In a college dorm, in a prison, in a marriage
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My sixth-grade spelling marks were always perfect. Mr. A. would hand each test back to me with a hint of a smile on his face and proudly tack my work on the wall for open-house night.
One day Mr. A. returned my test with one spelling word marked wrong. I had made a mistake! As we lined up to go to the auditorium to see a film, Mr. A. must have seen how devastated I was, because he looked at me with a serious but kind expression and said, “You’re a human being.”
By the time we filed into the auditorium, the spring had returned to my step.
Mary B. Cantoral
My traditional Chinese parents dreamed I would marry a nice Chinese boy with an engineering degree and a good job. Instead I brought home Jeff, who was not only Caucasian, but unemployed.
Jeff and I had met while working as summer interns in New York City. Jeff went to Stanford, I to Harvard. We agreed we wanted only sex, and only for that summer, but somewhere between the baseball double-headers and the late-night necking on the Staten Island Ferry, we fell in love. I brought him home at Christmas to meet my family.
On Christmas Eve my family sat down to a lavish Chinese meal. After I bragged that Jeff needed no knife and fork, my brothers presented him with a special pair of chopsticks made of polished ivory. I cringed. Even a lifelong chopstick user would have had trouble holding food in those long, slick tapers. The rest of us had easy-to-handle bamboo chopsticks. Jeff was doomed.
Then Jeff said, “These chopsticks are too nice to waste on me. I think that the eldest and most respected person should have the honor of using them.” With that, he switched chopsticks with my dad.
“Such audacity,” my mother clucked in Chinese.
“He’s quick-witted, though, and a diplomat,” my father said with an approving chuckle.
Jeff ate heartily and even burped a few times — the proper Chinese way to show appreciation for a good meal. My parents’ reserve began to melt. Here was a gway lo, a Caucasian who really knew how to enjoy Chinese food.
That was the first of many tests Jeff passed with my family. He and I have been married for more than twenty years.
San Francisco, California
I’m a nurse in the surgery department of a community hospital. Because I live in a small town, I know most of the women who come in for breast biopsies. They always wake up from the anesthesia wanting to know their test results. “The doctor will be in soon,” I say. Although I pretend to be aloof and professional, I am anxious, too. As the surgeon comes into the recovery room, I observe his body language. If the test is positive, he will shuffle his feet when he stands at the bedside. After thirty years of this work, his shoulders seem permanently hunched from his burden.
Because family and friends are not allowed in the recovery room, I am the only witness when a woman receives the good or bad news. When it’s bad, the surgeon gets right to the point and doesn’t stick around for long. There usually isn’t much reaction anyway. Denial is the first response. I’m also fairly liberal with morphine.
I’ve been a nurse for twenty-five years and know how to handle most situations, but I still haven’t figured out what to do in this one. I want to tell these women to go to the best cancer center, or to eat macrobiotically, or to try alternative medicine, or to have double mastectomies and get perfect breast implants (the size they’ve always wanted). I want to tell them that heart disease, not breast cancer, is the number-one killer of women. I want to say something that will erase the past three minutes of their lives. I want to say that I’m sorry. I am so sorry.
Instead I offer ice chips, inject more morphine into their IV, and hope they stay in denial for as long as possible.
My third year in prison I became a teaching assistant. Helping inmates gain literacy skills was my way of giving something back.
For security reasons teachers were rotated to new classes every three months. Because inmate TAs could be fired by a new teacher, this rotation always caused a lot of anxiety.
That spring, all the TAs were nervous about being assigned to Ms. H.’s class. A career government worker, she was rumored to hate men. Word was she’d fire any TA who didn’t submit to her authority.
As luck would have it, I became her TA. I could feel her scrutinizing my classroom etiquette and my interactions with staff and students. One day, in the office teachers and TAs shared, I noticed my name and my conviction (burglary) on Ms. H.’s computer screen. When a staff member looked up an inmate’s crime, it was never a good sign. I expected I would soon lose my job.
A few days later I walked into the office and saw Ms. H.’s purse lying open on her desk. Inside, in clear view, were a fistful of twenties and a cellphone. It was against institution policy to have cellphones or valuables, especially large sums of money, in the office or the classrooms. It looked as though she had at least four hundred dollars, almost six months’ pay for a TA. That sum would give me plenty of time to find another job. Because the office was used by others, she’d never know I was the one who’d taken it. And even if she did figure it out, she wouldn’t be in a position to say anything, since she had violated a security rule.
