15: Just Getting By

15: Just Getting By

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Teens Talk Getting In...To College

Just Getting By

By “guts” I mean grace under pressure.

~Ernest Hemingway

I don’t think the word “college” meant anything to me until I took the SAT. Before then, it was just some abstraction, an empty word with no teeth to it. I feel the same way even now about power words such as “job” and “marriage.”

I have always been the kind of person who tries to stay just a half pivot ahead of whatever’s coming my way. To do less is to leave yourself in danger of being run over by life. And, as I like to say, if you worry about the next big thing too far in advance, you run the risk of overlooking all the small struggles that come your way before!

So, this might go some way to explaining how I found myself pulling an all-nighter on the eve of the SATs. I procrastinated buying the study materials for weeks. When friends discussed the classes they were taking to prepare, I tuned them out or changed the subject. When my parents mentioned the test, I lied and said I’d been studying with friends.

When I finally succumbed to the need to buy the infamous Kaplan study guides, I tried (and failed) several times to make a dent in them. I forfeited sifting through the fat deck of vocab cards in favor of playing solitaire on my computer. But on the night of the test that would determine the rest of my teenage years, my fear overwhelmed me.

I happen to be a naturally bright person who seems to do better on exams than I feel is warranted by the little amount of time I spend studying for them. For this reason, I am always fearful that my good grades are the result of nothing but good luck. And luck, as we all know, is limited. So before every test, whether it’s an AP French exam or a mock-quiz about what happened on last night’s episode of Friends, I fear failing. My only consolation for the SAT was that I knew it was impossible to get an F.

Instructors tell you to get a good night’s sleep before the exam, to spend the night thinking about something else, relaxing, taking stock in the knowledge that you are as well prepared as you can be. Instead I found myself lying on my bedroom floor at three in the morning with bloodshot eyes trying to commit the word “obstreperous” to memory. Little did I know then that this is the real preparation for college — of course you can prosper in college without memorizing the quadratic equation or speaking in SAT words, but no one survives college without pulling an all-nighter during which you imagine your whole life is on the line.

I must have passed out sometime around 4 A.M. My mom woke me up in the morning and seemed discouraged to see me sleeping on a heap of vocab cards and unsharpened pencils. She asked if I wanted to skip the test and I grumbled that I did not. The last thing I wanted, in fact, was to endure another night of stressful anticipation. It’s tempting to imagine that in putting off the test, I would take more time to study for it properly. But I knew myself and knew I would only repeat my mistakes.

My parents dropped me off at the test location and I marched in like a soldier already wounded before the battle. I found a group of people I knew from school and listened as they frantically tested one another. Someone said “cantankerous” and I realized I was walking into my own grave.

Finally, we entered the gymnasium and took our seats. If the adrenaline hadn’t kept me awake, the discomfort of the old wooden and steel desks certainly would have. We had to sit in silence for many minutes before the tests were distributed. I started to unpeel the banana my mom had given me, when a proctor came and snatched it away from me. “No eating in the room,” she said. It’s always the small things that make a tough experience tougher.

The SAT is a series of quick twenty-minute sections. It feels like you’re being drilled. No sooner have you survived one section than you are forced to endure the next. On every page of the test, there seemed to be at least one question I had to make a not-so educated guess at. Though they tell you not to answer ones you’re entirely unsure of, it’s hard to undo the conditioning of eleven years of school that taught us to act otherwise.

During the test’s sole intermission, I met up with the same group of people I knew from school and listened as they commented on the test. “Not so bad.” “Thought it would be worse.” “That last math section was a joke.” I remained silent and prayed for my luck to return. It did, somewhat. I “passed” the SAT and received a grade good enough to get into some fine schools.

But something more significant happened in the immediate aftermath of the test. Suddenly, the word “college” gained meaning for me. It was only after preparing for the test and enduring the experience, that I became invested in the idea of college. And once you complete the SAT, there is very little standing between you and the next stage after high school. So, I went home that afternoon and started to research schools, to better understand the weight of the SAT at different universities and at the same time to determine which college fit me uniquely.

Despite exclamations to the contrary, there really is no grade so bad it ruins your life. Even those friends of mine who weren’t so lucky on their SATs retook them and eventually ended up at decent schools. The truth is that any exam, at its best, is a chance to demonstrate just how much you’ve learned. And in the case of the SAT, the most important thing you learn is how to handle yourself under enormous pressure. That’s a truly valuable lesson.

~Seth Fiegerman

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