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January 22, 2012

Things I Thought About While Proctoring an All-Day Test






In this episode, I spend the whole of a bright and crisp Saturday working as a proctor at a testing center for the Sentaa Shiken, or “Center Test.” I’m sure that few if any readers have any inkling what I’m talking about. Lucky, lucky you.

The Sentaa Shiken is a blister on Satan’s nutsack, it is the petrified crud moldering under the toenails of your dead grandmother, it is an abomination in the eyes of God, a thing more ludicrous and unnecessary than the final season of Heroes. It is, in a nutshell, Japan’s equivalent of the SAT.

The testing center at which I proctor is actually the main campus of the university that employs me. About a quarter of our school’s full-time faculty and staff—those of us whose number came up this year—arrive in a conference room at 8 a.m. for the briefing. Here I meet the other five members of my team, all of whom are based at the main campus, which I seldom visit. I am among strangers in a strange land.

And yet, not so. The leader of our team is one Professor Nakano. Though we have never spoken, we recognize each other from other university functions. He remembers me as “the bald gaijin” and I him as “the portly chap with the heavy-lidded Jabba the Hutt vibe.”

A few years back there were whispers of sexual harassment by an unnamed faculty member in Nakano’s department, and I had assumed that he was the culprit. Something about him suggested that his leisure time pursuits might include forcing kidnapped princesses to slip into metallic bikinis and writhe for his enjoyment. Turns out, though, that Nakano is a genial, easygoing fellow, and I feel guilty for prematurely convicting him.

Orientation done, the two dozen teams fan out to their respective lecture halls. And now begins our long day’s journey into night. We will administer one segment of the test for sixty or eighty minutes, return to HQ to exchange the booklets and answer sheets for new ones, then head back to our classroom to repeat the process over and over as sunlight pierces the grimy windows of the lecture hall at ever more acute angles and finally fades away.

Nakano-sensei gets all the best lines, like “You will not be allowed to leave your seat under any circumstances during this part of the test” and “Raise your hand high if you feel ill or need to go to the restroom during the test” and other charmingly contradictory advice. In fact, he gets all the lines. Sentaa Shiken protocols are notoriously precise and anal—the rest of us are allowed to speak only in cases of emergency, and then only in whispers.

My duties consist in their entirety of handing out materials and later collecting and counting them. In between, I may roam the aisles to discourage cheating or sit, as I see fit.

Cheating is certainly an issue: we have been assigned a room in a very old building where the seats were designed with the much more petite Japanese bodies of the mid-twentieth century in mind. Today’s far porkier high school seniors look like so many mid-transformation Hulks, threatening to shatter the tight furnishings with their expanding girth. In addition to being shoehorned between seatback and desk, they are packed so close together that it would take uncommon concentration not to glimpse one’s neighbor’s answers.

For most of the day, I will occupy one of the four folding chairs placed in each corner of the room, unable to use any devices to see websites or mail, or to enjoy any sort of intercourse with my colleagues, or even to read a book: a man alone—oh, so starkly, achingly alone—with his thoughts.

A random sampling of those thoughts:

Wow, most of these people are in a zone. You’d think their entire fate depended on this test. And, well, I guess it does. Was I in a zone when I took the SATs? Why can I not dredge up a single memory associated with taking the SATs? I wasn’t drinking in those days…

I can’t believe Nucky killed Jimmy.

Maybe if I mentally undress someone, the time will pass more quickly… But hold on—is everyone here eighteen? They all graduate high school in a couple of months, but a few of them could still be seventeen. Can’t mentally undress a minor. Wouldn’t be prudent. No, just can’t risk it.

Had I been in a zone during my SATs, would my fate have been altered? Would I have attended a better school than Mankato State? Would I still have gone on to invent Strip Battleship?

Did a shitty job dyeing my beard. One side’s gray, the other jet black. Did anyone notice? I bet Nakano noticed. He noticed my hearing aids, the nosey bastard.

I guess I could mentally undress Nakano. Nah…

Jimmy was the character we were supposed to identify with: baby-faced, had been to Princeton for a time, was rising up from exceedingly humble roots, a heroic and semi-traumatized veteran. Well, yes, yes, sure: he slit the throat of a guy hanging from his ankles in the back of a butcher shop and scalped an elder who had publicly insulted him, but hey, who among us hasn’t done worse?

Still 63 minutes to go in this session… Think I’ll uncross my legs, just for a thrill.

I wonder why Boardwalk Empire has such a dreadful opening theme. Has there ever been a bigger gap between the quality of a program and that of its theme song?

What’s up with all these student clubs that do hip-hop dancing nowadays? It creeps me out. They don’t produce anything. They just play American artists’ tunes and spread out in a formation and dance in lockstep. God, I sound like Andy Rooney.

It suddenly occurs to me that I’m sitting in exactly the posture that I would sit in were I taking an uncommonly large shit.

Is…is Nakano staring at me? Or is he sleeping? Can’t tell with those slitty eyes of his.

The old TV Guide critic Cleveland Amory had a great line. Something like: “Laverne and Shirley is shot in front of a live audience. We recommend the same for the writer of the show’s theme song.” That's good stuff right there. I'm a writer, so I can tell...

I wonder if I could really do it—take a shit in my pants right here, I mean. That would be a test of willpower.

They’d have to let me go home early, right?

Is it racist to say “slitty eyes”? I don’t know how else to describe them. God, he looks more Hutt-like than ever. Half expect him to snare a passing fly with his tongue at any moment.

I’m due to put a new post on my blog this weekend, but I’m not going to make it. Should I write about Boardwalk Empire? I could work in that juicy Cleveland Amory quote.

Possible title: “Oh My God, They Killed Jimmy!”

No, no. Too derivative.

Forty-three minutes to go. When we hit the halfway point, I’ll treat myself to a walk across the room.

I wonder if their date of birth is written on their test admission cards. Then I could be sure.

Most of these people were born when I was 38 years old. What a revolting thought.

About seventy percent boys in this room. How many of them could I take? I mean, in a struggle to get the last lifeboat, or something?

I wonder what theSentaa Shiken manual has to say about farting. Is it more disruptive to rip off a loud but clean one, or to unleash a silent-but-deadly…

I went downtown... I saw Miss Brown... She had brown sugah... All over her boogah-woogah...

I’m not even confident that I could wrest the lifeboat from most of these girls. I’d like to think that I could at least take the kid in the wheelchair, but you never know. Sometimes they have prodigious upper-body strength.

Kinky Reggae... Kinky Reggae now...

Here comes that distinguished older professor. Now's my chance to release my fart and beeline for the front of the room, and maybe it’ll be blamed on him.

How can anyone take Steve Buscemi seriously as a gangster? I mean, really. A sniveling henchman, yes, sure—right in his wheelhouse. But a cold-blooded killer? In Con Air, that concept was played as a joke…

You know what? I could just cobble together a bunch of these nonsensical musings and fob that off on my readers as a blog post.

Wonder if they’d feel cheated…

He had a candy tar (ooh-ooh-ooh)... All over his chocolate bar. (oo-oo-oo-ooh)