinth.
Surely enough, the same thing happened the next day, like a charm. I was decorated with a 9.5, in English, ironically, the sanctum of my academic breakthroughs. I was nearly delirious. Day after day I watched how some students who were below me, in knowledge as in ambition, were exalted, while I was demoted. By the end of this Kafkaesque nightmare I was crazed. I was convinced that I had no real idea of my value. I was either a genius or a failure and I oscillated between these scenarios from one moment to the next. When I came to see the final results, posted on the windows for everybody to see, I could conjure no anger or rebellion. The fire had burned out and only cinders were left, smoldering quietly. My curiosity titivated me, so I perused the lists searching for the name of my nemesis of the other day. In all his glory there he was, decked out with 9s and 10s like a stolen Christmas tree. Behold, man, the underdog genius of thermodynamics. Of English. Of programming. Of literature. Of mathematics. By Xerxes, his encyclopedic mind has dwarfed us all. And how well he kept his treasure all these years, feigning ignorance, ridiculing himself to amuse us, to secure his secret, only to let it surface now, in this epiphanic conclusion of another scholastic stage. How misleading it all was!
The academic thief is a new breed of man, one that perfects itself with every generation that embarks upon the sacrilege that we call school. Romania is the place where anyone could buy the subject of the national Baccalaureate in advance for $25 on the street, like one would buy cigarettes from a street vendor. Americans take for granted the typed and framed Honor Code that they hang up in their classrooms, oblivious that this trivial icon stands for something grand, which in other countries is entirely nonexistent. I am talking about fairness, of course. In the room where I took the SAT there must have been thirty people, all of whom in another context would have yielded to the unethical practices of the formula that they were used to. But this was not a “Romanian” type of thing. As soon as we were given the subjects everyone was quiet. There was no one smuggling books under the desk, whispering answers across the room, covering his eyes while peeking into the neighbor’s test. No one punched me in the back urging me to pass a cheat-sheet to the front. It felt strange to the others, I could see it. They laughed at this unprecedented scrupulousness. I found it strange too, like a new shoe that pinches a little before you break it in. But it felt worthwhile.