Later that day the TAs and teachers gathered for our weekly education meeting. When Ms. H. walked in, it was obvious that she’d been crying. The head of our department stepped forward.
“I’ve worked with all of you for some time,” she said. “I know this is a prison, but I hate to believe that there is a thief in our midst.”
“We’re surrounded by thieves,” the math teacher pointed out. “Why don’t you tell us what’s going on?”
Ms. H. sputtered, “My purse is missing with my cellphone and $625 in it.”
“You brought a cellphone into the institution?” someone asked.
A tear slid down Ms. H.’s face.
“Ms. H., are you sure you brought your purse into the institution?” I asked. “Why don’t you check your locker.”
“Let’s do that,” the department head said, and she led the tearful Ms. H. away.
Now, four years later, Ms. H. heads the department, and we are the best of friends. She knows she didn’t put her purse in her locker, where she found it that day, with her cellphone and money still in it. She also knows that I had something to do with its being there. She treats us all fairly, as individuals.
In 1964 I was living in a boarding house on California Street, two blocks from San Francisco’s Chinatown. I paid ninety dollars a month for room and board and spent much time at the famous City Lights bookstore, reading poetry and books about personal growth.
One afternoon I heard that Maxwell Maltz would be giving a lecture that evening. I had read his book Psycho-Cybernetics, which popularized “success conditioning,” a method of self-improvement based on “reprogramming” the subconscious. The lecture was to be held in an old building in a fading neighborhood whose streets were full of homeless people.
As I entered the building that night, I saw a man, apparently drunk, lying on the floor in a pool of his own urine. His arm stuck out at a strange angle, as though broken, and he was obviously in pain. Part of me wanted to help him, but another part of me wanted to appear cool and groovy to the comely young women who were there to attend the lecture. Along with the rest, I climbed the stairs to the lecture room, ignoring the man’s plight.
At the top I turned and saw a bejeweled woman wearing a fur enter the building. Without hesitation, she walked right over to the drunk man, touched him, tried to comfort him, and inquired about his arm. Then she asked someone to call a social agency to come help him.
Given a choice between “personal growth” and the opportunity to relieve human suffering, that wealthy woman was the only one among us who passed the test.
When I became romantically involved with Chris, I still believed a woman could save a man with the power of her love. Chris was an ideal candidate for saving. Dark and moody, he was separated from his wife and torn up about losing his children. His wife claimed that he had threatened her with a hammer, but he portrayed himself as the victim.
Though Chris kept pushing me away, I was determined to convince him that I truly loved him. If only he’d let himself be loved, I believed, he could become whole.
Chris had a devoted dog named Ranger, a remarkable animal who possessed a calm dignity and a steady gaze. He seemed more like a peer than a pet. One day Chris told me he believed people should take responsibility for their animals. Since he could no longer take care of Ranger, he had taken the dog into the woods and shot him in the head.
I was deeply shocked, but I decided this was Chris’s way of testing me. He wanted to expose me to his dark side to see if I would reject him. So I said nothing.
Chris soon found someone else to whom he could reveal his dark side, and he dropped me. Today I can’t remember what Chris looked like, but I still remember Ranger’s face.
I was spending a Saturday evening with my mother, who was dying of cancer. We were sitting up in the bed my father had moved into the living room, watching a movie and trying to forget for a while the disease that would kill her in a few months.
Halfway through the movie, my friend Scott, who was in town from Chicago, called to see if I wanted to go out drinking. “Scott’s only going to be here for a couple of days,” I told my mom.
She tried to smile. I realize now that she was exhausted and in pain, humbled by her inability to care for herself, and afraid of dying. No doubt she wanted me to stay to watch the rest of the movie, so she could draw comfort from my company. But what can a weary old woman say to her twenty-two-year-old son when he wants to go out drinking with his buddy?
“You go ahead,” she said.
So I went. I’m sure Scott and I had a good time. But I would exchange that night in an instant for another chance to be a good son.
“It looks like you’re headed toward in vitro fertilization,” our reproductive endocrinologist said after another month of unsuccessful treatments. Three years of trying and failing to conceive a child was weighing heavily on my husband and me, and on our marriage.
