The one and only time I took the SAT was in a time of considerable panic. A few months earlier -- September of my senior year -- I mentally blanked for about five minutes, and when I snapped out of it, I turned to my dad and said that I wanted to go to a certain major California university. I'm still not entirely sure what passed through my mind in those fateful five minutes, but I'm guessing it was some sort of realization that if I didn't take this opportunity to get the hell out of Columbia, Missouri, I probably never would. My dad nodded and said, "I think you can make it."
My enthusiasm for my education had been inconsistent, to say the least, and my grades reflected this. I had, I reassured myself, other things going for me, but I wondered how well my fondness for long walks on the beach at sunset would show up on paper. I marked on my application that no, I hadn't taken the SAT, but I will on such-and-such a date: to wit, the latest possible. A few days after the actual application deadline, my ethical misgivings about spending valuable hours preparing for such cruel and arbitrary beasts as standardized tests having long since evaporated, I got my hands on an SAT prep book. The questions, I could see, were never really that difficult; I took a deep breath and decided I wouldn't stop drilling myself on practice exams until 1600. I ignored the advice given in the book and did my own post mortems, diagnosing my errors and coming up with ways to transform the test from a contemplative to a purely mechanical process. I hit the caffeine, hard. "Unhealthy" doesn't begin to describe the passionate flings I have with coffee, tea, and Mountain Dew while under stress; these two weeks were an
ulcer-inducing honeymoon. A few days before the test, I saw that my score had risen from a worrying (but, in retrospect, very respectable and probably sufficient) first attempt of 1440 to not only my goal of 1600 but consistent 1600s. Saturday morning came, and Saturday morning went. I drove home, slowly, and let my eyes glaze over.
At the earliest available opportunity -- from a pay phone at my high school -- I called the ETS 1-800 number to check my score. 1590. "Fuck!" I yelled, no doubt audible to the administrative offices next to me; to this day I can’t say whether my full thoughts were "Fuck yeah!" or "Fuck no!" I had worked my ass off, and I had succeeded fantastically. I had nearly killed myself pursuing perfection, and I was being mocked by my own mistakes. A few weeks later the hard copy of my score report arrived: in the entire exam, I had missed all of one question. Make that "mistake," singular. I have no fewer than three friends from my high school with 1600s to call their own, all of them having missed more than a few questions. "Statistically speaking, our scores are indistinguishable," I consoled myself, "and in the end, what does it really matter?" A few weeks later, against expectation, the fat envelope came in the mail. I had been accepted to my College of Choice. A motor spun, a laser fired, and a Beethoven CD I had cued up in hopeful anticipation was finally permitted to rattle my windows with the finale to his Fifth Symphony. What does it really matter? It’s all right now.
That one missed math question still bothers me. I know it doesn’t matter. I know it’s crass to argue with a cashier over that penny they accidentally shortchanged me, I know it’s anorexic to skip another meal because, by god, I can be thinner, and I know that it’s unspeakably shallow to wonder whether I would be a better person if it weren’t for that one question. The SAT is artificial and error-prone in its attempt to assign a number to something as fuzzy, ill defined, and human as "intelligence," and as such, was never intended to be, at its best, more than an educated guess. At its worst, the SAT is nothing less than everything wrong with modern education.
But it may well have been my one good shot at perfection. Artificial and error-prone, perhaps, but doing something, anything, not just well but perfectly carries with it an almost supernatural power. To err is human, they say. Had a single neuron, perhaps, fired differently, I would be the proud owner of some small piece of perfection, a fragment of the secret map that shows the way to the playground of the gods. It didn’t, of course, and I am instead reminded that I am inescapably human, and that to think otherwise, no matter what the circumstances, is self-delusion. I am reminded that the quest for perfection misses the point entirely, and that a universe of right answers can never get me what I really want. Humbled, I thank the test, and my one mistake, for robbing me of a few illusions. At its best, the SAT is able to point out flaws in our reasoning far subtler than forgetting to carry the one, if only we bother to look.