Apr/May 2016  •   Fiction

All of the Above

by Jennifer Hanno

Image courtesy of the British Library Photostream

The thing is, tests are just part of life. Oh, I know. I read the papers, and everyone is hating on tests these days. Most likely because they're not good at them. Or their kids aren't. Because the thing with standardized tests is there is a standard. There is a point of reference. You know where you stand. Maybe you don't like it, but you know where you fit in the grand scheme of things.

It's a simple, objective way to measure, but some people don't like to be measured. Personally, I respect the objectivity of it all, the cleanness of it, the neatness of four to five choices, the affirmation of the bubble filled in (completely, of course), the way you can eliminate the wrong and zero in on the right.

How is that unfair? After all, multiple choice does imply choice—in fact, multiple choices. But, of course, only an amateur takes a view that simplistic. Anyone smart enough to make it into an honors class knows there may be four to five choices, but only one of them is the right one. The others are, by definition, bad choices.

And I was not inclined to make bad choices. None of us were, really. That's why we were selected for this class. We assumed, naturally (naively, perhaps) that those who ran the school were also not inclined to make bad choices. Then came our senior year, and we had to re-evaluate.

As I recall, we were supposed to have a test on Hemingway. We'd done our work; we knew what we were supposed to know. Well, most of us anyway. Sam Li made the rookie mistake of actually reading the story and was baffled until we told him they were talking about abortion. How can I describe his reaction? A classic example of...

a. Enlightenment and the accompanying joys of epiphany.
b. The horror of the implications of his previous lack of enlightenment.
c. The shame irrevocably married to failure.
d. The dark fear we knew more than him.

Answer: D. As is often the case, all are plausible choices, but there is always more evidence of choice D in an honors class. Some case can be made for the distractor, choice B, but there is a difference between horror and fear after all, and though gaps meant something to us, understanding was really beside the point, thus making D the more precise choice. In truth, we knew no more about "Hills Like White Elephants" than he did. That's what Google is for.

It was not surprising our regular teacher, Mr Graveley, was not at his post that morning, slouched over his desk, surveying us through dirty bifocals. It was a small school in a small town, and we were all privy to the joys and tragedies of its inhabitants. Consequently, we'd all heard about his unfortunate encounter with the Amish wagon. It would be a lie to pretend we did not see it as a demonstration of...

a. The random role fate plays in all of our lives.
b. The clash of two worlds—the traditional and the contemporary.
c. Karma. Payback if you will for the pop quiz on semi-colons that had threatened our GPAs a mere week ago.
d. The unseen dangers of the Farmer's Market.

Answer: C. The man was an asshole. Who gives pop quizzes on semi-colons? Who even uses semi-colons, except on college essays where you just want them to know you know how to use a semi-colon? Furthermore, what exactly is the point of the semi-colon? It's for when you should end the sentence, but choose not to? Just end it. You don't find this kind of nonsense in Calculus.

Regardless, Gravely was out for the rest of the year, and so we'd been wondering who they'd put in his place. The usual substitute was Mr. Quior, but we had gone a bit too far last time he was in for the French teacher's maternity leave. We'd all brought in laser pointers and hid them under our desks so he couldn't tell who was pointing the light on his crotch. In retrospect we saw the error of our ways and came to realize...

a. Random acts of cruelty can have unexpected and irrevocable consequences.
b. Laser pointers can cause testicular damage.
c. A known substitute is better than the unknown.
d. All of the above.

Answer: Technically, D. But really, C was the only realization that mattered to us at the time. In our juvenile antics, we had failed to consider the possible consequences, one of which was now staring at us with eyes that might be described as cold and dead.

Not to mention bloodshot.

Mr. Christman was the name on the board, and its owner hadn't gotten the memo that all teachers wear ties. Instead, he wore a wrinkled button down, untucked and bearing what appeared to be coffee stains. His khakis were similarly unpressed and too short, making his Birkenstocked feet impossible to ignore. He was badly in need of a haircut and shave. His eyes were red-rimmed and glassy. The possibility he was stoned was suggested, but this was the contribution of Dan Kingston, who was always stoned, and so the reliability of his assessment was cast into question. Anyway, the guy said nothing in the way of an introduction, just stared at us. Competitors that we were, we sat silently and rationalized our opponent's behavior could mean all of the following except...

a. He was using silence as a means of intimidation.
b. He was using silence to convey the futility of communication in today's world.
c. He was assessing the enemy.
d. He was stoned.

Answer? Tough one, but probably C. Can't completely rule out D.

But what we remembered the most about that first encounter was the awkward silence making us question whether we had fallen asleep with our eyes open again and had woken up on the wrong page. It was weird. And about to get weirder.

He held up a pile of papers we assumed was our exam. He raised them high above his head like a scene from The Lion King. And then he dropped them into the trash. The resonating sound of paper on steel rang through the room.

