If I hadn’t lost my hard copy of my 1996 GRE scores in a basement flood several years ago, my potential graduate school of choice informs me, I could have sent it. But as it stands, I ponied up my $140 to demonstrate my general intelligence on a test whose predictive validity for success has been given lukewarm confirmation at best, and downright contradicted at worst. Oh and by the way, screw you, Howard Gardner.
The room was no bigger than my kitchen, set up into tiny cubicles. Its leader was Marlene. Marlene looked like a very nice lady, actually– yeasty, with kind, small eyes– someone who makes peanut butter cookies with crossed hashmarks using a fork. She chatted eagerly about the weather, as if she hadn’t seen it for awhile.
“Please copy the information disclaimer here in some form of cursive,” she directed me and the disheveled undergrad next to me. Her tone on the phrase “in some form of cursive” suggested that she had amended the original directions to reflect the realities of her day job.
“Cursive??” the young man blurted out, appalled.
The GRE has been substantially revised since I took it twelve years ago. In particular, it has been computerized, and a writing section has been added: in one prompt, to defend your opinion upon a given statement; and in another, to analyze the logic and rhetoric of a given passage. I started the first section three times before typing in frustration, “An honest response? This prompt is ridiculous.”– and then actually kept the sentence in. In the second task I dared further, doing all the analysis the test was requiring within a fictitious context I constructed of a young man in Arizona, besotted with a diffident woman from Alaska he met at a cactus-breeding conference.
I’d talk to you more about the questions, but there’s a special level of Guantanamo Bay reserved for people who reveal the contents of the GRE, along with folks who rip the tags off of mattresses and try makeup in the pharmacy using tubes that are not marked “SAMPLER.”
This sense of silliness probably did not serve me well, but was not entirely my fault. I blame the video and audio-taped room, the tiny locker into which I placed all my possessions prior to entering my cubicle, the fact that I was not allowed to hang my sweater over the back of my chair– and that the exam is produced in exactly the same font as is used by the computer Joshua in “Wargames.”
As I signed out, Marlene’s kind eyes turned into marbles. “Your results will be mailed to you within 10-15 business days,” she intoned, and then hoped I would have a nice holiday. I caught a glimpse of the work schedule behind her desk: Marlene, it said, penciled onto today’s date. And then, through the month: Marlene. Marlene. Marlene. Marlene.
But luckily for this story, this was not the day’s final word.
Leaving the strip mall where the testing center was located, I stumbled on a tiny hidden photography exhibit. The artist apparently takes all his spare time to find small portraits in nature and take time-lapse pictures of them.
I walked slowly from picture to picture, peeling my forbidden orange, reading the captions. Stones in the river. Ice from the Lake. Sunset at the bluffs. Beechwood.
And I felt a little better.