Brendan Mernin

Last night I taught a boy, a nice boy, on the Upper West Side. He wants to do better on the verbal SAT and the writing SAT II. He’s doing quite well already, but the colleges on his list don’t come easy. He just needs that extra boost into the 700s. So, I asked him what was his favorite book. “My favorite book?” he said. “I don’t have one. I really don’t read that much.” When I asked why, he said, “I don’t have the time—too much schoolwork.”

A few years ago I tutored a man for the GMAT, the test for admission to business school. I met him on the 56th floor of a midtown tower, in an office with a view of Central Park and beyond. When his lessons were over, we liked to look through his telescope at the George Washington Bridge, the Hudson River, and the hills that rise up about an hour north of the city, up near his family’s great estate. He’d gone to boarding school and to an Ivy League college, but by his own admission he hadn’t been much of a student. “C’s all the way through,” he recalled. We had a lot in common: We were the same age, we’d gone to similar colleges, and we both liked to do things in the outdoors: hiking, biking, kayaking. We’d both lost our fathers years before. Of course there were differences. His great-grandfather was a titan of industry, and his father and grandfather were great men who did great things. His name was a code word for American wealth and power. He could buy or do almost anything he wanted. His political party had even tried to recruit him to run for Congress. His picture turned up on the social pages of the Times.

But he wasn’t very good at standardized tests. In fact, he wasn’t very good at the whole school thing. Turns out he had kind of muddled his way through all along. And now, the best business schools weren’t going to take him, not unless he could get a decent score on the test. Man, did he struggle. Every time he had difficulty, I could see the doubt and worry trouble his countenance. For all that he had, for all the privilege and the name, at those moments he was just as vulnerable and pained as anyone else who’d ever been called on and didn’t know the answer. He worked hard, albeit in starts and stops. He had trouble gaining momentum, but over time he got more used to not knowing and then figuring it out, step by step. He didn’t ace the test, but he didn’t crash either. He did well enough to get into an excellent school. OK, so the admission director took his calls personally, but he still had to improve his score a lot to get in.

Several years earlier, I had tutored a boy in the Bensonhurst neighborhood of Brooklyn. He lived in a second-floor walk-up, over a pizzeria on 18th Avenue. His mother was a veterinary assistant, and his father was long gone. I tutored him in the summer, and because he had no kitchen table we sat on the couch, and the sweat on the backs of my legs caused me to slide off the plastic upholstery covers and into the coffee table. Always, there was the smell of pizza. The boy was usually tired, but decidedly cheerful. I tutored, and he learned, and his score went up. One day I heard screaming in another room. “Is everything all right?” I asked. “That’s my grandmother,” the boy said. “Is she sick?” I asked. “Yes,” he said. “She has Alzheimer’s. She can’t take care of herself anymore. Sometimes she screams.” Turned out this boy spent his nights, from 10 until 6, caring for his grandmother. He’d change her sheets, carry her to the toilet, and just plain comfort her through the long, senseless nights. As the summer went on, the boy’s score rose quickly; he picked up the material with ease. His mother wondered if we ought to stop with the tutoring, as the cost was adding up. We agreed that I would tell the boy what he could do by himself for the rest of the summer, and that we would meet once just before the test in the fall to review. The math was no problem, but the verbal, though better, was not yet where he wanted it for Cornell. He hoped to be a vet. So, he asked, “What can I do on my own for the verbal?” Not having anything better to say, I said, “You could read all of Dickens and look up every word.” That’s just what he did. He never for a moment seemed to doubt that he could score what he wanted to score. And he was right. Come fall, he scored his score and made it to Cornell. I often wonder what happened to that boy. Did he become a vet? Did he leave Bensonhurst, never to return? Did he gain membership to the world of three-car garages and nannies and two cleaning ladies and tailored suits and, yes, tutors for the kids? Did the test give him that?

The SAT comforts us, even as it frustrates us. It’s reassuring to imagine that there’s a scientific instrument designed to reorder young people according to their abilities. We trust the authorities to administer a test that’s fair and honest, and we trust college admissions officers to judge us and our children by criteria that we imagine are in our best interest. We find the hierarchy soothing.

The story students tell more than any other is the one about the friend who scored a perfect 1600, even though he got drunk the night before. I’m sure you know him. So many people do. Who is he? (It’s always a he.) He’s a genius, they say. I haven’t yet met him, but I can say this: Whoever he is, he’s not necessarily who you want to be.