Monday, October 25, 2004

The Test

Today Teen Spirit endured one of the great (or maybe not so great) rites of passage of a New York City childhood. He joined thousands of other N.Y.C teenagers at Stuyvesant High School to take the entrance exam for the specialized public high schools.

Needless to say, Smartmom and Hepcat were pretty ambivalent about the whole thing. They hate the idea of a standardized test defining one's future and are pretty sure that Stuy, Brooklyn Tech and Bronx Science aren't the right kind of schools for Teen Spirt. In some deep way, the whole idea of it repelled them and made them feel caught in a really nasty and de-humanizing machine.

Yet, something propelled them to do it, to send their young boy into the fire, so to speak, to participate in this mass ritual of scholastic validation and opportunity. Perhaps they've been driven mad by the anxiety of the last few weeks of relentless high school open houses, tours and fairs, Maybe they've lost all perspective and were just desperate enough to try their luck at this crap shoot. Like Best & Oldest told her daughter: "You can either take the test or buy a lottery ticket, it's your choice."

In a certain way, the specialized high school entrance exam is one of those defining moments in this city's so-called meritocracy. It's that big chance, no matter who you are or where you are from, to get the proverbial foot in the door. Every kid in New York has the "opportunity" to take this blind test which basically measures one's ability to excel on a multiple choice exam. That's it. For kids who are "on-the-ball" academically, it's a chance to spit out what they know.

But is it really all that democratic? The New York City school system, which is in the throes of reorganization once again, is pretty horrendous. Kids are struggling all over the five boroughs to get the kind of education they deserve. What of those kids who have never been given the chance to thrive academically because of the way this city and this country has failed them -- are they taking the Stuyvesant test?

For that matter, navigating one's way through the high school entrance process requires a good deal of savvy and equal amounts of smarts. Parents really need to have the time and the wherewithal to dive in and figure it out. For someone who doesn't speak English or is holding down two jobs, it's gotta be really tough to try to help your kid get ahead.

And getting ahead is what getting into Stuy is all about. And to get in: it's all about the test score on that bubble test. They don't look at grades, they don't look at recommendations or portfolios, they don't interview, or care about family connections, or the fact that your parents don't speak English and that you're the first one in your family to finish grade school. Nope, it's all about a number. A hard and fast number that decides who will be chosen to fill the coveted seats at Stuyvesant and the other special schools.

Sad to say, many are scarred by this process. Not getting into Stuy can be one of those burning childhood wounds that some New York kids never get over. Best & Oldest, age 46, is still smarting over the fact that she didn't get into Bronx Science and is totally appalled by the kids in the eighth grade class at our junior high who did. It didn't make any sense -- she was way, way smarter than any of them. Likewise, Smartmom is often surprised by the adults who tell her they went to Stuy. In this way she knows that going to Stuy is no predictor of future success, wealth or happiness. And it certainly doesn't make you an interesting person! That said, it seems to have a symbolic value and is just one of the many ways that New York City parents transfer their own anxiety and aspirations onto their offspring.

Teenagers of every stripe assembled today, one of many testing days, on Chambers Street, waiting to get in. It was a colorful parade of faces from New York's economic and ethnic melting pot. To say black and white, rich and poor doesn't even begin to describe the diverse cauldron that is contemporary New York City. We are Chinese, South American, Latin American, Puerto Rican, Mexican, African, African-American, Japanese, Viet Namese, Cambodian, Russian and more.

So Teen Spirit, with his test ticket, joined thousands of others on the line that went from West Broadway and Chambers Street, across the West Side Highway on that beautiful bridge to the entrance to the school practically in the Hudson River. And he waited along with everyone else, for his two-and-a-half-hour horse race. Smartmom's heart goes out to the yearning in all those kids trying to prove to themselves and to their parents that they are worthy of a seat at Stuy.

God, this whole process is awful. Smartmom hopes Teen Spirit isn't permanently scarred.

Smartmom told Teen Spirit to think of it as an interesting experience -- to put on his sociologist's hat, if you will, and to take it all in: the sea of nervous kids with their yellow number two pencils; the parents looking stressed out as they said good-bye. It's sure to be something he will never forget. Not because the Stuy test is any kind of measurement of his intelligence or his value as a human being. Not even remotely. It's really just one of those things that is an integral part of life in this crazy city like watching the Macy's parade balloons being inflated on West 77th Street the night before Thanksgiving or second-acting a Broadway play; riding the Staten Island ferry at twilight or running with the elephants as they cross 34th Street when the Circus comes to town; hearing gospel singing at a Baptist Church in Coney Island or standing at the front window of the first car of a subway train: blasting through the dark, watching the station lights to come into view.

"Soak it in," they said, "and give it a try. You have nothing better to do on a Sunday afternoon in October."


At 7:28 AM, Blogger beachboy said...

Happened to wander across your blog. Appreciated your dilemma, but would like to offer the following thoughts. In 1978 I opted to go to Stuy rather than my neighborhood high school. Meant leaving my friends behind and enduring a long subway ride. The outcome? Best thing I have ever done in my life. The environment allows you to be yourself and thrives on individuality. Does it guarantee success in life? No. Does it give you a greater shot at being successful- absolutely. Although it is a competitive environment, not every student gets caught up in that. There is just as much opportunity to explore music, dance and art as there is for chemistry, calculus and physics. If you go, it will be something you'll always look back on as a wise choice. Good luck.

At 8:05 PM, Blogger mrs. cleavage said...

Thanks Smart Mom for your kind words.--WB


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