The King of Tests Strikes Out

Our fabulous globetrotting daughter, Katelin, recently expressed an interest in taking the Foreign Service Exam this summer as she looks forward to college graduation in 2013. I totally applaud her interest in this most excellent course of career paths, even though it reminds me of a less-than-stellar chapter in my own life, which I wrote about in 2003 for a print outlet in Albany. I reproduce my article on this topic below, with a few updates, in hopes that my own spawn (and everyone else) can learn from my experience . . .

Once upon a time, I was the King of Tests. I was a marginal student, at best, and would generally spend more time and effort trying to get out of studying or doing work than it would have taken to actually do the work — but any time anyone put any sort of standardized test in front of me, the vast seething library of arcana and noise that’s rattled around in my head since childhood would suddenly click to order, files and data organizing themselves for the dump, and the test would be mine.

Lest you have any doubts about how test driven our society is, let me assure you that a marginal work ethic and high test scores carried me further than most of my hard-working, low-testing peers. Elementary school standardized tests placed me in a variety of gifted and talented classes, where we spent all sorts of quality creative thinking and processing and analyzing time that masked the fact that we really were working far less hard and having far more goof-off time than the kids in the regular classes. Junior high aptitude tests indicated to guidance counselors that I was college track material, and advanced placement tests later ensured that when I got to college, that I would be able to skip all sorts of typical first and second year courses.

And the SAT’s? Oh, the SAT’s! My SAT scores, with no advance effort to prepare whatsoever, overcame tepid grades and a marginal extracurricular record to get me admitted to one of the most prestigious colleges in America, where I spent four years as the King of Cram, leading a posse of like-minded slugs in the “Late Night Study Club,” packing just enough information into our heads to barf it onto the test forms the following mornings. And then we slept. After college, I spent a year in a postgraduate program, drinking and sleeping and drinking and sleeping, only occasionally coming up for air to take the tests that would get me selected for a prestigious position in a high profile government organization in Washington, DC.

When that gig was winding down, my girlfriend and I decided that we would take the Federal Foreign Service Examination together and, once we passed it with flying colors, we would jet off for an exciting, cosmopolitan life abroad, doing our best royalty waves at the natives, eating in the world’s finest restaurants on expense accounts, hobnobbing with the intelligentsia, and sleeping really, really often and well. My girlfriend, being a serious academic sort, did all sorts of research into the Foreign Service Exam, took sample tests, boned up on political science and economics and history, talked to people who had taken and passed the test. I, on the other hand, slept really, really well the night before the exam — figuring that if all night cram sessions had work well for me all those years, then a “well rested, well tested” approach should really reap spectacular dividends.

The test itself seemed no harder or easier than any other standardized test that I’d ever taken, and I was one of the first in the room to finish, not bothering to go back and check my work since, hey, I never went back and checked my work. My girlfriend, on the other hand, worked diligently through the entire testing period, while I sat thinking patronizing thoughts about how cute it was when she worked so hard on things.

Six weeks or so passed, and my girlfriend called me at my office to tell me that, yay, she had gotten the results of the examination, and she had passed! I congratulated her, and congratulated myself, since (to my mind) the only thing that could have caused us to not spend our lives jetting around the world together was for her to have failed the test. I was so glad that her hard work and preparation had paid off, and that our lives would now unfold the way we’d planned them — and I told her that.

Wait . . . you are supposed to PREPARE for this test?!?! Whoa!!!!

But I’d spoken too soon, since when I got home that night and opened my own test results, I discovered to my shock, horror and dismay that I had not passed the Foreign Service Examination. In fact, I had not even gotten close to passing the Foreign Service Examination. I had failed in a fairly spectacular fashion, and now I had to call my girlfriend and eat crow of a variety that I’d never tasted, with a healthy slab of humble pie for dessert.

And I had to reassess two basic personal premises in my life. Firstly, I could no longer waltz in to a standardized exam setting without preparation and have it carry me forward to whatever next step I had in mind. And second, and perhaps more profoundly, I had to stop acting like I was the smartest person that I knew  — because a lifetime of tests telling me that I was in the 99th percentile of this or the top decile of that had imbued me with an arrogance about my own intellectual capabilities that made me certain that I was always right.

So there I was, hoisted by my own hubris, planning a life that wasn’t possible because the King of Tests had struck out. The logical reaction, then, perhaps would have been to take the test again and redeem myself as Lord of All That I Multiple Guessed, but my reaction was, instead, to turn my back on such tests entirely for many, many years, to let my failure be the victor, to let that moment be a benchmark for a different approach to life.

So I didn’t take a standardized test or a college exam for 20 years after that day, and instead focused my energies on actually doing and learning things in practical, hands-on fashion, trying to earn tangible kudos rather than bluffing my way into paper victories. I didn’t become a Foreign Service Officer, but that didn’t stop me from traveling abroad, and bringing up my daughter to value the international experience as well.

And the girlfriend in the story? Well, I figured that the only way to deal with people who were much smarter than me was to stay very, very close to them, just to see what might rub off. We’ve been together for some 25 years now, and I’m still learning from her, gratefully . . .

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