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Together, but Alone, at the SAT
Nell Becker
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I took my SAT for the second time on October 12. At 8:20 in the morning, I stood in a dimly lit Xavier HS gymnasium with at least a hundred other students.

When I took the SAT last May, I'd taken it at my school and was surrounded by friends and acquaintances. Being among people I knew made me feel more relaxed in that stressful situation.

This time, however, I'd come by myself and knew no one. I could've used a friend, too. My fingers were trembling, my knees were weak, and there was a sharp ache in my lower abdomen.

Besides providing students with test booklets, answer sheets and scrap paper, the College Board should arrange for medical assistance to be on hand in case someone (me) has a heart attack.

My Definition

Though the SAT shouldn't be so important, it is. Those (hopefully) four numbers are written on every college application one turns in. Academically, these numbers "define" you.

The definition of Nell Becker: 1270. I suppose I wasn't satisfied with that definition. Not that I did anything between May and October to help alter it, though.

I looked around the room, with its shiny, slippery floors and headache-inducing fluorescent lighting, to see if there was anyone I knew even in the smallest way. I had this urge to say something-anything-to someone-anyone.

The gym filled with gathering groups, clusters of friends and acquaintances who bonded together for the sole purpose of not being like myself-the one who stands alone. Gymnasiums can be so isolating, whether they're being used for a physical education class, a school dance, or as a waiting area for a critical standardized test. There is no place to hide.

I Felt Like a Freak

Without a group, I was left to stand awkwardly in the space between one group and another. In addition to worrying about this multiple choice maze that would either let me into or shut me out of the college of my choice, I felt like a freak at a freak show: "Hurry, hurry! Come see the girl who doesn't have anybody!"

I wasn't the only freak. Other lone students hunched over Princeton Review books and vocabulary cards. The students with friends seemed to be in a different emotional state, the buzz and laughter among them suggesting that they weren't taking a test at all, but hanging out on a Saturday night. I had to remind myself that we were all there for the same reason.

A whistle blew. Like cattle, we were herded from one side of the gym to the other. Clusters dissolved and loners were thrust into the masses.

Finally, Human Contact

I was suddenly approached by a girl I identified immediately as a fellow loner. I'd noticed her earlier sitting nervously in a corner, watching the clock. She was wearing a Collegiate sweatshirt with the etched letters of a boy's name that seemed too small for her.

"Hey… are you taking the SAT?" she asked me.

image by Cezary La Docha

"Yes," I said, breathing out a sigh of satisfaction. Finally, contact with something besides my anxious thoughts.

"I am so nervous," she lamented.

"I forgot my calculator," I blurted out.

"Really?"

"Yeah, I spent 10 bucks on a cab going back to my house to get it." This was true. I'd spent three minutes at the corner of 16th and Broadway debating whether I really needed that piece of machinery.

Then, on the cab back to the test center, I cursed myself for being so absentminded. If I believed in signs, this would've sent my anxiety into a blinding panic.

"Well, good thing you got it." She smiled. "I hear this one is easier than May's test."

"Yeah?"

A Reassuring Touch

"Yeah. We'll do really well, OK?" She clasped my elbow, like this five-minute friendship and a declaration would guarantee a good score.

We parted as I walked into my own large cluster of people with the last name of B. Walking down the hallway with them to this test that holds the access to our futures in its pages, I felt reassured.

We need odd things to get us through these hurdles. I needed to hear someone express her own anxiety, and to tell me I was going to be OK, even if I'd never met this someone before.

Sharing the Challenges

And I take some comfort in the shared experience of the SAT, the college-application process, and senior year. Thousands of teens throughout the country are brought together because we're experiencing the same stress, the same fears, the same questions on the same tests.

Even those of us who aren't planning on going to college or taking the SAT are faced with this push forward out of childhood and into the real world. The clusters and divisions that have so clearly divided us are dissolving, because we, as high school students, are dissolving.

Soon enough we'll compare scores, our acceptance and rejection letters, and our futures. In the meantime, we come together in a large mass, herded like cattle through each challenge, and experience parallel disappointments and joys.

Nell Becker is a senior at St. Saviour HS in Brooklyn.

(NYC-2002-12-06a)