“Calamity and Despair”
by Filiz Turhan
Back in the 90s, I worked as a private SAT tutor. I travelled to all kinds of jaw-dropping apartments around the city, raking in about $40 an hour, billed through It-Shall-Remain-Nameless Tutoring Agency that mainly served the populations of elite Manhattan private schools.
My very first student lives in an imposing building on Fifth Avenue within sight of the Met; when the elevator door opens there is only one apartment door to enter. I tutor my student weekly for the entire school year; only once is she not home when I arrive for our regular meeting. Standing in their oak-paneled foyer, her mother wails: “She’s not even here and we have to pay for it!” Before I leave, I have to promise that I will reschedule the appointment and not charge her for the hour.
I tutor a boy who has two homes due to his parents’ divorce: a loft in Soho and an apartment on 76th and Madison. When I first enter the gargantuan Soho loft, the student is in his room, hiding under the covers of his bed. I coax him out by promising that practicing SATs will be fun. On subsequent visits we actually do get some work done. Whenever he gets a right answer he shouts: “I’m on Fuego.”
J.F. is a junior at Dalton and lives on East 84th. Each week, her mom lets me in and then hops onto her exercise bike in her kitchen. We have to listen to the machine’s rapid clinking the entire time we are drilling vocabulary. J.F is overweight, and her mother is bone thin. Whenever I come in with the results of one of J.F.’s weekend practice tests, the mom always chirps: “Still not as high as my score!”
It is April 20, 1999 and I am in a gracious apartment in the Gramercy Park area; my student attends the nearby Friends Academy. We are sitting at his little desk, working on a tricky reading comprehension passage and his weird hairless cat is meowing loudly at us. His mother comes in to tell us about a news story she just heard on WNYC. Something about a high school in Colorado. It is our last session before he’s to take the exam; on my way out, she gives me a gift of a crystal mounted on a wooden pedestal and etched with the inscription “Follow your dreams.”
It’s kind of ironic that I became an SAT tutor, because I did not actually prep for it myself. My Turkish-born parents had no idea what the test was and so never suggested that I study for it. I did find a coverless SAT book in my brother’s room, although how it got there was a mystery. The only use to which we put its hefty dimensions was to prop the backdoor open so the cat could go in and out of the house. Instead of drilling analogies, I spent my precious after-school hours rehearsing West Side Story, even though my part was only that of Rosalia, one of the girls telling Maria how she was the “craziest girl on the block.”
It’s just a hunch, but I’d say that what I got from doing the show, stuff like teamwork and confidence—not to mention the unmentionables of the cast party—was far more valuable in the long run than practicing for a test.
As a totally un-prepped senior, I scored a respectable 1210. My better-than-average verbal score was a result of my avid reading habits and any achievement I made in math was to the credit of my much-loved ninth grade math guru, Mr. Bencivenga, a man of baby blue eyes and big shoulders, both literally and metaphorically. I thought of this as a reasonable reflection of my “aptitude” which at that time was what the test was said to be measuring.
But of course, one’s college path is not only paved with SAT cobblestones. I was ranked ten out of 500 in my class and had a wide range of activities; it was my intention to apply to Barnard College, a school about which I knew basically nothing but that it was in New York City.
One day a girl in my Spanish class told me that the Barnard application also required something called the “Achievement Tests.” I had not taken any thing called an “Achievement Test” and wasn’t clear whether such a thing even existed. Nevertheless, this slim info was enough to stop me in my tracks and I never filled out the application.
I didn’t even know how to ask for the help that I didn’t know I needed.
I did this tutoring work for several years. Perhaps the most ironic part is that I became an expert in the SAT II: Writing Test, formerly known as the “English Achievement Test.”
I was in many opulent Park Avenue classic 8s, homey Upper West Side townhouses, and sleek downtown lofts. The affluence of my students’ families was incontestable, but it was always mind blowing to me that these folks were spending so much money on their kids’ education even before college and even though they were already paying megabucks for the best high school educations money could buy. Nowadays, the tuition in the high schools my students attended runs about $45,000 annually.
