The ticking stopwatch in Helen’s dream rattled with an alarm firmly based in reality. The hazy image of a classroom, chalkboard and longed for recess faded as she opened her eyes. Morning trickled through gauze curtains tugged to either side of paneled window before her desk, the fabric cinched with neat bows.
“You ready?” Her mother’s shout from down the stairs pierced the last cloud of sleep.
Helen snapped upright in her chair, the cover of her workbook pulling away from her cheek. Pencils rolled away and clattered onto the carpet. A lunge later, she slammed her hand on the bleating alarm clock by her unmade bed. In a pastel swirl, she swapped out enough of her sweater and jean ensemble to avoid looking like she wore the same thing as yesterday, shoveled the books into her button-strewn backpack and stormed out of her bedroom.
“You’re going to be late,” chided Sammy.
Helen tossed his arrogant smirk a glare as he lingered beneath the Keep Out sign on his door. “Shut it.”
“Mom…” he howled, feigning hurt.
Helen rolled her eyes and took the stairs like a dribbled basketball. She bounced off the final step as her mom came out of the kitchen.
“Eat,” she said, thrusting a banana.
Helen crinkled her nose. “I’m okay.”
“This is a big day,” said her mom, donning a jacket and slinging her everything-but-the-sink purse over her shoulder. “You’ll need it.” Tossing the banana, she blew out the front door.
Helen bobbled the piece of fruit and sighed as she followed her mom outside and into the waiting honeysuckle yellow van. Hopping into the front seat, she striped the banana of its skin and began munching while her mom curved them around the cul-de-sac.
“Did you bring your books? Clock? Water bottle?”
Helen thumped the pack by her feet and stared at the passing neighborhood and line of budding trees.
She shrugged. “It’s just a test right?”
“Right, but it’s an important test. This is going to help you get into college.”
“I know, I know.”
Her mom got the message and turned up the radio. A reporter started interviewing people half a world away about the current disaster in the headlines and then cut to a professional in the field.
Helen stared out the window and fought to work out the definitions of their multi-syllabic euphemisms and terminology. Her stomach churned around the half eaten banana as she continued coming up blank.
“Do I have to take it today?” she asked, her whisper fogging the window.
“Do you not think you’re ready?”
“You’ve been working through all those books we got right?”
“Kind of,” said Helen beneath a wince.
Her mom blew out a long sigh, the kind she used when the pot on the stove boiled over or traffic seized up on the highway.
Helen gathered her backpack into her lap and hugged her arms around the ivy green bundle. The crisp edges of the study guides and vocabulary tomes bit through the canvas. She half hoped the knowledge within the pages she had skimmed could soak into her skin and settle in her brain for the next few hours.
“It’s too late to worry about it now,” said her mom, flicking on the blinker and turning toward school. “Just read the directions and keep your head. You’re a smart girl, you’ll do fine.”
Helen gave a non-committal grunt and latched onto the end of the drop off line disgorging students like rats from sinking ships.
“Here’s good,” she said, fingers on the door handle.
“See you at noon.”
Helen hopped out of the van and slung on her pack.
“Good luck,” said her mom.
“Right…” Helen slammed the door and trotted onto the sidewalk with the rest of the wide-eyed students.
“Hey, Helen!” Tai waved from the front steps leading up into the concrete fortress of Roosevelt High, while cradling a stack of cards in her other nimble hand.
Helen angled through the throng making their way inside.
“What’s that?” she asked, pointing at the Tai’s deck.
“Vocabulary cards.” Tai waggled the first off the stack, revealing a Sharpied word and then a definition on the other side, written in her neat hand.
“Wow…I didn’t think…” Helen looked down at her empty hands and plucked at her sweater’s hem.
“That you’d been studying so hard.”
“Ha! With my parents?” Tai waved the inch thick wad of index cards like a fan. “This is maybe a quarter of them. If I never see another card again it’ll be too soon.”
“Yeah…” said Helen.
“Come on, I want to see if I get a seat by the windows. They say sunlight can help with brain function.”
“Who says?” asked Helen as they melded with the rest and ascended the final steps.
Tai shrugged. “I forget. One of the books my dad was reading about standardized tests.”
“Your dad’s been studying too?”
“No, they just want me to do my best you know?” She exhaled and brought a smile to her chap-sticked lips, but the worry in her eyes failed to budge. “I’m the first in my family who could go to college. They want to make sure I do well.”
“But it’s just a test. I mean if you study so much aren’t you going to throw off your score or something? Make yourself seem smarter than you really are?”
“Says ‘Ms. I can learn anything’.”
“Give me a break. I study too.”
Tai laughed but her nerves cast her voice into atmospheric octaves. “You? Study? I haven’t seen you look at our books longer than in class and for homework and you still have better grades than me.”
