Taking the SATs Again—This Time at Age 57
A grown man, alone with a few No. 2s and a horde of heavily tutored teenagers, relives the ultimate aptitude exam.
The last time I took the SATs, the country was sunk in a misguided war, a Texas president was on the run and his presidency reviled, high crimes and misdemeanors were afoot, charges of treason were in the air, authority was widely thought to be a crock, big business was the devil, France didn’t like us (so nu?), but French philosophers were king, McDonald’s burgers cost 15 cents, fries 12, cokes a dime, Trans Fats was a cross-dressing wrestler, everybody I liked was on drugs, I would soon have antisocial hair, and I very much wanted to ace the Scholastic Aptitude Tests—the SATs—to ensure entry to Harvard, one of three portals then offering ironclad guarantees of the right eventually to have the final say over the direction of everything.
I never got to Harvard (I could’ve been contributing my pay from this article to the Endowment, idiots!). But it’s good to be the king, as per Supreme Leader Mel Brooks, even if the peasants are revolting. The SATs, so they said, were a do-or-die deal on the road to dukedom and, who knows, maybe higher than that. Not to mention a way out of Toledo, where I happened to be passing the fleeting days of youth. Ever been to the netherworld across the Hudson?
In the spirit of the SAT reading comprehension test, consider the following data and carefully assess the main point of each of the following two (2) passages:
Neil Armstrong, an Ohio boy from Wapakoneta, about 60 miles south of Toledo, had to go to the moon to get out of the state. Young Neil (often confused with Neil Young) tried war in Korea after going to Purdue in neighboring Indiana, a state where science is invariably taught by the coach, and given the options of returning to Wapakoneta or going to the moon, and, in fact, being the first guy shot to the moon (this was before Donald Trump bought it), thought the moon looked good.
◯a To Wapakonetans, Toledo probably looks like Vegas.
◯b The narrator only needs 1200s to blow the state and get to the East Coast.
◯c Neil Armstrong needed 800s on his math and 200 on his English to be sealed into a can and shot to a parking lot in
◯d There is no answer, there is only
◯e What’s for lunch?
Jim Brown, the greatest running back in football history, who ran 30 yards each time he got the ball for the Cleveland Browns, with eight guys hanging onto his legs and three mushbrains, who didn’t have the sense that God gave livestock, was trampled to death at the line of scrimmage.
◯a Brown was trying to win the game for Cleveland.
◯b Brown was trying to leave the state.
◯c As a youngster, Brown did the initial work on the seven tunnels on the Pennsylvania Turnpike.
◯d There is no victory, there is only Talmud.
◯e What’s for lunch?
Getting out of Toledo, therefore, hung in the balance of which circles a No. 2 pencil carefully and completely colored in. (Correct answer is B in each case; score one-half point each for C and E.)
That was 40 years ago. On October 14th, I took the SATs again at the request of Westchester Magazine.
Having forgotten why I agreed to this mission should have been a red flag about prospects for success. Like many another veterans of the Psychotropic Wars of the 1960s, I suffered severe Short Term Memory Impairment, or SHOTMI. Answering questions about what I’d just read seemed pretty idiotic (and forget math), not to mention impossible. Not only had I not finished reading anything since Dee Dee Myers was the Playboy centerfold in 1968, but this magazine’s editor’s own husband, NYU journalism professor Mitchell Stephens, had written a book, The Rise of the Image, the Fall of the Printed Word (Oxford University Press), certifying that the rising age of the image had rendered words obsolete. So why even bother? And what’s more, Stephens had first dibs on this assignment—and turned it down!
I knew Stephens in the dÃ©classÃ© college where we had been granted mercy admissions. In them days, Stephens had hair over his eyes and stumbled around for years not being able to see anything. But he always seemed to know more than I did. It made me nervous, therefore, to show up for an aptitude test in a modality that he already called obsolete.
Well, let’s drop back a sec to deal with the process of how I got to take the SATs. First of all, registration is online, which any kid can do while playing Texas Hold ’Em and uploading files of his sister-with-dog videos to YouTube. It was unnerving, however, the first 10 times www.collegeboard.com rejected my filled-in form, noting that I hadn’t filled in the “Name of High School” but left it blank (umâ€¦I don’t think I want my scores reported there again), and that I’d filled in “Date of Birth” with “See Truman Administration.” The next hurdles were agreeing to SAT Terms and Conditions, which basically constitute the limits of how far a kid’s mother can bug the company about low scores, and a few other minor monetary implications of not showing up, i.e., without a ticket or a picture ID, or showing up in an altered state at 7:45 am, when any self-respecting 17-year-old is just getting in. Correct answer: they get to keep the money, about $41.50 and $18 for revealing in greater detail where the kid drooled on the form. And it costs another $20.50 to reschedule. (You owe me for this, Westchester Magazine, more than you can possibly imagine.)