Certainly, as a poor graduate student I was fortunate to have the work; the generous hourly fee made it possible for me to pay my bills while making good progress on my studies and even gain some education-related work experience. Nevertheless, it was only in the thinking about the broader social context of servicing this elite population that I felt rather Faust-y. Despite my ambivalent feelings about this entire enterprise, my financial needs exceeded my misgivings and my integrity blanched before my time sheet.
I lived down in Alphabet City between Avenues C and D, not the hipster haven that it is now. One of my friends, a guy from a tough town in the north of England, liked to say that I lived between “Calamity and Despair.” 1940s-era Public Housing buildings and crumbling tenements were surrounded by garbage-strewn lots (the lot next to our building was the site of nightly dog fights). My block had a liquor store, a shuttered joyeria, and a store-front church called the Garden of Gethsemane. Of course, many differences existed between the world of my Upper East Side students and my downtown neighbors, but the most vivid and immediate was the contrast between the teens on Park Avenue, with their private elevators and spacious bedrooms and the teens I saw hanging out on Third Street, with their baby carriages.
These baby carriages were fancy contraptions and the babies inside them usually packed in there like a Thanksgiving turkey in a Dutch oven: puff coat, hat, and fluffy blanket and inevitably covered in a plastic sheath to fend off wind, rain, and cold. Young moms were always within a foot of these baby carriages, looking hot in their jewelry, jeans, and their perfectly symmetrical eye liner. In addition, there was the attitude: loud, proud, talking, joking, and constantly aware of their ability to stand and be wherever they wanted. Nevertheless, I wondered about the fortitude of that brassy confidence when stacked up against the wealth, education, and opportunity available not just to the Park Avenue set but even the less pedigreed two-bedrooms-on-East-End-Ave homesteaders.
If you take two 16-year-olds from these two worlds on any random night and compare them, what will you see? Which factors are most valuable in predicting what their lives would be like at age forty? Aspects such as race, class, gender or personal qualities such as beauty, physical health, brain synapses, or grit? Having a well-connected parent? Being a teen parent?
In all the years that I worked for It-Shall-Remain-Nameless, I only had one New York City public school student. To the agency’s credit, they pay me my usual rate, but waive hers. L.D. is a senior at one of the Performing Arts high schools; polite and intelligent, she dutifully listens as I say my piece about the test format, content, and strategies. But she is busy with a show, and never does her in-between sessions vocabulary drills and never goes for a weekend practice test. (By the way, plenty of the paying students also did not do their vocab drills). I am incredibly gratified when her Verbal score improves by 40 points and her mom gives me a gift of a pen and pencil set with the Duane Reade price sticker of $2.49 still affixed.
Over time, the SAT has been worshipped, reviled, deemed irrelevant or unimpeachable, revised and recentered (my 660 Verbal in 1985 became a 720 in 1995.) Many schools have gone “Test Optional,” meaning that they do not even require test scores anymore. Might sound good, but for students like I was, understanding how to strategize this option is just another layer of “should I” in an already complicated college application process.
My own story reflects a diversity of experiences: I’ve been unprepped, self-prepped, a professional-prepper, and most recently, a parent-payer of professional preppers. Even though I am inclined to argue that testing is a good thing in the context of other measures of student achievement, the most recent test-taking and college admissions fraud scandals certainly undercut any confidence that we may have that the gold-ring of equity is even within sight, let alone, reach.
Of the many students I worked with over the years, there is one whose plaintive voice I can still hear today. She is a 14-year-old who lives in a bucolic compound in Westchester. I take a train ride north where I am picked up in an SUV by a manservant who drives me to the “house.” Although we work for only one hour, I get paid for four. The student is prepping for the SSAT, a standardized test used for grade school admissions. She is not only not motivated to do well, she is highly motivated to do badly. She does not want to go to boarding school and tells me: “I want to stay home with my horse.” I confront her sad face every Thursday afternoon through a dismal winter, trying to get her to memorize words like “bypass” (as in a detour) and to eliminate decoy answers.
As if trying to send a cosmic message to her parents, she picks “no error” almost every time.
Filiz Turhan lives on Long Island. Her work has appeared in the Threepenny Review, The Eckleburg Review, Newsday and elsewhere. She is a professor of English as Suffolk Community College and can be found at filizturhan.com.