My Summer in Test-Prep Purgatory

Brian Taylor

June 24, 2010

I dread the summer. I know how horribly sad that sounds to the rest of barbecuing, beach-loving America, but if you're an A.B.D. graduate student like me, you know where I'm coming from.

For nine months you live in a bubble world where it's acceptable to make $12,000 a year while living the life of the mind. Then June arrives, and unless you have a summer fellowship, you have to find a way to pay the rent. That means employment outside the university, and it can be traumatic.

For Ph.D. students in English, teaching test-preparation courses for young people can be a happy medium. It's not as prestigious as being an assistant professor, but you're an authority figure, and your students have a certain amount of respect for you. After all, from their perspective, you've made it: You're at a university that they would like to get into, and they want the knowledge that you have to impart.

But here I admit that I'm only describing SAT tutors. Oh, I envy them—their look of slick professionalism; their confident stride through the double doors in the morning; the looks of admiration they receive as they discourse on the Greek and Latin roots of tough vocabulary words.

My situation is different. Instead, I've been working as a lowly PSAT tutor. I have to admit that even after teaching a course on it last summer, I'm still not entirely sure about what the PSAT is. Based on casual questions posed to my boss and the people who work behind the front desk, I've guessed that it's a kind of dry run for young overachievers.

Hence, when I entered my classroom last June, I imagined teaching a group of students who had just finished their freshman year in high school. A little immature, maybe, but I could deal. I was quite surprised, however, to see that only two students were even close to pushing 15. The others were at the awkward transitional phase that involves braces, acne, and attitude. And then a few of them looked like they should have been playing with Lincoln Logs, or Power Rangers, or whatever it is kids play with these days.

Why were they here? Perhaps the mystery is dispelled if I mention some of the names on my course roster: Hank Chang. Betty Chou. Stacie Lin. That probably brings to mind the usual assumptions about the "model minority": students who feel like failures if they go to Berkeley instead of Princeton; parents who control every aspect of their kids' lives. But frankly, I had a gut instinct that if I ever cornered Mrs. Chang and asked why, exactly, her son was studying for an utterly meaningless test three years ahead of time, she, like most any parent, would look around harriedly and confess in a whisper, "Honestly, Hank's starting puberty and I can't tell you what a relief it is to have the little devil out of the house for a few hours every day."

My class got off to a rocky start. I had to modify the easygoing style that I'd cultivated with self-disciplined college students. For example, I insisted that the kids in my PSAT course call me "Mr. Blake," because allowing "Harrison" quickly led to "Mr. Teacher" and "B-Dogg." But that Friday I was convinced that the day would go well because I was teaching my strong suit: essay writing.

"So class, how should you begin an argument essay? What's the first thing you need?"

"Words," one student said.

"Well, um, thanks Ernest, you do need that to begin, but—but what kind of words?"

"You need a hook," Stacie said. "Something that grabs the reader's attention. Like a quote or statistics."

"Great, Stacie," I said, writing "hook" on the board. "What's the next thing you need? Someone besides Stacie."

"Words!" Ernest said.

"You need a thesis," Betty said, rolling her eyes to indicate the almost simian mental backwardness of her teacher.

"Good, a thesis. A thesis is your main argument."

As I wrote down "thesis," I heard a hubbub start behind me. One of the luxuries of college teaching is that you can write on the board for a while without all hell breaking loose while your back is turned. In this class, however, I'd learned to be dexterous, throwing nervous glances over my shoulder as I squiggled with my board marker.

"Guys, what's going on? This may not seem exciting but you'll have to write an argument essay over and over in high school."

"He threw a paper airplane at me!" someone shouted.

I'd never actually seen a paper airplane before. Indeed, I'd only read about them in Peanuts comics and Beverly Cleary novels. But now one had landed at my feet—a highly elaborate one, with intricate designs traced on the wings and fuselage. Clearly discipline was required.

"Guys, this is really disruptive and someone's going to get detention, OK? Who made that paper airplane?"

"He did!" Ernest shouted, pointing at Hank.

"You can't make paper airplanes during class, Hank. See me when class is over."

"Mr. Blake, that's really not fair. I didn't throw it!"

"Yeah, Mr. Blake, give Betty detention," someone else said. "She's the one that threw it."

"That's because you threw it at me!"

I had to shout over the argument that ensued. "Everyone: You can't throw things at each other, OK? The next person who does it gets detention."

Meanwhile I was feeling a cold, creeping horror as I realized that I was punctuating almost half my sentences with "OK." My God. I have the same verbal tic as that geeky teacher on South Park. I'd thought of myself as a youngish academic, but this summer job was making me feel very, very old.

"Fine, so you guys aren't so interested in this course packet. Tell you what, why don't we learn by doing, and write an essay on a book? Good? Let's see, you might like Lord of the Flies or Killing Mr. Griffin. I know, let's read Tangerine." Edward Bloor's novel deals with soccer, sibling rivalry, and racial and ecological conflict in a Florida suburb, and has become a contemporary classic of young-adult literature. In fact, I considered myself pretty cool for having read it.

But that was quite fatuous of me. Stacie had already read Tangerine, and she thought it was boring. The others vehemently refused to read a novel about fruit. "It's not just about fruit—hey, all of you are bilingual, and some of you were born in Beijing or Taipei," I said, inspired. "Why don't we read something about the experience of Chinese-speaking people in the United States?"

