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ESSAY / The SAT's Can Go Fuck Themselves / Marni Berger

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When I heard about the recent college admissions scandal, my immediate response was at the intersection of “this is so unfair” and “duh.” As a college and high school entrance tutor with ten years under my belt, I’m reminded of my upper-class New York City students whose parents were convinced that somehow my down to earth nature combined with my Ivy League degree was proof that success and authenticity could co-exist, and so they hired me to guide their children along the path to success. I worked with these kids, telling them they had a place in the world, and believing it wholeheartedly. I was also teaching them how to score well on standardized tests through practice, practice, practice.

Only once was I asked to do the work for my students, and I quit immediately. The mother of twins, two boys who worked their asses off studying for the ACT’s while unadvisedly pulling all-nighters, had told me her kids “already have teachers,” that they just needed the work done now. I was getting paid $200/hour, and I remember the day we parted ways—how one of the boys was standing in the middle of his mother’s beautiful, clean Upper East Side apartment, looking so wholly like a child: in his socks and sweatpants, crying (I assume due to a sudden loss in support). His mother was a Columbia alumna, and the boy had told me when we first met that he wanted to be like her. It’s easy to forget that teenagers are kids, too, and I think the recent scandal raises the question: Why do parents, and kids, feel they need to cheat anyway?

Most of the parents meant well and did not ask me to cheat. These good people, who employed me between 2011 and 2014 in New York City, just wanted to know their kids didn’t have to hurt themselves to be successful, but they were wrong. Their kids did have to hurt themselves, for a certain kind of success: one defined by the implication that Ivy League school parents—and of course kids too—should cheat or pay to get in if they don’t or can’t fit the mold required by their admittance. So, I say to the SAT’s, the great emblematic gatekeeper to success in the eyes of an adolescent American human being: Go fuck yourself. Kids who do not cheat to get into these exclusive schools have to actually get in, which makes the cheaters both eviler and more validated for their cheating.

Teenagers in New York City face a special kind of American torture when they prepare to apply to attend one of the eight specialized public high schools whose admittance is decided largely by a standardized test score from the SHSAT—a test laid-out similarly to the SAT but for eighth-graders.

These impossible standards are anything but healthy to a growing mind. I worked with middle school children who would come home from wrestling practice, jump-rope in the patio of their rent-stabilized apartment and skip dinner to stay in the lower weight class, and sit down to be tutored by me until 9pm. Indeed, I was part of the problem, and I knew it was wrong to take the money for such a job when, one night, a student yawned and tears involuntarily rolled down his cheeks.

But, NYC was expensive, and if I wanted to follow my dream of becoming a writer, the money was necessary. I spent mornings writing, existing in the world authentically and truly and with hope that I could get somewhere as an artist, some day, and I spent evenings preaching to young people that they could do the same—even if it meant studying for a really hard test sometimes.

This was a foolish quest. Eventually, I experienced what should have been statistically obvious: that getting into an Ivy League school had been easier for me than it is for most people, and some people, even with help, just can’t make it, even if “making it” is unclearly defined; this means, if you are an artist, your inability to score well on the SAT’s could easily align your art, and your sense of authentic self-expression, with failure, or maybe worse, meaninglessness.

As every good educator knows, there are many forms of intelligence. My favorite students (you’re not supposed to have favorite students, I know) were two brothers who exemplified two very different forms of smarts. The oldest was sincere and devoted to everything to the point of obsession and sleep deprivation (again, usually required for good grades), and under my tutelage was admitted to Bronx Science High School, whose alums include eight Nobel Prize winners and seven Pulitzer prize winners (one who won two)—and Neil deGrasse Tyson. This favorite student once changed his Qwerty keyboard settings to Dvorak. (Dvorak is a keyboard setting that came after Qwerty; Dvorak’s arrangement of letters is meant to be simpler, to minimize movement, but it never took off.) I was tutoring him, and he hadn’t told me about the change, and so I remember the disorienting sensation of typing a letter on the board that revealed a different one entirely on the screen, a scramble into the outside world from what my mind had processed on the keypad. I laughed when the keyboard miscommunicated my intentions, because it was absurd. My student didn’t find it funny. He was earnest. He explained the change: He said that he had recently had this realization that human beings are so adept at transitioning to new technologies that set up conveniences—historically, from horse-and-buggies to automobiles, for one—except for this one thing, for making the change from Qwerty to Dvorak. He couldn’t understand why the keyboard couldn’t change. It would always be Qwerty and always, confusedly, inconvenient.

