And You Thought the SAT Was Bad

Literature

And You Thought the SAT Was Bad


Oceania

“I know what you must be thinking,” the mother says. “A 3400 to 5800? Impossible. But oh no, we know about you. Ariel wants the perfect score. His brother got the perfect score.”

She pulls her chair off the back wall of my office to the middle of the room, close enough to watch our hands at the desk. 

“You are a very expensive tutor,” she says. “We only hire the best.”

She says it as if I’m hoarding a secret.

“You’re right,” I say. “I am the best. I make guarantees—if Ariel learns The Whole World Book, he will achieve the perfect score.” 

Her head quivers.

“Yes, yes, we know,” she says. “We are very excited. Your billboards say it.”

I hoist up, from the pile beneath my desk, the fourteen-thousand-page Whole World Book and slide it in front of Ariel, seated next to me, whose head arrives only to my shoulder. He gazes out the window at a great blue heron stabbing for fish in the cattails. My office overlooks hundreds of square ponds, stretching for miles, divided from each other by monstrous levees, as if the Earth has been pressed by a great meat tenderizer. 

“Will Ariel be participating in the full program then?” I say. 

“Oh the full,” the mother says.

“We better start right now. Otherwise we’ll run out of time for the perfect score.” 

I tell him to throw everything he’s brought with him in the garbage. I do this for effect. He can retrieve his things from the trash when we’re finished. His green Trapper Keeper and pencil case clatter in the steel bin. The heron flies away. 

We begin in the deep blue ocean. 

“The bluefin tuna’s circulatory system allows warm blood from its core and cold blood from the skin’s surface to interact, allowing the tuna to dive to great depths,” I say.

Ariel writes explosively in the blank lines of The Whole World Book, words running horizontally, loopingly.

“Interacting with different temperature gradations allows the bluefin a greater hunting range than, say, the swordfish,” I say.

He writes and writes.

“The swordfish heats only its brain and ocular retina, allowing for more high-resolution vision and hunting prowess.”   

Ariel pauses, looks at me.

“Remind me of the difference between a participle and a gerund?” he says. 

The pathologies of the old test still haunt the minds of young people, even though he is too young to remember the old test.

“We will get there,” I say. “You can’t think about grammar until you learn the content of the world’s oceans.”

He doesn’t object. 

“Chasing its preferred prey down hundreds of feet,” I say, “mackerel are often no match for the bluefin.”

“That’s a dangling modifier,” he says.

“You have a mind for this,” I say.

He beams. Very feminine lips. Buds of the adolescent beard. Minimal acne. A hint of unibrow. Red glasses. He reminds me of a ferret. 

His mother interrupts my thought chain: 

“I don’t mean to get in the way,” she says. “I’m just here to make sure he stays on top of all his work. You are so very expensive.” 

She speaks in semi-colons. Semi-colons are the chauffeurs of punctuation, chariots of meaning. Ben-Hur. Phoebus. She wears her doctor’s coat; on the coat it says, Fuck Cancer. I’m caught off guard by her allusion to my price. Most parents don’t discuss my price. They simply pay. My methods work. The Whole World Test is the first test to accurately judge intelligence. Every intelligence. There is no longer the excuse of multiple intelligences. You cross the bar or you don’t. 

Four hours pass. We turn to whales.

“The sperm whale gets its name from a mechanism in its head that functions as a giant telegraph machine: the spermaceti,” I say.

“The spermaceti,” Ariel says.

“Yes,” I say.

“One of the sperm whale’s nasal passages spirals like a French horn,” I say. “When air passes through, it twists and turns and flattens and sharpens and meets a pair of clappers near the front of the head called ‘monkey lips,’ which produce sound.”

“Monkey lips,” Ariel says.

“Yes,” I say. 

“Sound generation is a complex process,” I say. “Have you heard of infrasound?”

“No,” he says. 

“Infrasound constitutes soundwaves vibrating below 20 hertz, outside of the range of the human ear.”