We sat still, uncertain. We weren't opposed to sacrilege, you understand, just leery of its implications.

"Let's see what you know," he said, and we sensed a trick. Our eyes flitted from him to the trash can and back to him again.

"Did you read the story?"

"Yes," we lied.

"Then, let's talk about it."

So, he was one of those. We'd heard of class discussions. There had been attempts before, so we knew what to do. Our role was to nod in feigned understanding and crease our brows as if a crack in our conscious had let in a ray of light. The giver of the light was, of course, our instructor. We waited for the familiar pattern: the question followed by the series of questions intending to be but unsuccessful in leading us to the desired response, followed by the answer he would inevitably have to provide, the answer we would obediently write down and would inevitably be tested on. We had this. The trick is to wait them out. We were ready.

Pens poised, faces arranged in a simulation of interest, we stared back. Our postures suggested we offered ourselves up to him. We believe in you, our expressions said. We await your wisdom. Teachers love that shit. We had him right where we wanted him.

He returned our stares and said nothing. It was clear he was using that thing called "wait time." Teachers try it all the time. They are supposed to wait you out. Of course, this wasn't our first rodeo, but this stare-down unnerved us by lasting longer than usual. A full 30 seconds, at least. Then, that pansy Mark broke.

"Abortion, sir."

Mr. Christman tilted his head and smiled a small smile.

"Raise your hand if you agree this story is about an abortion."

Like amateurs, we did. All of us. Then he peered closely at us, and we felt our faith in Spark Notes shaken.

"What makes you think so?" he asked us.

He had us right where he wanted us.

A chorus of mumbles ensued, twisted and garbled to ensure no one voice could be distinguished from the herd. Those of you familiar with the public school system will recognize the most likely reason for this approach as...

a. A chronic lack of confidence characteristic of adolescence.
b. The classic fear of being singled out characteristic of all bovines. And adolescents.
c. The use of clever subterfuge presenting an illusion of knowledge intending to raise the teacher's confidence in both himself and in us without actually committing any one of us to the answer.
d. No one knew.

Answer: D. In our defense, this strategy had worked for us in the past. But this guy—he wasn't buying. He continued the interrogation.

"So what was the point in the story where you realized the couple was really talking abortion?"

Oh, he was good. What could we say? That we read it on 123HomeworkHelp.com? We looked longingly at the garbage can where our salvation lay. Give me a multiple choice test any day over this nonsense. Statistically speaking, you got a decent chance, a minimum of 25 percent, and there were always at least two easily discarded answers. So, really that gave you a 50-50 chance of answering correctly. All you needed to do was find the distractor they plant in there to throw you off. And even if that was not successful, then there was the discussion after the test in which we challenged the instructor, battling back and forth until we got our points back.

See, that's the way it is done. But this guy just didn't play by the same set of rules. He was after something we did not understand.

Anyway, that's how it began that first day. Almost immediately our academic records descended down a slippery slope of shared inquiry discussions and open ended questions, upsetting not only the natural order of things but our parents. After three weeks, Christman hadn't put a single grade in the grade book, as Tom Casey kept us very aware. Tom was in close contention with Katrina Sims for the top slot, the big kahuna: valedictorian.

The trouble was, he was behind Katrina .23 of a point, and he was counting on Hemingway to pull him through. With no grades in the book yet, he was still hovering right under Katrina, which might sound exciting, but if you saw Katrina, you'd know it wasn't.

This resulted in a parent letter to the principal and a directive to Mr Christman. But Christman had an issue with grades as well as directives. He retaliated by giving everyone in the class an "A."

"What the hell? That's not fair!" Tom cried out in rage at the lunch table. It was unorthodox at best, insane at worst. If we all got As, how would we know who was best?

a. It didn't matter who was best.
b. Traditional grades are only ways to label and thus limit.
c. A child's worth cannot be designated as a number.
d. None of the above.

Answer? D. We didn't spend 11 years of our lives busting our asses to be dumped into the equal pool. This concept was not only unfamiliar but vaguely terrifying to us. We found ourselves wishing Gravely a speedy recovery.

I tell you, it was crazy the way this new guy ran things. In class, our notebooks lay dormant while Christman assaulted us with questions like "What is Justice?" and "Is violence inherent in human nature?" Questions for which there are clearly no answers. What was the point? Actually, that was a question one day, too, now that I think about it.

After a month, we were longing for our old world, that world of objective answers. We urged our parents to complain, and they did. As a result of pressure from the parents, Christman conceded to give us a test. We were almost salivating when he passed out the bubble sheets. You got to understand, we loved tests the way a fat kid loves cake, the way a runner loves the track, the way a gamer loves the game. Our pencils were sharpened, and we were ready. On the signal, we were off like a prom dress.

