Never mind why I was taking the CBEST at the ripe age of 57 (that embarrassing topic will be covered in another post). Suffice it to say that, like Dante Alighieri, I became lost in middle of my life. So let's just skip to a basic question about the California Basic Educational Skills Test, "What was it like to take it?" Not bad at first, I managed to avoid getting lost on my way to the test site, Alta Sierra Intermediate School in Clovis. Once there, however, disorientation began to set in. I entered a classroom filled with odd middle school desks, barely providing enough surface area for my bifocals, my two sets of backup glasses, seven pencils and an enormous eraser. A tiny chair was engulfed by my ample posterior, and I sat there feeling like the world's biggest junior high student--and the oldest. All around me were people barely able to vote, let alone drink. And certainly a drink might have helped me endure the chattering of my new classmates, mostly on the subject of how many times they had failed the CBEST. My heartbeat ratcheted up from level orange toward red. Behind me, a childlike voice confessed that this was her third attempt to pass the reading section, and I couldn't help but turn around and look at her, saddened that some poor idiot child had never learned to read. Sure as hell, she looked dumber than an acre of dirt. My mind segued to the frightening realization that I had no idea how many square feet there were in an acre of dirt, let alone how to how to calculate its perimeter. If only I hadn't spent most of my junior and senior high math moments screwing around (or daydreaming what that would be like).
Soon the proctor (by which I refer to an examiner qualified to be my granddaughter) gave us permission to start the first section, reading. My little remaining confidence evaporated; the questions following each passage had been devised by moronic monkeys. One selection discussed social taboos and informed me that those activities considered not pleasurable by the members a particular society were never labeled "taboo". The supporting example was something to the effect that "nobody regards wrestling a grizzly as a desirable and thus such an activity is unlikely to be judged as "taboo". Pushing aside a notion that certain larger members of my high school football team might actually have relished such an opportunity, I moved on to the follow-up question: "Which of the following five choices would make author's main idea more persuasive?" One possible answer: "Similarly, wearing a t-shirt and shorts while walking in a snow storm has never been considered taboo in any society" (well, never mind what our Muslim friends might think, especially if the walker were female). Certainly, the combined effects of cold and partial nudity appealed to my weird sense of humor, but an equally valid choice offered a conclusion sentence which was fairly well written (for a chimp, anyway). I was lost and about to abandon all hope of choosing answers satisfactory to the simian authors of the CBEST. Then I remembered my magical knack for clueless guessing and found my way through this fifty item set. At least seven of questions nagged my mind, however, because they could be successfully argued to have more than one correct answer--especially if I were the one providing the argument.
The next section (and my greatest fear) mathematics, was refreshingly straightforward, most of the questions falling into a category I call NERS (Not Exactly Rocket Science). One question about the test results of a hypothetical Tommy began with an intimidating chart. Tommt had a raw score of 27, a 76th percentile ranking, and a "stanine" number of seven (and what the hell IS a stanine anyway?). I figured I was hosed at that point and jotted down my weak attempt at an appropriate algebraic equation, sure that they were going to ask me what score was required to achieve an 87th percentile--or some such unfathomable number. But I looked over the list of possible answers, one of of which was that the near-do-well, Tommy "scored better or equal to 76 percent of the other students". Call me a fool, an old one at that, but this choice looked dandy at the time.
A more relevant question followed: Mrs. Smith has a short story unit which will require one and half hours of classroom instruction. She plans to divide this instruction equally over the next three days. Each period is 45 minutes long. How much extra time will there be at the end of each period?
I appreciated the practical nature of the question since it calls upon a skill that teachers employ every day. Because 45 consecutive minutes on any single subject is beyond the media-curtailed attention span of today's students, breaking up the period with adjunct activities is essential. The teacher who cannot grasp this concept will not survive the first year. Anyway, 15 minutes was the answer I chose, and I'm still fairy confident of my decision. Five subsequent problems, however, induced "equation panic". After many years of remission, I had been revisited with an attack of AAA (Acute Algebra Anxiety). Still, I reasoned, the math section had 100 questions and figured I could blow off five or six bone-head responses. And that's when I realized that after 32 years of teaching English, I was in greater risk of bombing reading than mathematics.
