(Not) The End of the World

October 22, 2011
It was far too early on a cold Saturday morning that I awoke. I had had a brief and restless sleep, and performed my morning routine with all the grace of corpse, groggily pouring a bowl of cereal and glancing at the clock. 5:15 a.m. The temperature in the house was unbearably cold, as it usually was in the morning, and I shivered in my heavy flannel. February 2nd. Hours before the sunrise, at a time forsaken by light, I prepared myself for test day.

I had looked toward the entrance exam to Union County Magnet High School with neither fear nor apprehension but with excitement; I wasn't a particularly big fan of exams, but I would have been excited for anything that brought me closer to acceptance at U.C.M.H.S. I had heard little about the test; it seemed that there was little to hear but vague reassurances – “it's easy, don't worry” or “it's not that bad”. In any case I wasn't particularly nervous – my scholarly career up to that point had been defined by ease and success, and my luck wouldn't run out now. If anyone was going to fail it wouldn't be me – it couldn't be me. Not with so much riding on it.

The cold of the house turned from uncomfortable to invigorating as visions of the school paraded through my head. I had seen its spacious halls, its reassuringly modern design that seemed to communicate less “prison” and more “educational institution”; its classrooms that resembled miniature amphitheaters equipped with desks and swivel chairs. Most of all, I dreamed of the seemingly massive, spherical cafeteria, every bit as enchanting to me as Spaceship Earth at Epcot, with its lunch stations and their cheeky names (“New Deli,” “Soup Tsunami”). Surely if a school could lavish such wealth and care onto its cafeteria – its lowly cafeteria – it was a school worth attending.

I had been thinking of U.C.M.H.S. a lot lately, perhaps to the point of obsession. And it seemed the more I thought about it, the worse Burnet Middle School became. I had already disliked the school, with its confined hallways, its draconian rules, its stuffy, overbearing administrators. But now, once-innocuous parts of the school seemed to grow more sinister. Minor annoyances grew massive and the little perks of middle school that had so excited me in sixth grade turned sour. I hated our absurdly cramped lockers that forced us to carry our books at all times; I hated our minuscule third floor that added fifteen extra steps for no good reason; I hated the one, singular, one-way hallway that was yet another barrier to navigation; and, above all, I hated Burnet's bizarre, omnipresent brownish tint.

I was ready to leave, to escape from the drab brown building that had held me hostage and enter into the bright future of a real education. There were no uncertainties in my mind – or at least none worth acknowledging. My parents, long the opponents of my enthusiasm, attempted to deflate my excitement with their inquiries. “How are you going to handle the hour-long ride?” I liked car rides, they let me think. “What if you decide you don't want to be a surgeon? What do you do if you want to leave allied health?” I'd figure it out when I got there. My logic was impeccable.

My father spared me the usual interrogation as we passed through the freezing drizzle to the family car. He put the key in the ignition and the engine roared as triumphantly as a 2007 Nissan Altima was capable. The long ride to Scotch Plains passed by in what seemed like minutes as the stone facade of the twelfth-best high school in the state loomed ever closer. Twelfth-best! In the state! My excitement was palpable. We pulled into the packed parking lot, full of academic hopefuls from dozens of towns around the county.

The calm diction of Fresh Air Weekend filled the car as we sidled into one of the three open parking spaces in the lot. I put on my best look of disinterest to preempt the questioning as my father turned to me. “What time do you need me to pick you up?”

“I think the test is going to end sometime around noon, but I'll just call you when I get out.”

“Okay. And listen, even if you don't get in, don't feel too bad about it. There's a lot of things that can keep you out of a school like this.”

“Alright, Dad.” Ugh.

I ran a slow jog to the front door, partly to avoid the rain, partly to get there as fast as I could. I entered into the cool, blue-tinted lobby and waited my turn with bated breath. A young woman, perhaps a teacher or a counselor, strode confidently into the room. “All right, everybody, single file. The entrance exam will be beginning soon.” Me and about eighty others formed a perfect line as we were led through the seemingly infinite hallway to the cafeteria that had so captivated me before.

Another line, just as long, approached as we proceeded through the hall. Their faces were fresh with looks of relief, smiling almost in disbelief at what they had done. They beamed with enthusiasm as they answered our line's questions. “Yo, how was it?”

“It was so easy!”

“How do you think you did?”

“Dude, don't even worry about it.”

