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Testing, testing

I was a teenager when I decided that I wanted to become a high school teacher. I got the idea from television, a weekly drama called "Mr. Novak" after its high school teacher hero. I don't remember what Mr. Novak taught, but I believe it was something romantically resonant and useless, such as literature. What I do remember is that Mr. Novak was quiet, resolute, dashing, blond, handsome, and unerring at attracting the admiring attention of adolescent girls. These were not the only characteristics to which I then aspired, but they were the essential ones.

My ambition was welcomed at my high school, an intently serious place created by faculty, administrators, parents, and government overseers who had for 20 years been passengers on a moving sidewalk of calamity -- a run of depression, hot wars, and cold war. The educational culture they developed for our benefit was a fortress of prudence -- constructed of nothing-fancy curricula and early and cautious career decisions. In my graduation yearbook, the photos of my classmates are captioned with the usual range of muscular boasts from Seneca ("Fire is the test of gold; adversity, of strong men") and Thoreau ("When were the good and brave ever in the majority?") -- followed immediately by the humble plan: attorney, physician, accountant, businessman, florist, dentist. One of my classmates did boldly declare "Attorney/author," and I'm sure he heard about it.

Twentieth-century nerves were not the only influence on our charts. We drew direction as well from the plotting of our characters by all scientistic means known to the New York City Board of Education: Stanford-Binet, Myers-Briggs, PSAT, SAT, statewide subject exams, and "vocational assessment" surveys. The last offered kids from backwater Brooklyn a breathtaking range of possibilities, including park ranger, musician, and inventor. But if any of us exhibited aptitudes or appetites leading us in these dangerous directions, evidence of this never made it to the yearbook. We'd been taught to a larger test, and taught well.

My own vocational assessment test in senior year left me with a set of directives that included teacher as well as lawyer and social worker. But I had by then grown bored with the prospect of being Mr. Novak. When on Student-Teacher Day I, along with all other teacher-aspirants, was assigned to teach a period in our high school, I showed up in freshman biology unprepared, strode to the blackboard, and sketched a form that looked like a garden slug fallen on its side. Beneath it I wrote "amoeba." A photograph of me standing before this creature and glaring at the puzzled freshmen appears in my graduation yearbook. On a nearby page, beneath my head-and-shoulder shot, appears a lastminute edit: "attorney." Alongside it stands a bon mot attributed to a member of Hammurabi's court: "He established law and justice throughout the land."

The Russian short story writer Isaac Babel once noted, "Everything depends on who your grandma was." Babel knew some formidable grandmothers and meant what he said; he also meant that life was a difficult calculus, and it's often things like grandmas and love, rather than careful planning, that determine your fate. (Stalin found this view unhelpful and sent Babel to an early death in the gulag.)

We Americans live no less complex lives than any other people; but we are Americans, secured by oceans and wealth and a history of passing all our tests. We have, as Tocqueville remarked, "a lively faith in the perfectibility of man." And faith as well in the means of perfectibility, whether standardized exams, market research reports, compatibility indexes, or two servings of green vegetables per day.

Test scores, research reports, compatibility indexes, and broccoli have their uses. But they aren't oracles. People and businesses fail and leave behind excellent scores and plans; lovers drift apart even while holding overlapping values; picky eaters have been known to die young. And Abe Lincoln spent a total of 11 months as a pupil in a classroom before he became our most eminent 19th-century statesman and one of the language's great prose stylists.

To paraphrase Kierkegaard's most celebrated sentence, the rearview mirror gives us an excellent view of every vector -- luck, skill, grandmas, test scores, and television programs -- that carried us to where we are now. How to go forward, however, remains the difficulty.

Ben Birnbaum

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