Saturday morning, October 14, was a crisp, blue-sky autumn day over Peekskill High, where I signed up to take the test—stashing my cigar in the branches above the cigarette butts sprinkled around the potted bush outside the cafeteria door. The other kids wore sweatshirts of where they wanted to go: Muhlenberg, Clarkson,
I tried to get my mind into needing a good score to get to the future, to get out of Peekskill. I recited everything I knew about Peekskill, which I happen to like: some people wanted to get here. Peekskill had been a legendary stop on the Underground Railroad for escaping slaves. Peekskill High is where LA Clippers star Elton Brand went to school. Pee Wee Herman was born here. Ditto Mel Gibson—born here and blew out to Australia, where his father could continue developing his unique social theories to appreciative marsupials. None of them needed the SATs to get out. L. Frank Baum wandered the once yellow brick roads of Peekskill as a cadet at the military academy. There were the famous riots of the summer of ’49 involving
Paul Robeson. Crayola Crayons started in Peekskill. Same with Fleischmann’s Margarine. And they all blew town.
George Pataki grew up here on a prosperous Peekskill apple farm and made it to, well, Albany. Hey, if Pataki could parlay 1100s, I estimate, to Yale, so could any kid from Peekskill.
Everybody is perpetually peeved at the SATs. The tests went through a period of criticism about cultural and class bias, and from what I saw in the only part of the tests I understood—English—they basically tinkered with the text to appear racially inclusive, i.e., now there was an impenetrable passage about the pull of Africa on African-Americans before an endless tee-hee passage from an obscure Charlotte BrontÃ« novel last read to President Taylor on his sickbed that reportedly killed his will to live.
My eyes literally were blurry by the comprehension and usage tests. Good luck to the poor fool who had to read my dulled No. 2 pencil handwriting on the essay about what’s wrong with competition (Uh, standardized tests?).
“They’re not looking so much for what you say,” said Frank Ciulla, founder of Hudson Educational Services (www.hudsoneducational.com), a Manhattan-based company that tutors academic subjects and does test preparation, “so much as making sure you’re literate and you didn’t buy a canned essay off the net.” Do a topic sentence, develop it clearly, keep your sentences short to steer clear from run-on sentences, Ciulla advised, and you’re home free. (So much for this article.)
Confronted by endless tables in the Daily Racing Form, I had a better chance at the track picking horses by jockey colors than figuring out the SAT math questions. They might as well have been written in Arabic. (Oh, they are.) “That’s always the first thing to go,” Ciulla said, “but with a little coaching for adults taking the SATs, you’d be surprised how much comes back.” Comes back? There were squiggles and symbols I’d never seen. I ignored the advice about bringing a graphing calculator—and do what with it besides take it off my desk every time the exam proctor, Rachel, a pretty Diane Lane-style teacher and mom of three, warned that it was to be placed below my chair. When was the last time anyone told you to put something useless under your seat? So, ◯d “32” looked like a pretty dependable answer in the math sections.
The bottom line is this. The SATs are designed for its clients—universities—to predict the success of its raw material—students—in university, not life. It doesn’t occur to large parts of the world to trash the applications of the idiot offspring of despots or the dotty rich. University in America is still the main portal to power, and decidedly only one part of a process that makes a reasonable stab at meritocracy, that is, if you discount what parents pay to get their kids prepped for the tests. Fees of $90 per hour, up or down a few bucks, are pretty standard.
Nothing has changed out there in the world since the first time I took the SATs, as outlined in paragraph one. Yadda-yadda about a
“So how was it, man?” the live-wire kid in the room boomed out at me at the end of the test.
“Hard, dude,” I answered. “I’m gonna take it again when I’m nineteen.”
In anticipation of angry letters from Toledo and Wapakoneta, Harlan Jacobson, king of all he surveys at wwww.talkcinema.com, is tiring of life here in the pressure-ridden forests of Westchester and planning to return to Ohio after a short detour to a non-extradition country on advice of counsel.