In hindsight, none of the keys working properly seems oddly symbolic. Most students will be left behind due to a larger system’s inability to change to something more convenient for everyone—in the case of American education, that means from a competitive culture to a collaborative one.

His little brother was also my favorite. He listened to Metric, and I think he was only eleven when he found an abandoned penny-board in Central Park and casually rode it home. One Halloween, he dressed up as an Instagram photo; not the photo itself, but the display, a cardboard frame around his smiling-faced head. This kid was the definition of cool to me, and I generally just felt like Freaks and Geeks’s Mr. Rosso around him, but without a guitar. He succeeded in all film and art projects effortlessly, but could not, for the life of him, excel in tests the way his brother did. He was socially graceful, so I thought: He too will be okay.

When I worked with those kids in NYC, I wanted to think what many of their parents thought, that their children could climb the ranks of academia without sacrificing themselves, and I had proof. While in graduate school, working in the undergraduate creative writing offices, I once overheard a kind and very successful author tell his student during an open-door, one-on-one conference that there are so many conventional paths to take, hoops to jump through, and even corners you can cut to be successful, in publishing in that case, but that there was this intersection: of authenticity and success. To me that meant I, too, had permission to be myself while successful; I had already believed that, having taking out the worth of a mortgage to attend a MFA program. I had thought, while taking out the loans: Why shouldn’t I get to go here? Just because I don’t have money? I regretted that decision for years after graduating, until I had a child, looked into her eyes, and thought: Why shouldn’t she get to follow her dreams, just because we don’t have a million dollars to send her to a fantastic school? But of course, I’m concerned about her future. I don’t want her to have to face the burden of student debt—the tax on her dreams that makes her wonder if her dreams are worth having.

I tend to have a lot of success, in job applications in the field of education, when I include that bit about the intersection of success and authenticity, and how I believe in it. But I’m not so sure anymore that the intersection is just a rule of the universe like gravity or something that is human-made, and needs repairing lest it decay.

What happens to that intersection when parents pay off schools to get their kids in? What happens to the kids who try really hard and are kicked to the side because they can’t afford it, aren’t able-bodied, face learning disabilities, are a person of color or underprivileged in any way? Is the intersection of success and authenticity really that stable? And is wanting to cheat unexpected of anyone on the unfair end of the system when cheating historically has worked so well for the privileged? Now I think the intersection of success and authenticity is just more vivid to those like that white, upper middle-class male professor, however kind, than to anyone like his young, female student.

I once tutored a little boy in Brooklyn. He was gangly, small, and though he was in the eighth grade, his appearance suggested he was nine. He and I worked in his townhouse in Williamsburg, while we went over test strategies that would decide if he would be able to go to one of New York City’s eight specialized high schools. At tall stools against the kitchen counter, we ran through SHSAT practice problems again and again, and it wasn’t connecting. I thought, “This kid is not getting it. This isn’t going to work.” The diagnostic hadn’t gone well, and neither had the following practice test. Or the one after. We looked at his beautiful granite countertops, and he looked at me, and said, “I just want to be successful.” I thought of success and authenticity, and said, “What is success anyway?”

He said, “Like my dad. An architect.”

His mom wasn’t home, and I knew I was saying something she wouldn’t like when I said: “Everyone is successful in different ways.” I thought I could influence him. But he scowled. Me, the Mainer who probably seemed like a pansy to this savvy young New Yorker. He returned to his work dutifully. Then his mom came home, and I was politely fired, due to differing philosophies, and relieved. 

