High School Senior Moment – Essay Tease vs. Acid Test

20Aug09

Believe it or not, back in the fall of 1966 the U.S. government thought that my going to college could help America win the Cold War.  Earlier that year, my parents and I had attended a meeting where federal employees spoke enthusiastically about the National Defense Education Act (passed in 1958, in response to the Soviet Union’s launch of the Sputnik satellite the previous year).  They told us that the NDEA was designed to ensure the security of the Nation through the “fullest development of the mental resources and technical skills of its young men and women.1”  The legislation even included a student loan program. 

Those officials had wasted their time on me – for 2 reasons:

  1. When you read the fine print, NDEA loans were designed to “increase the flow of talent into science, mathematics and foreign language careers.2”  I had no interest in those fields.  I didn’t want to be a rocket scientist or a spy; I wanted to be a writer
  2. My parents had effectively brainwashed me to believe that going to college was my only post-high school option.  A different part of the U.S. government – the one waging war in Vietnam – was reinforcing that belief with its draft deferment for college students. 

As a college-bound senior at Redwood High School in Marin County, California, I had to take what was then known as the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT).  I’d registered to take it in December, but about 10 days before the test date, I had oral surgery that, due to complications, took almost a month to heal.  I was flat on my back in bed, unable to do much of anything except wait for the bleeding to stop.  I was in pain, I was lonely, and I was bored out of my skull.  It was the crappiest birthday (December 19th) and Christmas vacation of my life. 

Due to these medical problems, I had to reschedule taking the SAT.  The new date was Saturday, January 14, 1967.  I was applying to the University of California, Santa Cruz – so, in addition to the SAT in the morning, I would have to take an English Achievement Test in the afternoon.  Passing that test would allow me to opt out of a remedial course known as “Bonehead English.” 

Many people I knew were anxious about these tests.  While it wasn’t my idea of fun, I wasn’t nervous.  It was just a lot of multiple choice questions – no big deal. 

When I returned to school in January, two things happened:

  1. The College Entrance Examination Board announced that it would be conducting an experiment – instead of just multiple choice questions, the January English Achievement Test would include an essay writing portion.
  2. An “underground” newspaper called the San Francisco Oracle announced “a Gathering of the Tribes for a Human Be-In3” in Golden Gate Park on the afternoon of January 14th.  It would feature music, poetry and who knew what else.  The name Human Be-In was a pun on human being and the civil disobedience tactic called a “sit-in.” 

Regarding the essay – well, I wanted to be a writer.  I had already written an essay on my application to UC Santa Cruz – a funny one, as I recall.  What could be better than getting another chance to show how well I could write? 

As far as the Be-In, I was very conflicted.  I knew that, as a practical matter, I had no choice – I was going to take the @#$%ing test.  But, I’d been isolated for nearly a month during my recuperation and was eager to get out and do things.  Then, my girlfriend Carolyn told me that she was planning to go. 

[Sidebar: In my August 5th blog post – Hoist with a Canard… Not His Own but Whose? – I wrote that “the holy trinity of the 60s gestalt were sex, drugs and rock’n’roll” and described my participation in that gestalt from the perspective of my college years.  My high school years were quite different.

The Author -- Fall, 1966
The Author — Fall, 1966

 

  • Sex – Well, I had a girlfriend.  However, the phrase isn’t “making out, drugs and rock’n’roll.”
  • Drugs – Marijuana and LSD may as well have been on another planet, although I probably knew some people who had visited that planet.  Like so many things in high school, it was all about cliques – who you ate lunch with, etc.  I wasn’t in the druggie clique and didn’t particularly want to join.  Basically, drugs scared me – although they also seemed exotic and therefore, on some level, interesting. 
  • Rock’n’Roll – I’d always enjoyed listening to it, but after seeing Bob Dylan’s electric set at the Berkeley Community Theatre in December 1965 (I’ll be doing a future blog post about that concert) I was totally hooked on the live music experience.  By January 1967, I’d seen Buffalo Springfield at The Ark in Sausalito and been to the Avalon Ballroom to see San Francisco bands like Moby Grape and Country Joe and the Fish.  You could say that rock’n’roll was my “gateway drug.”] 

January 14th was a gorgeous winter day in the Bay Area.  My mom packed me a bag lunch and off I went to take the test.  All morning my number 2 pencil filled elliptical shapes on answer sheets. 

At noon, I went outside and ate my lunch, wondering what Carolyn was doing across the bay in Golden Gate Park.  

I found the room where the English Test was being administered.  The first half of the test period was more of the same multiple choice format.  Then, they called time.  I opened the test booklet and read the topic for our essay:

“The problem with being open-minded is that your brains might fall out.” 

In all honesty, I – a relatively well-read and otherwise well-educated 17-year old – had never encountered this bit of folk wisdom before.  For a moment, I sat there completely numb.  I read the sentence again.

“The problem with being open-minded is that your brains might fall out.4

I thought to myself, “This can’t be happening to me.  It’s just not possible!” 

Next, I thought to myself, “Why the @#$%ing Hell is this happening to me?  This is absolutely the dumbest @#$%ing statement I’ve ever read.  Certainly the dumbest @#$%ing one that I’ve been ever been asked to write an essay about.  What @#$%head came up with this goddamn question?” 

A moment later, I thought to myself, “I wonder if I can ask for a different topic.  Is there something I could do or someone I could talk to?  There must be some way out of this damned mess.” 