As the doctor described the next round of treatments, I felt a familiar knot form in my throat. The injected medicines I’d taken so far had caused terrible headaches. To me the doctor’s words meant more injections, more hormones, more bloating, more headaches. I saw myself twelve weeks in the future, curled up in a little ball on our bed, crying after another failed attempt.
I told the doctor I didn’t understand what wasn’t working, that my husband and I were both healthy. She said again that 15 percent of infertility is unexplained. My husband listened seriously, nodded his head, and said, “I understand.”
The doctor handed my husband a lab slip. “This is for you,” she said. “We need you to get some blood work done in order to have the treatments approved by your insurance.”
Wordlessly we walked to the lab. While my husband had his blood drawn, I sat in the waiting room and imagined the lab technician wiping his arm with alcohol and tying a tourniquet around it. “Just a little stick,” she’d say. “You won’t feel a thing.”
“Please,” I whispered. “Please let him feel some pain.”
The tribe’s new school building is as expansive as a shopping mall, painted in rich earth tones, with ceilings as tall as cedar trees. I stroll down the hall looking for the students I once taught in middle school, who are now old enough to graduate. I find a small, determined few. Most have dropped out.
At the tribe’s old cinder-block school, my classroom had been a storage shed. The floor bounced; the ceiling sagged. My students and I painted the door with our handprints. Only seven of us could squeeze into the space, but I typically taught only one or two children at a time. That classroom was a safe place where they could tell me stories about their lives. I mostly ignored the lesson plans and instead listened to my students talk.
Each year I had to give them the Woodcock-Johnson standardized test, which measured achievement in categories ranging from science to reading. Though at one point in my career I’d believed the test was a useful tool, during my years at the tribal school I grew to hate it.
Administering the test, I read a prompt: “One child; two children. One ox; two . . . ?”
“What’s an ox?” asked twelve-year-old Dean. I wasn’t allowed to respond to questions during the test. What was an ox to him? To me?
After the Woodcock-Johnson, some students asked anxiously how they’d done; others retreated as though I’d betrayed them. Dean laughed it off and shrugged away the shame of special education. Then, eyes shining, he told me about crabbing.
Where in that test could Dean show me the best spot to find crabs, and teach me how to throw the females back? Where could he show how to break open the shell and feed myself, or identify the parts that would heal my headache? No test can measure that knowledge.
Today Dean isn’t at the tribal school. He’s out there somewhere. Life is testing him, and he’s testing it right back.
Nancy Lee Bouscher
Mt. Vernon, Washington
My mother was a paranoid schizophrenic who refused care, and my brother and I were put in foster homes when I was in fourth grade. I saw my mother periodically after that, but I was never alone with her. Now, as an adult, I wanted to reconnect. I decided to take her on a car trip to visit a national park.
Almost sixty, my mother had spent parts of her life homeless or institutionalized, but now lived in a tiny shack in the desert between LA and Las Vegas. She had two warrants out for her arrest. She’d never held a job.
My mother liked to dress up and dance in the streets. She called late-night talk-radio shows so much they stopped taking her calls. She once asked a man in town if he liked his job; when he said he did, she pulled a jar of pickles out of her grocery bag and threw it at him. I wasn’t sure I could stand being alone with her for several days, but I wanted to try.
The trip to the national park tested my endurance to its limit. On the way back, my mother screamed and flailed her arms. She threw her steaming cup of coffee out the window and blamed it on me. I was plotting to ruin her life, she said. She recited every horrible thing I’d done as a child. I gripped the steering wheel and tried to tune her out, but her daggerlike words kept getting through. It took all my self-control not to drop her in the middle of the desert.
Two hours later I pulled into the parking lot of the bar next to her shack and unloaded her belongings while she stormed off yelling. As I started my truck to leave, a drunk came out of the bar and leaned into my window. “She’s crazy,” he said.
“Aren’t we all,” I replied.
My mother didn’t hear any of this. She was busy talking to a stray dog, putting the scarf I’d brought her around its neck, telling the dog it was an ugly scarf.
Driving away, I reminded myself that even though the trip had been a disaster, I hadn’t snapped; I hadn’t lost my head. I felt as if I had passed a test. Barely. But I’d passed.