The family I stayed with the longest in New York City was the aforementioned favorite. It was the one with the Ivy League, multilingual, usually-working-his-ass-off dad who I haven’t yet mentioned because for most of my career with those kids he didn’t seem pertinent, or even around. He wasn’t pertinent to me then, but he was pertinent to them, as their father, and he is pertinent to me now. He was a writer too, but he wrote for celebrity magazines, and I was in school for literary nonfiction—which I had a sense he would have found hilarious, but when I told his older son to ask his dad for writing advice sometimes, the response was a scoff and something like: “He’s not a real writer.” Despite his Condé Nast email address, which I found glamorous, his kids seemed embarrassed by him. Their mother was kind to me. She would put dinner out for me. When I sat with her boys, she called us “lads.” She was Irish. I came to love them and feel like family there, and we cried when I left. At least I did, and the mother did.

And then a few years later, the Ivy League dad, it was reported in the paper, jumped from Lincoln Center’s illumination lawn in the broad daylight of mid-morning. In an interview, reposted after his death and that his kids could have easily read, he said his work was grueling but that he was proud he had been able to afford, at least, to get his boys through private school. I read that and felt like I’d eaten my own shadow.

I had wanted those kids to be happy, just as much as I wanted myself to be happy: both realities meant that good existed. I’d wanted so badly to go to Columbia, to write about my life, to follow my dream, to be myself. There is a high, like falling in love, or the best parts of religion perhaps, to aligning yourself with who you are; for me, that has always meant clicking a sentence into a place, like the final turn of Rubik’s cube that makes everything make sense, finally; that creates a match of colors, of who I am, expressed. I’ve always wanted to share that high, that skill, not only to be yourself but to express it—clearly. It’s bad enough that the SAT disavows art, but the more menacing characteristic of the test, and the popularization of it, is the false claim that comes with it: that life’s most exalted problems can be solved, one by one, in the most straightforward way.

When my husband and I moved back to Maine from NYC, I began tutoring again. At a progressive, independent school, I was hired among the first SAT tutors, because, I think, at my interview I said that I didn’t believe in these tests, but I felt I needed to support students who had to take them, and I knew how to do it in a way that wouldn’t stress them out. At that school, during those weeks, I had a student who was very stressed out. I spoke to her once, briefly, because I was concerned she wasn’t going to be prepared for the test, though the class itself wasn’t graded, of course. She seemed apathetic. The next class, she seemed angry and on the verge of tears when others kept interrupting me, as teenagers do—I didn’t really mind, kids will be kids, but she seemed deeply hurt on my behalf. The next class, she wasn’t there, because she had killed herself. She was sixteen.

I’m not a fool; I know that tests don’t kill. They didn’t kill the girl I tutored. Or the father of the boys I tutored. I know there are always other factors that can be relegated to labels like: mental health issues or drugs. But when we look at these scandals, these cheats, these terrible parents, these terrible children, these wonderful children, and the wonderful parents, and these terrible events that inspire death, I think we ought to demand a stronger appearance of another label: support. The SAT’s don’t cause death, but they are hard, they are restrictive, they are not for everyone or even most, and so they are a kick in the face to someone already down; and let’s face it, high school is made of mostly ups and downs. We, the grownups of the world, don’t allow violence in schools, or at least we shouldn’t, so why are we standardizing that kick in the face?

I tutor at an art college now, bolstering the writing skills of students who are more adept at creating the most visually striking things. My place of refuge—the blank page—is their living nightmare, often, and my job, in part, is to preach its necessity—it allows you to be taken seriously in the world—while humbling myself with the knowledge that I can’t create, for example, a painting whose outer white, milky layer evokes the cleanse of an underlying painful life.

I, too, keep at my art. I keep writing, because if I don’t, if I’m not myself, where is my integrity when I promise young people there is space in the world for being themselves? And whenever is the pain of the alternative not pervasive?

Recently, my aunt asked me if I would tutor my much younger cousin in the SAT’s, given my experience. I told her I didn’t think the test was humane, but I will help if they need it.


Marni Berger holds an MFA in writing from Columbia University. Marni’s most recently published short story "Edge of the Road with Lydia Jones" was nominated for a Pushcart Prize (Matador Review), and her short story “Waterside” appeared in Issue 96 of Glimmer Train. Her work has also appeared at Motherwell, The Common, The Days of Yore, The Millions, Lotus-Eater, COG Magazine, The Critical Flame, Wilderness House Literary Review, and Fringe Magazine. She has been a finalist or received an honorable mention in nine Glimmer Train contests and one New Millennium Writings contest. She has an essay forthcoming in The Manifest-Station.