Helen blushed and fought a wave of guilt. “But I’m not coordinated enough to play the piano or shoot a basketball.”
“Well, I don’t think the test cares about that unless there’s a section on rapid tapping or the directions say toss-into-trashcan.” Tai flipped through the cards again, silently mouthing definitions.
Helen peeked at the next word: Salubrious and grimaced.
Glancing up at the passing door signs, she spotted those for last names ending in N-Q and tugged Tai across the hall and into the classroom. Rows of desks sprouted like a metallic buds in a tile garden. A tented label with each person’s name indicated their seat.
“I bet you’re over there,” said Helen as she noted the alphabetical arrangement.
“Perfect!” Tai tittered her way over to a seat bathed in sunlight as if the clouds had parted to illuminate nothing but that one spot.
Helen shook her head as Tai wiggled into her seat and began flashing through her cards with the vigor of a man eating his last meal. She found her place in the middle of the room and waved a good morning to the others sitting with itchy fingers and tense faces.
“Take your seats, take your seats!” The Proctor, Mrs. Carmichael, surged into the room. The English teacher had replaced her typical business attire with jeans and a Roosevelt High sweat shirt.
She looks almost like a normal person, thought Helen.
A scuff of chair legs and sneakers preceded plops of late comers down onto creaking chairs. Carmichael cast her glacier eyes upon the room and gained silence without another word. A nod later and she closed the door and started in on the instructions.
The same rules and regulations as had been explained during practice sessions in class rolled out of the needle thin teacher. Helen licked her lips and started a staring contest with the sealed booklet in front of her, Carmichael’s oratory washing over like waves on a beach. The hum of her speech wound down and in time with the rest of the room, Helen plucked up a number-two pencil, tinged with a faint burning from its fresh sharpening, and poised herself above the test.
“You may begin.”
Front covers rustled like a flock of startled birds taking wing. The scratch of carefully colored ovals mingled with rapid breaths and the ticking of the clock above the door.
Helen tuned them all out. Gripping her pencil and grasping her lower lip with her teeth, she dove into one set of mathematical queries after another. Percentages, equations and word problems filled the gray tinged pages in an unending swath of brain testers. Scribbling out problems on to the provided scratch paper, Helen selected one of the four letters on the Scantron for one question after another.
“Five minutes,” said Carmichael.
Helen glanced up at the clock and back at the book before her. The blur of ovals crystallized into rows of unanswered questions. Twirling the pencil in her hand she started flipping pages, counting the number remaining and skimming to see if any of the equations seemed simpler than the rest.
She squeezed her eyes closed as the first wave of panic threatened to overwhelm her. Drawing a determined breath, she struggled through the remaining questions and marked her answers on the Scanton.
The first session ended and she, like everyone else, sagged into chairs and stared blankly at the ceiling. Glancing over her shoulder she spotted Tai. The sun hadn’t dwindled and her friend gave a tentative thumbs-up along with a wobbly smile.
“And now my favorite,” said Carmichael as the break wound down. “Writing!” She walked down the aisle, distributing more sealed packets waiting to turn gray matter into mush. She read the directions, again, and then the flock of weary birds soared once more, heads bent, pencils scribbled while brains synapses wearily fired.
The end came nearly as quickly as with Mathematics. Helen blew out a relieved breath however when she managed to get to the last analogy before the five minute warning. She hopped back over her work and added graphite to some uncompleted bubbles.
The Critical Reading segment followed. By the time Carmichael warned of the nearing stop time, Helen’s fingers were numb from the taut grip on the pencil. Everyone thumped closed their booklets and tossed down writing instruments. A collective exhale threatened to blow away the walls.
Carmichael regulated their departure, and everyone shuffled outside like soldiers dazed from battle.
Helen wasn’t sure her brain was even controlling her body any more, but her feet seemed to understand the need to leave. She found herself on the sidewalk and slowed before stumbling into Tai who had been gathered into her parents embrace. Her mother had a bouquet of carnations in hand and they chatted over one another with a barrage of questions and answers about the test.
Helen gave a quiet wave she wasn’t sure Tai noticed and headed down the line of cars.
“How’d it go?” asked her mom as Helen slumped into the passenger seat.
She rubbed her hands over her face, stirring blood and willing her brain to return to normal working order. “I don’t know. It happened so fast. I got in there and poof it was over.”
“I’m sure you did great.”
Helen shrugged and leaned her head against the window, careful to not let the weighted lump shatter the glass. “I guess we’ll see when the results come out, right?”
“Right. For now, how about lunch? Ben and Jerry’s sound good?”
Helen snorted and rolled her eyes. “Yeah, sure. I could use a good brain freeze.”