“What do you want to do after high school?” the older woman asked. She was sitting in the pew behind me and I had been smelling her perfume, an odd mix of roses and dust, the entire church service.
“I’m not sure,” I smiled at her. I couldn’t help but let my eyes wander over her wrinkled skin that sagged around her neckline and fell over her cheekbones like a limp tablecloth. Her eyes had so sunk into her skull that they left sharp shadows beneath her lids. I shuddered at her deep red lipstick, so out of place against her pale skin and colorless hair. I could never imagine looking like that.
“Are you even going to college? My husband never went. He died three years ago. Got run over by a tractor.”
I shrugged, praying that the droning organ would play faster and bring the service to a close. To tell the truth, I had not spent much time considering my future. I stood abruptly as the pastor dismissed the congregation. What was I going to do after high school? I would hate to end up the victim of a farm equipment catastrophe. I should probably go to college.
“See you next week, sweetie.” The woman’s voice made me cringe. Smart people go to college. I had a 4.0. I’m smart. I sought the advice of my mother and one of my teachers about the next steps I should take. I needed to prepare myself for college.
My mother introduced me to a college admissions requirement: the ACT. My test date came way too quickly and the truth of the matter is, taking the ACT was one of the most stressful events in my 17 years of existence.
“Room 218, upstairs,” the middle-aged woman said, handing me my identification. Several of my classmates were already seated, staring at their desktops as though they were as nervous as I. I took a seat in the back and waited. It was an uninviting room. The floor was lined with big, uneven tiles and the pastel pink paint was chipping. Outside, an overcast sky concealed every ray of sunshine. A plastic ceiling fan trembled and squeaked with each turn. This school was no palace. The desks were small, but at least they faced the large clock. Using it to pace myself on this test would be crucial to a successful completion.
My siblings appeared in the doorway and sat in the adjacent aisles. I fiddled with my calculator to pass the time. It was 8:03. We should have started by now. The instructors stood motionless at the front. My brother finally broke the silence.
“What are we waiting on?” I could see the other students loosen up, ready for the answer. The instructor smiled, her short curly hair bouncing as she explained, “There are two students who have not arrived. We are required to wait 15 minutes to allow them to get here.” I rolled my eyes. My brother moaned.
At 8:14 a.m. a tall, lanky kid with glasses ambled in and sat in front of me.
“Way to be late,” my brother commented under his breath. Luckily, the second student never arrived to face his condemnation.
“Okay,” the instructor announced. “It looks like we are ready to begin.” I bit my fingernails as she read the rules printed on the front page of the test booklet.
“The English test is a 75-question test. You will have 45 minutes to complete this section. You may begin.”
I creased open the booklet. The first question was simple. All I was required to do was pick which set of words best replaced the underlined portion. I felt confident, scanning the information and filling in the tiny bubbles on the answer key. I paused only to glance at the clock. Finishing with several minutes to spare, I checked my work.
“Time,” the younger instructor proclaimed. She appeared to be just out of college. A small ring on her finger suggested she may be engaged, or even married. The sound of pencils hitting desks echoed throughout the classroom.
“Okay, science is next. If you finish early, you may look over your answers, but do not return to any other section of the test. You have 35 minutes. Begin.”
Honestly, I have never been a big fan of science. I struggled in chemistry, and biology more or less kicked my butt. The arrangement of graphs and tables was as comprehensible as a foreign language. I struggled to make sense of the statistics while my confidence sank. Suddenly, the strident blare of a train came through the open window and I flinched. Now my mind was really wandering. I pushed my way through all 40 questions just in time to hear “Pencils down.”
After a short break, we continued with the math test. My stomach began to rumble; I should have eaten a bigger breakfast. I preferred math to any other subject because there was always one clear answer. I flew through the first several problems, pausing only to use my calculator. I was distracted by a clicking sound. Several students looked up as we watched the instructor climb on a chair to turn off the wobbly ceiling fan. I made myself focus and finished with time to spare.
Reading was next. I could not believe how long the ACT was taking. I looked at my brother. He was picking at his eraser. Outside, a bird was twittering boisterously. I began to wonder if I had suddenly developed attention deficit disorder. The literary passages consisted of lengthy bits of fiction and social sciences. I used my pencil as a bookmark, scanning the material for answers. The robin continued to squawk a springtime tune. My fingers painstakingly guided my pencil over each bubble. My left leg ticked with nerves. Time was up.
Our instructors stacked the exams and dismissed us for a short break. At the water fountain I noticed the adjacent classrooms were already vacant. I sighed, wishing I were heading home.
Plopping back in our seats, we were given another pamphlet and one more set of instructions. In 30 minutes, we were required to write an essay about whether or not high-school classes should begin later in the day. I scratched out some ideas and began writing my five-paragraph theme. My hand cramped as I scribbled, and I noticed everyone else was done. I felt nervous that I wouldn’t finish on time. Summing up my points, I finally set down my pencil. After almost five hours of testing, my first encounter with the ACT was over.
It could be nine weeks before I would receive my scores, but I had taken one of the first major steps in continuing my education. Although I felt uneasy about the exam, I was proud that I had taken responsibility for my future.
Fellowship went a bit more smoothly the following Sunday. My friend was in her usual seat. I sat a little straighter and even gave her a little smile. The organ music began with several harmonic chords.
“You’re almost a senior now,” she whispered over my shoulder. “What are you going to do? Are you going to college?”
“Yeah,” I said confidently. “I’m going to college.”
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.