03/31/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Masochism, or, Taking the SAT as a Grownup

Two Saturdays ago, at the unaccustomed hour of 7:45 a.m., I found myself near the end of a long line of seventeen-year olds--and one alarmingly bearded man who looked even older than I am--which began at the stage of high-school auditorium south of Gramercy Park and ended in the school's curiously baronial lobby. You might have guessed I was there for an American Idol audition, the release of a new Apple product, or perhaps an early-morning screening of Twilight: New Moon, but the reason for my visit was far stranger: I had come to take the SAT.

The idea to take the test was not exactly mine: it was that of the small New York tutoring firm I work for. As tutors we are offered the chance to take the SAT each year in return for a modest stipend and perhaps a little insight. By reminding ourselves of what taking the test is actually like, we are better-equipped to understand the the sufferings of our students.

Somehow these appeals to take the SAT had not grabbed me the past two years. But this year was different. I thought, if I were a student, wouldn't I want to know that my SAT tutor had taken the test sometime since the early Jurassic period? What good is it to know he scored well in that halcyon time before his brain had started decaying? Racked by a sudden sense of responsibility, I signed up.

The fortunate thing about my job as a tutor is that I am, in essence, preparing for the SAT all the time. Like Jay Gatsby, I am borne back ceaselessly into the past, only the past in this case is eleventh-grade math class. Things that had seemed lost in the mists--asymptotes, parabolas, the quadratic formula--have been returning to me since I began tutoring. By two weekends ago, I felt about as well-prepared for the SAT as one reasonably could expect to feel.

But I wasn't expecting to see so many relaxed-looking students, indeed some almost shockingly so. As I neared the registration desk, I overheard one test-taker asking her friend if she had studied. "Studied?" her friend retorted. "You can't study for this s**t. It's just common sense." To someone whose living is based on the assumption that you certainly can study for this s**t, the comment was as amusing as it was momentarily unsettling: could she be right? But more than anything the line revealed that there must still be large swaths of Manhattan where SAT tutoring is a curiosity, not a given.

Once everyone had registered, the several hundred of us in the auditorium were shuffled off to the sixth floor of the school and divided into classrooms. From this point, almost everything that could have gone wrong did go wrong. We had to change rooms--the first one had tiny four-person tables that would have made cheating nearly unavoidable--we were given the tests too soon; a five-minute warning was called when there were ten minutes left; we were given breaks at the wrong times; the noise in the hallway recalled Port Authority. If my college admissions chances had depended on this experience, I would have mutinied. As it was, I had little to fear, apart from a small dent in my professional pride, but I was amazed to see the students accepting this disorderliness so tranquilly.

In the rare calm moments of the morning, I was aware of a feeling I don't remember having when I took the test years ago: a kind of aesthetic appreciation. Lined up in the auditorium in the early morning light, I observed a mural on either side of the auditorium stage, depicting, I think, the Greek muses. But the women, painted in a kind of Puvis de Chavannes style, were blond, rather immodestly clothed, and a little more voluptuous than you would expect in a public building, especially a high school. Several boys in the audience seemed to have noticed them as well.

During the test itself, I was struck by the beauty of a certain reading passage, a scene from a memoir about a father and a son traveling to New York, and for a moment I simply enjoyed reading it, freed from the thought I would soon have to answer meddlesome questions about it. It is amazing what a lack of worry or consequences will do for your enjoyment of something-- even the SAT.

One of the test-takers in my room was the bearded man, whose presence reminded me of the scene in Cinema Paradiso where Alfredo, the humble film projectionist, who is in his forties or fifties, takes a state exam amid a roomful of taunting and merciless fifth-graders. Here, the other test-takers were perfectly friendly--indeed, the man seemed to know one of them--but still, there was something poignant about this figure. He hadn't brought a calculator, and seemed to be far from the end of most sections when time was called. At the end, he handed the test in with a cheerful shrug. Some of the other students may have felt the same way, but the image of this man--in his mid-thirties? forty?--was more affecting.

The SAT, like young love, pimples, and lunchroom social anxiety, will constitute--until it is abolished--a kind of unavoidable suffering. But like those other forms of suffering, it is finite, and it comes with the consolation that your peers are going through it too. For the rest of us--which is to say, the old and decrepit--we can only be grateful to have it behind us.