If I had been worried before, my fears would have certainly been allayed. I now had all the confirmation I needed that this test would fall before me like so many others. As the end of the corridor finally came into view, I felt like a champion about to square off against an amateur. I sat down and let the official instructions glide over my head as I waited to receive my test booklet.

The booklet was wholly nonthreatening; colored with a cool pink hue and filled with friendly rounded bubbles, it stood apart from the hard greens and sharp edges of the Scantron sheets I had grown so accustomed to using. I tore off the flimsy plastic wrap and carefully used my eraser to rip apart the stickers that held the book shut. I sat with shaking hands, listening to the endless drone of the proctor. There was only one obstacle left to getting in. I was so close.

The word “begin” rang out like the gun in a footrace, and I felt a tremendous rush as I started. First section: language arts. I had thirty minutes to work until I reached the page that said “STOP.” I used ten. The section did little to intimidate me; I identified errors with ease and completed sentences like a master. The critical reading passage went by in a blur and the questions were a joke – “which sentence doesn't belong?”; “which statement would the author most likely agree with?” Eighth grade honors English had trained me well, and my confidence loomed ever larger.

Next section: essay. Yet another pitiful roadblock. I crafted my essay with all the care of a master artisan, making sure everything was in its proper place – that was the thing I liked about essays, they were like writing by numbers. First paragraph, intro; second, argument one; third, argument two, and so on. I was midway through the essay, handily answering the question with no issue. And then time was called. Hmm.

I was undeterred. Surely what I had written was more than enough, and even if I had lost points on the essay, I could easily make them up with the rest of the test. Mathematics, my old nemesis, came next; to be honest I was a little concerned – math had always been my weakest subject. But I was nothing if not adaptable. I'd handled everything else up to this point, and I could handle this.

“Question 1: Identify all points of symmetry on the polygon?” My heart sank. What? Points of symmetry? Who remembers that? “Find x if this figure is an isosceles right triangle.” Wait, what is an isosceles right triangle? My confidence fell apart bit by bit with each passing question as I slowly stumbled through the final sections. At a little more than halfway through mathematics section two, time was called. I let out a heavy sigh.

As we were led out of the cafeteria I was treated to the same call-and-response routine as before. One of my friends passed by. “Hey, Jordan, how'd you do?” I pretended I didn't hear him.

My father was already waiting in front of the school when I exited. The rain had cleared and I walked slowly through the crowds of students to the car. “So, how did it go?”

“I don't want to talk about it.” The ride went by in silence as I stared out the window at the dull gray of the sky. When the car arrived home, I went upstairs and laid on my bed, staring at the ceiling. My world had shattered. It was all over. I already knew I had failed.

The next few weeks were a depressed blur, though I hid it well from my peers. I steered clear from conversations about the magnet school or its entrance exam. I no longer wanted to think about it. I looked toward my now-certain destination, Union High School, with chagrin. It seemed nothing but a continuation of the boredom and gloom of Burnet. The sleek, beautiful architecture of U.C.M.H.S. now seemed more taunting than tantalizing.

After a few months, results began to come in, and I avoided news from my friends as much as I could. One by one, they came into school beaming as they discussed their acceptance letters. The more I heard, the worse I felt. It was bad enough that the magnet school had sucked the life out of me, but now it was stealing away my friends. I hoped against hope that my results would simply be lost in the mail, unknown forever.

I was not so lucky. One April afternoon after school, my mother wore a particularly anguished look on her face. “Hey,” she said as I walked through the door, “we got your results from the magnet school test.”

I knew what would happen, but I asked the question anyway. “And? Did I get in or not?”

“No, you didn't. Sorry, honey.” She averted her eyes and tried to fake some cheer. “But, I got on the phone with a lady from the school, and she says that you were really close to being accepted. There were just too many applicants from Union.” I felt even worse. Not only had I fallen short of my goal, I was an aberration, a freak victim of statistics. At the same time, though, the news carried with it some relief; in the weeks between the test and the results, what had got at me most was the anticipation, the small, nagging thought in the back of my head that said, “I might still have this.” At least now I had some closure.

The exam slowly faded into the background in the final stretches of the school year as I resigned myself to my fate. I still had no love for Union High and I still longed for Union County Magnet. But, at the same time, I finally felt like it was out of my hands, like I no longer had to think about my failure. June drew to a close, I graduated, and life went on as it always had. Come September, my friends left, off to U.C.M.H.S.; and, for once, I could honestly say I was happy for them.





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