But our joy did not last long. After five questions, we were baffled.

"Excuse me," Mike asked. "Something is wrong here. So far, every answer is C."

"Yeah?" Christman asked.

"Sir, every answer can't be C."

"Why not?"

Why not? What kind of game was he playing? What was he trying to accomplish? I rolled over the options in my head. Possibly...

a. A cautionary tale about over-reliance on statistical analysis.
b. An attempt to shake our faith in probability.
c. A display of omnipotence (in this case, his).
d. A test that was easy to correct.

Answer: C. When in doubt, choose C.

I'm telling you, it was chaos! We had scholarships and applications pending. Who was this guy to screw with the Bell Curve? Who did he think he was? God?

But truth be told, not all of us were as upset as I was. Some bizarre things were happening. Mike Douglas (with a perfect score on the SAT Math section) turned down his scholarship to RIT. He announced his decision to be a writer, resigned as President of the Gaming Club, and spent his study halls in the library reading something about a slaughterhouse. And Katrina Sims (with an average 97.54 and a strong candidate for the STEM grant) started wearing short skirts and contacts. She spent all her time after school with Mr. Christman, sitting on a desk with her legs crossed.

And that wasn't even the worst of it! Chet Roberts got so deep into the discussion we had about the Confederate flag, he launched a letter writing campaign to all the legislators in the southern states. He became so obsessed with it he missed the deadline for the Future Engineers of America Scholarship because he was in the middle of writing a scathing article for the school newspaper in which he insisted flaunting the confederate flag made as much sense as people sporting swastikas and suggested maybe that would be next.

I imagine it would've played out better if the Principal wasn't Jewish.

As disturbed as I was by these events, I was smart enough to ask myself one question. Which of the following would give me a shot at one of the top slots?

I. Chet Roberts waylaid by his newfound activism.
II. Katrina Sims hot for teacher.
III. Mike Douglas buried in iambic pentameter.

a. I and II
b. II and III
c. III only
d. I, II and III

Answer? D.

I redoubled my efforts. I poured over the books, memorized the Periodic Elements, tattooed quadratic equations into my soul, committed world wars to the golden memory banks of my mind. I was on fire; in the midst of it all, I negotiated a Prom date, staying focused on my goal and the respective formulas for parabolas and cones. Around me, my comrades were falling like terra cotta soldiers, but I believed in equations and put my faith there.

Maybe if I'd had more time, I could have clawed my way to the top slot, but the parents of the Engineer Generation were not about to let their kids go without a fight. A few letters, some uncomfortable board meetings, and we arrived one day to find Christman was gone. In his place was a retired English teacher, an aging, withered woman who read to us from a tattered anthology from the days of yore. Things were on their way back to normal, and I was relieved. Mostly.

But the truth is things never really went back to the way they were. Some of us never really recovered. In fact, I heard Chet Roberts became a liberal arts major. I felt sorry for his parents.

And Christman? It wasn't until after graduation that we found out. It was in the local paper, even though it happened up North. They found him one cold spring morning. Alcohol poisoning was the official cause, I heard. Attempts to revive him were unsuccessful. A lot of people were saying it was a good thing the Academy got rid of him, what with him being a drunk and all.

I was relieved. Mostly. There was, I remember, a feeling of disappointment I didn't understand. What was I hoping for? A prophet? A poet? I don't know, but I keep remembering that last lesson. We were pissed because the AP test was looming over us and he wasn't getting us ready. It was only a week away, and I remember he read us this poem about the sea. Something about lighthouses and rocks and Sophocles. I had my book propped up and was working on some derivatives when I heard a change in his voice.

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain,
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

By then, I'd had enough.

"Just tell us what's on the test," I said.

He looked at me, and then his eyes wandered out the window and over the lacrosse fields to someplace only he and Sophocles knew.

"I just did," he said.

See? Some people just shouldn't be teachers. Oh, I remember a lot of us were scared we'd fail that AP test, but we didn't. Barron's Review and our years of solid training didn't fail us.

Now, why can't it all be like that? With choices and statistically reliable patterns and explanations as to why one choice was right and another wrong? But somewhere it shifts, and no one even tells you when and how to change the strategy to find the right choice. Is it when she stops waiting up for you? Is it when she stirs in her sleep when you slide into bed, moving to the far end, her back to you, retreating, to the breath of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear and naked shingles of the world? There must have been a point where it began to shift, some point before you come home to find her car gone and the bed neatly made, but empty.

It's a dirty trick they play on you, really.

Those were the days. Enjoy them, kids. When you look back, you'll wonder what you miss the most...

a. That 95th percentile.
b. That 50-50 shot.
c. Those distractors you could see.
d. The answer.

Stumped? Well, it's a tough one. You can skip it and come back to it later.

That's what I did.