El Portal, California
My second husband and I had been married for five years. We both worked long hours, on different shifts, and our weekends didn’t coincide. Still, we shared passions and projects. I believed all was well. Then our marriage was tested.
A pipe burst in our garage, and the plumber who came to fix it was good-looking, friendly, and at least ten years younger than I. After he’d left, I couldn’t stop thinking about him. I’d always been a faithful partner, and I wanted to be completely honest in my marriage, so I told my husband about my brief obsession.
I forgot about the young plumber — until the next winter, when he returned to fix a leaky valve in a utility closet. He also talked to me about the pipe he had repaired the previous year, which had burst again because it hadn’t been properly insulated. He offered to remedy the insulation problem “on the side,” without involving his employer. He — and I — seemed to be trying to prolong our time together.
After he’d left, I called my husband and told him that the same plumber had returned.
“He’s not working for us again,” my husband said angrily. “He’s a sexual predator.”
I didn’t tell him that the plumber had given me his cellphone number. I also didn’t say that, during our conversation, his hand had accidentally touched mine, and I’d felt an intense jolt, like nothing I’d ever felt before, yet somehow familiar.
The young plumber and I had a clandestine lunch. I told him I really loved my husband, had never lied to him before, and was not the cheating type.
That night I confessed all to my husband and swore the plumber meant nothing to me. I haven’t seen the plumber since then, but I can’t stop thinking about him. Am I telling my husband the truth, or am I lying to myself?
In 1984 my husband and I moved to a Venezuelan mountain town to become house parents for fifty orphaned children. We planned to stay two years, but the kids immediately tested our resolve.
One night several of the medianos — nine- to twelve-year-olds — began throwing rocks at the house and refused to come inside. The younger children were frightened. No one could settle down to sleep.
As I listened to the rocks hitting the tin roof, I began to sing to soothe the younger children. I didn’t know what else to do. After the first song, there was a lull in the rock-throwing. So I sang another song, and another: “Moonshadow,” “Oh, Susanna,” “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” — any lyric I could dredge up from memory. I sang until I was hoarse and the medianos had retired to their beds to listen.
After that I often took a guitar from room to room at night, singing the kids to sleep. We stayed seven years.
Every three months I’m tested to see if my ovarian cancer has returned. I was diagnosed last summer at the earliest possible stage, when I was thirty-seven.
I’ve tried to view that diagnosis as a chance to refocus my life. I’ve started violin lessons and am writing more. I make a conscious effort to enjoy each day and focus less on my looks or how clean the house is. When others ask how I’m doing, I tell them I’m great; I just need to take a test every once in a while.
But around test day, my composure starts to crack. Sitting in the lab, I realize how desperately I don’t want to be there, how afraid I am that this cancer will come back. I want to be like my friends who are having babies, not shoved into early menopause by a horrible tumor. I want to go back to the delusion that I’ll live forever.
During the two-week wait for the test results, my hope and optimism unravel. I feel the way I did after the initial diagnosis, when I curled into a ball in the bathtub and wept, convinced I was dying. I’m terrified I’ll leave my two small children motherless. I overeat. The house gets messy. My life is on hold. I can’t handle anything more than watching television and sending the kids outside to play. What’s the point of selecting a paint color for the bathroom if I’ll need chemotherapy this summer?
The day finally arrives when I can call for my results. The receptionist tells me the results are in, but only the nurse or the doctor can give them to me, so I have to wait some more.
By the end of the day, the doctor hasn’t called me back. The next morning, I call his office the minute it opens. Again I speak to the receptionist. Two hours later, the nurse calls. All is well. No sign of a tumor.
Now I can go back to cleaning my house, painting the bathroom, and swearing that next time I’ll hold together better.
Los Alamos, New Mexico
I wasn’t happy in my first year at college. I gained twenty-five pounds, got stoned most weekends, and felt more alone in the world than ever.
That summer I applied for a job at the steel mill where my dad worked. “You’ll work in the production office, $8.52 an hour,” Dad said, driving me home from school. “You start on Wednesday, but you’ll have to go in on Tuesday for the drug test.”
Great, I thought. Now they’ll all know how messed up I am.
On Tuesday I peed in a cup and handed it to the nurse. “I know your dad,” she said. “He’s a nice man . . . quiet, but nice. Took him a few years before he would even say hi to me.”