And then, I thought to myself, “I just don’t @#$%ing care anymore.  I’m screwed.  My life is ruined.  I’m totally @#$%ed because of this stupid damned essay topic.  The Hell with it!” 

In 1969, Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross would publish her book On Death & Dying, in which she identified 5 stages that a dying patient experiences when informed of a terminal prognosis:  Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance. 

To quote Maxwell Smart (Agent 86 in the Get Smart TV show from the era I’m discussing), “Missed it by… that much.” 

No folks, I never made it to Acceptance.  I looked out the clerestory windows of the room where I was taking the exam.  The sky was cloudless.  For a second I thought I could hear something very faint:

“Well ev’rybody’s dancin’ in a ring ‘round the sun.
Nobody’s finished, we ain’t even begun.
So take off your shoes, child, and take off your hat.
Try on your wings and find out where it’s at.”5

There might be parties coming every day for some, but not for me.  I picked up my pencil and wrote something to the effect of:

“This is a stupid waste of my time.  The mind is an intangible manifestation of the brain, which is a tangible object.  The brain is enclosed by the skull, which keeps it from falling out.  Being open-minded couldn’t cause your brain to fall out – only being open-skulled.  Who ever came up with this question must have a hole in his head.  @#$% you!”

The first part is a paraphrase, but I’m sure the last 2 words are quoted exactly – though I spelled 1 of them differently. 

At the Human Be-In, about 30,000 people showed up to hear Dr. Timothy Leary first publicly say, “Turn on, tune in, drop out.”  The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane and other bands played.  Someone handed Carolyn a funny-smelling, hand-rolled cigarette. 

Several weeks later, an envelope arrived for me from the Educational Testing Service.  I don’t recall my exact SAT scores, but both Verbal and Math were in the 99th percentile.  On the English Achievement Test, I was in the 44th percentile. 

My parents were baffled… and I decided not to offer an explanation.  I took money from my savings account and paid to retake the test in April. 

Before then, a letter arrived from UC Santa Cruz – what we called “a thick letter.”  A thick letter had enrollment and registration forms – it meant you’d been accepted. 

I took the English Achievement Test again – no essay this time.  I scored in the 97th percentile and avoided “Bonehead English” (at least until Graduate School, when I got to tutor people who were failing it at SF State). 

The College Entrance Examination Board waited decades before having another essay portion in the English Achievement Test. 

So… what can we learn from this?

  • There was at least 1 time in Mike’s life when he was at a loss for words.
  • Lots of folks followed Timothy Leary’s suggestion.  For many, it opened their minds – expanding their thinking and creativity.  For others, including some I knew, their brains fell out. 

As I complete this post, I think I’ve almost gotten to Acceptance. 

Later… 

  1. http://www.ida.org/stpi/pages/D3306-FINAL.pdf [page ES-1]ibid
  2. Ibid.
  3. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Human_Be-In
  4. Don’t get me started about who might have originated this piece of drollery – we know where that could lead.
  5. http://arts.ucsc.edu/GDEAD/AGDL/goldroad.html
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4 Responses to “High School Senior Moment – Essay Tease vs. Acid Test”

  1. Your experience is SO similar to mine, except that I took the stupid SAT test, finnished about an hour ahead of time and barreled out the door thinking “dumber than shit, folks…” Imagine my surprise when I scored 99th percentile in almost everything but math, where I got a 97… Was still good enough to make me a national merit scholar (that and 25 cents at the time would get you coffee somewhere).

    I experienced the same conflitcs that you did with regard to graduation… it was the same weekend as the Monterey Pop Festival and god forbid, I was NOT going to miss Big Brother and the Holding Company. My parents flipped their shit but I stuck to my guns, got up early on the first day, packed a bag and ran outside with my thumb. I had no car, no money, and no plan but goddamn it, I was going to see Sam Andrew. My priorities always were a little skewed…

  2. sorry about misspelling finished with two ns… i didn’t see that or the the reversed letters in conflicts until after I hit post and there is no edit feature for comments.

  3. 3 ted

    Great story. The 60’s may be over, but Dorn-style high school frustration is timeless.

    I also got a 99 on the English SAT… but it took me thirty years to do it. (long story, and besides, it’s your blog)

  4. 4 jallebrand

    That essay question is like the most absurd ever devised, and for a scholastic aptitude test no less, presumably by some PhD committee – maybe some psychology professor was using the essay to do research for his magnum opus on ‘stress reactions to nonsensical serious subjects.’ Hilarious though in its absurdity and off-the-wallness, though at the time, and with another much better place to be beckoning, obviously struck the fumious bone rather than the funny one. I would of given the essay a high score, for its precision, rationality, and clarity of argument, though a few points may have come off for the summation that, though succinct, wondered a bit into subjective opinion.

    The trickiest and most memorable essay question I ever had was one that went something like this:
    In Yeats’ The Magi, the word all is used four times in the first six lines, first in regards to the poet and then in repetition to describe the wise men, how does all relate to uncontrollable in the final line? (The famous line – The uncontrollable mystery on the bestial floor.)

    The best answer was a simple one – all appears in uncontrollable spelled backwards.

    I of course did not grasp that answer and filled my little blue book with a number of pages about the mystery of using all when the poet was only talking about three fellows, and the paradox that if the poet can always see all these dudes in all their makeup and glory, etc. then nothing in the poem is really uncontrollable, or some bs of that nature.

    Blog on!


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