Big tests inspire a very visceral reaction in me. I have always feared them in a way that is not normal. Probably because I am not very good at them. There are a few reasons for that. One is I just don’t test well on those large scale exams. Another is my aforementioned insane fear. Another, I think, is based in my diversion from competition. I don’t like being competitive. It doesn’t make me happy. It is kind of amazing I did so well in law school considering this fact, since law school is a bastion of competition where no one stops until they are standing in a pool of bloody bodies, covered in sweat with a smug look on their face. Not everyone is like that, of course. But it is a culture that is fed by the schools themselves. Can we have a new word for law school now? I feel like it is cursing my happy little blog each time I use it. You know how when people go to prison, after they get out, they talk about it like “you know, during the time I was away…” That’s how I feel about law school.
This time last year all of my fears about big tests became entangled with my fears about life and destiny and direction. I was so lost, just out of school after being a student for 21 years (not counting one year I escaped: then I was the teacher). I was afraid of loving and I was afraid of my instincts and I was afraid of the big bad world but mostly I was afraid of that test. The big one, you know? The one that sounds like a fun place just to mess with you? I was afraid of the bar. Very afraid.
So I just quit. I quit the bar, I quit New Orleans, and I quit life for a little while. I had a constant feeling of falling, as if I just kept going deeper and deeper and I didn’t have the ambition or energy to get back to the top, or even look towards the sky. I convinced myself that I was taking time to figure things out, but nothing could be farther from the truth. I was hiding. I was ignoring everything in my life- the debt that weighed so heavy on my shoulders, the job market and it’s never ending stream of rejections, my friends and family, myself.
Now I’m starting to peek out again. And part of that is facing what I am afraid of. So I reached out to Paris, and guess what? It worked out. I reached out to my friends and family and they were all still there and supporting me. And of course, I reached out to the bar. That pesky debt however…
So this morning I woke up in my hotel room a block away from Times Square and opened my toile curtains to a lovely view of a brick wall. I carefully placed the items I was allowed to take with me to the testing center. I was slightly terrified that accidentally bringing one too many pens, or the wrong flavor of chapstick, or a note with my walking directions would get me thrown out of the exam immediately so I packed only one pen, a water bottle, my wallet, and my laptop. I left the hotel around quarter of 7, which was a nice calm time- even in Times Square. The air was not too heavy yet and people were rolling up the shutters on their shops. I felt calm and a bit dazed, oscillating between feeling blessed to be able to experience a walk in New York in the morning when it is still waking up, and petrified of the small booklet of test questions that awaited me.
The testing center was huge and disorganized. The tension was palpable from a mile away. People were everywhere drinking coffee, reading notes, and glancing around uncomfortably. We lined up for a lifetime, and were finally let into what I can only call a glorified airline hanger.
The room was huge, very huge. I am bad a guessing sizes but I will tell you there were about 2500 candidates taking the test in there, at rickety plastic tables for two, and a proctor for about every ten people with their own wobbly white table. I was 694. It was freezing. The entire room was concrete, the walls and the ceiling and the floor. Everything was grey. Everything. It was one of the saddest rooms I have ever seen. There were no windows. Just rows and rows of those white tables, two chairs each, in never ending lines. The test began and it was four and a half hours of essay writing. I tried to write and write but my brain kept drying up. I understood what they wanted but the words were just not in my head. I trudged through the three essay questions with a half an hour to spare. This is one of my test-taking faults. I always finish early. In law school it was a blessing because I could unplug my laptop and high-tail it out of the room before all the others finished and started commiserating about the test questions in the lobby. I like to think I always finish early because I can quickly organize my thoughts and have a good grasp on the material, but it could be that I just want to get away from exams as quickly as possible.
I looked around and everyone was serious. They were all slightly hunched over their computers, gazing intently at their screens. I could see some screens and it looked like they had written a lot more than me but it was hard to tell. The proctor was filing her nails and casually glancing up every once in a while, looking as bored as I was. What a terrible job, I thought, sitting there for five hours looking at stressed people facing a life altering exam.
When we were let loose for lunch, and that is pretty literal as we were herded out of the room and into the food court, I was torn between going outside to defrost my bones or forcing down some terrible cafeteria food. I chose the latter because I had been too nervous to eat breakfast. I swiped a hamburger that gave me instant flashbacks to middle school because of its pure non-appeal and asked to sit at a table with a brunette snacking on a sandwich. After being seemingly surprised that I was talking to her she started to release a stream of negative comments. She is from New York, got a firm job, hates it, is avoided her other former classmates, ending it all with youknowhatimean and a knowing glance. I told her I am working in Paris even though I don’t like telling people that because it sounds like I’m bragging I think, even though it shouldn’t. But no one wants to know the nitty gritty about my fanatical life-long commitment to living in Paris, they just want to tell me about how they went there last summer and had really good mussels. Which is fine. I like to hear people’s Paris stories. And it means I don’t have to talk about my crazy situation.
Anyway, after lunch we were hoarded back into the room. I went in early to my seat while everyone was lining up outside of the bathrooms. I figured I would take a little break during the exam to freshen up, which is a huge perk of the early finish- breaks aren’t stressful. So I sat down at the table who had seen so many stressed elbows and I laid my head down and…. Well I do something I never do… I prayed. I tried to make the room as quiet as possible and I said in my head
God, whoever you are, and if you exist or not, I hope you aren’t mad that I don’t really believe in you. And when me and Beth make all those baby Jesus jokes, we’re just kidding, you know? I mean I definitely don’t believe in Jesus but just in case you take that personally, I’m sorry. I need your help because this is really important to me. Just let me pass this test. Please. I don’t want to do this again. Just let me find all my knowledge and all my skill and make it through. I’ll never again ask for anything else.
Well it just seemed like all I could do. The second half of the test started and I hammered away on my computer until time was called. We all filed out of the building looking vaguely drugged and slightly tight, as when you stay up too late drinking with people who aren’t really your friends but you end up telling them your life story. It was that kind of morning, but in the New York evening. I felt like saying “Don’t worry, guys, we’ll never speak of this again.”
When I walked back to my hotel the city was breathing gusts of hot air. It was awake and ready to sizzle. The roads were packed with yellow taxis and the sidewalks were flooded with people walking to and fro. Half over now it didn’t seem so scary, but who knows? Tomorrow is day two, then I’m off to Brooklyn to knock any memory of this exam out of my mind for a while, with the aid of martinis and cute boys. And I’m tired.