I’d never thought of my dad as quiet. When he told me stories about work, he always came across as confident and self-assured.
I got the job, so I assumed that I’d passed the drug test. When I ran into the nurse at work, however, the way she looked at me made me suspect that she’d let me slide because she liked my father.
I learned a lot that summer: Most people thought of my dad as nice but shy. The windowless machine shop where he worked was stifling and loud. His co-workers had foul mouths and bad habits, and ribbed him for reading books during his lunch break. His work was physically demanding, and he didn’t always like the people with whom he worked.
Now my two-year-old son looks at me as if I were strong and perfect and confident. I am not. Someday he will see this too.
I was a twenty-three-year-old actor living in Manhattan and collecting unemployment. One evening, stopping to get cash at an indoor ATM, I found an envelope sticking out of the deposit slot. The previous customer must have walked away before the envelope had been drawn into the machine. I couldn’t insert the money myself, because the “Welcome” screen had returned.
I took the bulky envelope out and tore it open to get the person’s name. Inside I found a thick stack of small bills and a generic deposit slip with a handwritten name — no address. Since I might not be able to locate the owner anyway, I decided to “borrow” the money: $155.
For the next few days I grappled with my choice. I was down on my luck, but the person who’d earned that cash was probably a waiter or cabby who lived on tips. I was determined to pay it back.
The deposit slip sat in my desk drawer for several years. I came across it while I was packing up to move to California. I paused for a long moment, took a deep breath, then tossed the slip in the wastebasket.
New City, New York
When I was in eighth grade, my insurance-salesman father qualified to attend a convention in Florida. My sister and I were to go with him. I had never taken an overnight vacation before, and my head swam with excitement.
The first day of the trip coincided with the Christian-doctrine exam at my parochial school, so we decided to take a late-afternoon flight. I would be tested that morning on my knowledge of everything from catechism to Scripture to church history. I liked tests and wanted to do well to please my dad, who took his Catholicism very seriously.
A week before the test, my dad was hospitalized for what my mom said was “indigestion.” I had the good sense not to ask if he’d still be able to take us to Florida. I studied harder than ever.
The next Wednesday I took the test in the morning, but we didn’t leave for Florida that afternoon. On Thursday I found out that I’d scored 100. We didn’t leave that day either. The following evening I came home from soccer practice to find our living room full of somber adults. “Sweetie,” Mom said, “your daddy’s gone to heaven. And his last smile was for you doing so well on the exam.”
I’ve taken lots of tests since then and done well on all of them, but when it comes to preparing for vacations, I lose it. Most years I just stay home.
El Cerrito, California
© Santo Barbieri
When I’m a little taller than the dinner table, I convince Mommy and Daddy to let me serve the red jello dessert. This is a grown-up thing to do, and I’m excited. Then I sneeze into the jello. “Well, that’s it!” Mommy laughs. They tell me I’ll have to eat it all myself. They leave me alone to cry.
It is one of many tests I’ll fail growing up.
A year later, I’m riding horsy on Daddy’s knee. Daddy gets angry and says, “Get the hell off me! You’re masturbating on my knee!” I don’t understand. He never lets me hug or kiss him again.
When I’m nine, Mommy and Daddy go out one night, leaving me alone. They won’t be gone long, they say. After a while I worry something has happened to them. I sit on my bed crying. When they finally come home, Mommy says, “You must feel guilty for something you’ve done wrong or you wouldn’t be afraid of something happening to us.”
In high school I have made an elaborate apartment for my dolls on two shelves. I even make furniture and clothes for them. Dad sees it and flies into a rage: “If you won’t grow up, I’ll make you grow up.” He swoops his arm across the shelves, and my dolls’ belongings crash to the floor.
In college I write an essay. Dad reads it and thinks it’s excellent. “I’ll bet you get an A in the class.” When I get a D, Dad says, “I knew you’d fail. It was a terrible essay.” I quit school.
At age fifty-six I leave a twenty-three-year abusive relationship that mirrored the experience I had with my parents.
I’m done with tests.
My husband is only forty-eight years old, but after five years of battling amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, he looks ninety. I wheel him into the pulmonary unit for his quarterly visit. Because he can no longer sit up, I have to strap him to the wheelchair. His atrophied hands lie in his lap — he calls them “monkey hands.” His face has lost its muscle tone, making his nose look abnormally large. I try not to think about the strong, handsome man I married six years ago.