Then two essays, no sweat for a self-proclaimed bullshit "are-teest". The first prompt centered on the issue of whether elected officials should be allowed to cast votes not necessarily reflecting the majority opinions of their constituency. Whatever. I pointed out that the people of Germany supported the Nazi party and believed they were doing a spiffy job of running the country--despite obvious oppression, international aggression, racism and genocide. So it's not unheard of, I pointed out, for the members of a majority to have their heads up their collective asses. What reader would dare shoot down an essay condemning the Nazi's for Chris-sake? This puppy was most definitely in the bag, and I still had forty-five minutes at my disposal.
The topic of the final essay was, and I'm not making this up: "Describe a favorite place and explain why it is personally meaningful to you." OMG! (as the children around me would have texted if they had not been required to turn over their cell phones at the beginning of the test). Had I ever dared to inflict this trite cliche of a prompt on my most brain-dead freshman, there would been a shit storm of indignant groans accompanied by a stalwart chorus of "Not this again!"). And for a perverse and giddy moment, I considered writing about my favorite places on the female body, rhapsodizing upon various anatomical locations and "personally meaningful" memories attached to each. But I refused to allow end-of-test-euphoria to divert me from my intended path composed following essay. I must admit I felt a catch in my throat and strange moistness in my eyes as I knocked out the final sentences. No, really, I did.
My most memorable place is located in Sequoia National Park and designated on the map as Mineral King. This pristine valley of glaciers, streams, and trees has both inspired and defined me as I pass through the stages of my life.
My family's favorite summer destination for camping was Mineral King. It was there, during long walks my mother I witnessed her awe and respect for the wonders around us and I gained my love for nature. On one particular hike we came upon a newborn fawn, trembling in the morning sun like like the quaking aspens surrounding us. Just as clear are memories of my father teaching me how to fish as we stood on the edge of the Kaweah river just outside our campsite. And I will never forget his smile when I proudly brought him the first trout I had caught on my own.
Mineral King became less about family bonding during my teenage years and more about the pursuit of independence, a growth phase in the lives of all young adults. With my newly acquired driver's license, I drove to Mineral King with a close friend and we ventured far into the back country, enjoying panoramas unseen by parents. Some of our experiences were painful and there were occasionally injuries, but these didn't matter because we were, at last, on our own.
As a young father I brought my own children to Mineral King. I have countless memories hiking with my two sons, their laughter and the campfires. One such memory is preserved in a photo. My son is bending over, staring intently, his eyes a glittering reflection of the brook that flows beneath his feet. My hope was that some day these boys, having become men, would pass the spirit of these moments on to their own children.
Now I am in the middle of my life when I visit Mineral King, and I come alone. The wife of my youth is no longer with me as I walk this cherished valley, reflecting on her short life and the unpredictable patterns of life. I return often, not wanting to miss summer as it changes to fall and fall to winter. And I am comforted by the knowledge that in the place of my heart I call Mineral King, there will always be a spring.
Those who know me well will recognize deliberate errors of fact and omission in this essay, and I regret compromising myself for the expediency of a moment. Upon finishing this essay, nevertheless, pride urged me to tear it out of my answer book and hand it to the boy seated next to me, declaring: "Now here's an essay, by God. Read this bad boy and you'll cry like a baby." But I realized that this person to my right actually was a baby, compared to me, and might not understand some of my multisyllabic words. Test disqualification would be certain had I followed this path and I left him unmolested to complete his essay.
I used my final minutes to check my work and changed three answers in the reading section, probably from right to wrong. But having recovered from my deja-algebra- anxiety, I successfully worked through four of my guesses in the math section, finding them correct just as they were--pleased to discover my psychic capacity for clueless guessing had diminished over the years. After sprinkling some miscellaneous punctuation over my essays, I waited out the final seconds as test materials were collected.
The hardest part? No doubt about it--getting the hell of of Dodge (a.k.a. Clovis) at the end of the test. I wandered aimlessly through the parking lot in a post-CBEST haze, eventually stumbling upon my car. I was anxious to get home, but after I pulled out onto the street I realized I had no idea which way to turn. Then I remembered the GPS in my glove box. There's really no reason to be lost--so get a grip on your Garmin, Dante.
Cumulative Status: Highest Results
Section Highest Score Test Date
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Reading 56 04/10/2010
Math 53 04/10/2010
Writing 47 04/10/2010