We continue on like this, Ariel writing, me speaking, me speaking about hertz and infrasound.

“This new Whole World Test feels a little like a traction-bed don’t you think?” the mother interjects, after another hour. “It’s so demanding and yet so limiting. Is it just about Earth? Do they even test astronomy?”

“Just this world,” I say.

“Well how are they supposed to understand Earth if they don’t know about Kepler 452b?” she says. 

“It’s just a question of scope,” I say. 

Ariel pulls out a Costco-sized blueberry muffin from his pocket; the crumbs scatter all over the table and the floor. He tears off chunks and stuffs them in his mouth. I transition out of oceanography. We move to the botany section.  

“In Montana, where I’m from. . .” I say.

“Excuse me,” the mother says, leaning forward with her brow scrunched. “I hope you don’t mind. He came from basketball practice. He’s so hungry. It’s just such an expensive session. We wouldn’t want to waste any time.”

I continue: “They trained Labradors how to sniff out the root systems of dyer’s woad, an invasive species originally from the Caucuses. It was used hundreds of years ago as a blue dye for paintings and textiles before. . .”

Ariel asks me if he can go to the bathroom.

“Of course you can go to the bathroom,” I say.

Since the development of The Whole World Test nearly ten years ago, the pedagogical pivot from oceanography to botany has roiled the tutoring industry. Why, critics of the test argue, must sperm whales be taught before dyer’s woad? The test’s creators, two Bolivian psychologists at Stanford, Doctors Marco Julio Gongora and Esteban Moreno Jimenez, defended their choices vigorously in papers and equations and many, many footnotes. They were so convinced of the accuracy of their college entrance exam that, when they emerged from their Quonset hut in the Atacama desert with the complete test, having subsisted solely on saltines and Velveeta cheese for 42 days, they almost shot each other with their service pistols, having seen, as they described later, how accurately their test could predict what a sixteen-year-old could and couldn’t learn throughout her life. 

Ariel returns from the bathroom. He tucks his grotesque, bare knees under his desk. 

“Excuse me,” the mother says. “I’m starving. Would you care for some Wendy’s? I’ll go get us all some Wendy’s.” 

She stuffs her notebook in her purse and rises from her chair. I can hear the bang of the front glass door of the office complex. She’s cutting it close, as the tides often flood the roads at this time of day. 

Ariel takes two practice tests about Oceania. He fails both. He has no chance for a perfect score. We move on to the human settlement of the Polynesian triangle. He seems to hit a giant dark wall in his mind. It happens to every student. I’m glad his mother isn’t here to see it. 

“Infrasound is key to understanding the navigational systems of early Polynesian settlers,” I say. “Imagine traveling a thousand miles in hand-carved canoes, with no instruments or shelter, only the eyes and ears of your fellow paddlers. Somehow, through the wave and star patterns and—this is crucial—low frequency infrasounds, these early explorers were able to navigate and settle the remotest islands in the world. They could hear and read the waves hitting distant land formations, Ariel. You must remember that.” 

He nods and writes furiously “distant land formations.”

“Take the famous Polynesian explorer ‘Wo,” I say. “He canoed with only five other men from the Solomon Islands to Maui. He was called a ri-meto. A master. And he trained his entire life for this journey. They canoed for many days, and then one of the men, who harbored a grudge against ‘Wo for eating two more bites of fish than was his share—‘Wo claimed his mind worked harder than the others’—decided to push their leader overboard. ‘Wo was their only great navigator.” 

Ariel stops writing and looks up at me. His nails are dirty, and his fingers hold his pencil tightly at the tip. His mother still hasn’t returned. 

“I don’t understand,” he says. 

“You don’t have to understand,” I say. “You will never have the ear of a way-finder. But you do not need the ear of a way-finder. You just need to know that, at one point, people could navigate in open ocean.”

“How did they make it to Maui after ‘Wo died?” Ariel says. 

“They ate each other,” I say.

“They ate each other,” he says.

“Yes,” I say.

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