The students hailed me with groans of derision. "So what's wrong with that?"

"I hate those books," Betty said. "They're all, 'Would you like some wontons?'"

For a few moments I was struck dumb by her five-word dismissal of a vital field of American literature.

However, I have good news for E.D. Hirsch and Mark Bauerlein: Today's pubescents still read avidly. Specifically, they like to read about vampires, especially those in the Twilight series. I sighed, resigning myself to reading at least 10 essays about vampires who walk around in the daytime and look for love in all the wrong places.

Then shouting broke out again. A boy had taken a photo of Ellen Wong with his cellphone, and she was demanding that he erase the picture. That galvanized every rivalry and faction that had developed over the past two hours. I looked to my star student for support, but even diligent, fastidious Stacie had her back to me.

For the first time in my life I had utterly lost control of a classroom. And it was scary. I was amazed that a mere 20 students could make so much noise, and wondered how they could understand each other, since all of them seemed to be talking and shouting at the same time. Meanwhile I stood there gritting my teeth, certain that the director and staff were staring with open mouths at my classroom door, or perhaps already calling the police.

Faced with the choice of punishing the class with a collective detention, or leading them back to the course material by the light of reason, I decided on the latter option. Then I nixed that idea, and reached what was surely the nadir of my teaching career: I resorted to bribery. "Hey everyone. Let's go back to what we had on the board, OK?" I shouted. "So you've got your thesis statement, OK? What comes next? I'll give you extra-credit points—no, I'll give you a free bag of M&M's if you can tell me."

But only two students were paying any attention. One was Betty, who had belatedly realized which novel I should assign for the summer. "Where the Red Fern Grows! Let's read Where the Red Fern Grows! It has dogs in it!"

The other was Ernest, who was now genuinely disturbing me with his intense stare as he bellowed: "WORDS!"

That day no one was more eager for the bell to ring than the teacher, so he could collapse in a heap on the floor. I think I was seeing double as I watched the students bustle out of the room. Then my eyes focused on Hank, who was looking up at me thoughtfully. "We didn't really do much in class today, did we, Mr. Blake? It seemed like everyone just talked the whole time."

Since I'm writing this column pseudonymously, I can admit that I briefly contemplated strangling this innocent-looking boy. Or if not that, then giving him a wedgie or a noogie that he'd never forget.

I almost quit the job then. But I decided to tough it out and found small things to look forward to. As you can guess, one of them was Stacie Lin. I guess she was technically the teacher's pet, though in her Hollister and Abercrombie wardrobe, she was a little too hip-looking for that role. A voracious reader with strong opinions, she seemed like a literature professor in the making (though, of course, if she chooses that career, I'll warn her away from making extra cash by teaching for fly-by-night test-prep centers, or even the Princeton Review).

But over time, what really made the job bearable was Hank, who struck me as a Tom Sawyer of the iPod generation with his sandals and scuffed jeans, mop of hair, and cellphone that always broke into tinny song during breaks. At times I wished he weren't so obstreperous, but I had to admit that class would have been very boring without him. He led the class in detentions, and was probably the first student to have "too quiet during class" written on the detention form. On a dare from a female student he'd taken a vow of silence, which, of course, became even more distracting than his talkative mode. When I told him he'd have to stay after school, he wrote "Not fair! I didn't do anything" on a sheet of paper (which, from a strictly legalistic perspective, was true, I guess). But invariably his good spirits bubbled up again. Later that evening when we glimpsed each other at a local restaurant he cheerily waved and said, "Hi, Mr. Blake!"

You see, the key point here is that the students were actually learning, noisy as they were. They had difficulty with the material at first, but always scored above 90 percent on their vocabulary and grammar quizzes. Some of them even wrote decent essays.

Over the summer, then, our relationship developed into one of mutual respect. I learned to exercise more control in the classroom. But at the same time, I came to enjoy my students' energy and good humor. I appreciated how they teased each other in a friendly way, without any of the physical intimidation that I remembered from junior high. I admired the way they combined Internet-savviness with a traditional attention to pencil-and-paper assignments.

And I must say that when the summer session came to an end, I was incredibly relieved that I wouldn't have to deal with them anymore. In fact, the whole experience made me doubt if I ever wanted to have children.

Because accompanying all the good qualities I've listed above were the students' constant demands for attention, attention, and more attention. The Catch-22 of having them lose respect for me when I was too lenient was having them run guilt trips on me when I doled out punishment. In short, I felt like their substitute parent, and on a given day, the schizophrenia of affection and exasperation left me utterly drained. Let's just say I didn't get a whole lot done on my dissertation last summer.

I've always thought that my elementary-school teachers were far more important for my moral and intellectual development than my college professors. So I didn't have any big transformation in my view of American education after teaching this PSAT course, save that I have more respect now for middle- and high-school teachers.

I admire their work. But it's not something I can do myself. In the end, the summer gave me still more motivation to score a job at a college or university. After all, I'll get along with the students better when they've been fully socialized by America's hardworking educators—when Hank's sublimated his energy into high test scores and when Betty's read some Maxine Hong Kingston and Gish Jen, and overcome her literary prejudices.

But I admit I'm looking forward to other perks of an academic job, as well—most important, a regular salary and a few months of escape from America's most precious resource.

Harrison Blake is the pseudonym of a Ph.D. candidate at a research university in the West.