He’s here for his breathing test. In spite of how the disease has ravaged his body, he still does well on this test. It’s become a badge of honor for him.
Afterward the doctor calls us in. I like this doctor. He’s the only one we’ve seen who talks frankly about the fact that my husband’s illness is terminal. “Well,” the doctor says, shaking his head in disbelief, “if I took all your tests over the last eighteen months and shuffled them, I couldn’t tell which one was which. Your forced vital capacity is still within normal limits.”
My husband’s face lights up. Struggling to pull himself upright, he smiles at me and says, “It’s all that running I did.”
When my father died, I was living next to a state park in the Sierra foothills. To work through my grief I wandered the trails. One day I discovered a secluded clearing in a stand of pine trees overlooking a valley, and I decided to create a little sacred space there. I dragged in logs to sit on. I brought an angel Christmas-tree ornament, an abalone dish, and a primitive bowl from home. I also brought a small, dark red meditation rug, which I rolled up after every visit and stashed between two tree trunks.
I visited this spot often to gaze out at the beautiful vista and think about my father. I talked to him and told him how much I loved and appreciated him. As I worked through my grief, I hiked to my sacred space less and less, until I visited it only on special occasions, such as birthdays or New Year’s Day.
One year on my birthday, when I reached the site, I saw my prayer rug hanging from a low branch instead of between the trunks where I’d left it. Someone had been there. Everything else seemed untouched: the angel still hung from the branch where I’d left her, and the logs were neatly arranged.
Then I saw a white envelope under the abalone shell. Perhaps the stranger had found comfort here and left me a note. I opened the envelope to read it.
Inside I found not a note but two photos. The first was of a naked woman with her legs slightly spread. The second was a close-up of her masturbating.
I stared out at the view that had led me to choose this place five years earlier. At first I felt angry at the person who’d left the photos there. I wanted to rip the pictures into tiny pieces, or bury them to slowly decompose. Then I began to question this reaction. Was this really my spot? Who was to say that one practice was more sacred or more important than another?
My dad had loved beer, so I’d occasionally brought two beers here: one for me and one for him. I’d drink mine and pour his onto the ground. He’d also loved women. Perhaps Dad’s spirit actually enjoyed the photos this mysterious visitor had left.
I returned the photos to the envelope and placed it back under the abalone shell. Then I said a prayer and started my long walk home.
Mynelle de Macedo Soares
Grass Valley, California
Every day for me is a series of tests. Someone likes my article in this morning’s paper: I’m a good writer. My son requests broccoli: good mother. The floor is filthy: bad housekeeper. A friend points out a weakness in my writing style: terrible writer.
When I walk my dog Tulip, she defecates and waits while I pick it up: good dog, righteous owner. A runner comes along, and Tulip stands next to me until he passes. “Thank you!” the runner yells: excellent dog, superb owner.
Heading home, we run into another dog-walker. Suddenly Tulip is fierce, hellbent on destroying the other pooch. It is all I can do to pull her away.
“I’m so sorry!” I say.
The man looks at me with disgust.
What happened to that good dog? In one walk, Tulip has shown her best side and her worst. Then I realize that she is neither good nor bad, but simply a dog who, in spite of her imperfections, I find wholly and completely lovable.
I’m trying to see myself the same way.
My college work-study job involved taking care of the animals for the experimental-psychology lab. The professor who hired me said I had the makings of a good “rat runner.”
The career of an animal used in testing is limited to one experiment. Were they to be used in another, there’s a chance their behavior might somehow be affected by the first. An active lab thus produces a constant stream of early “retirees.”
After being hired, I learned that one of my primary duties was disposing of the lab animals after the experiments. The procedure was to put ten to twenty rats in a bucket, pour in carbon tetrachloride (a cheap, toxic dry-cleaning fluid), and cover the bucket until all frantic motion and choking had ceased. Clearly these were painful, panicked deaths. I asked the department to buy chloroform with which to kill the rats painlessly, but my request was denied. So, whenever I could, I bought enough myself to knock the rats out before placing them in the bucket. Given the volume of executions, however, this proved to be impractical as it involved holding the chloroform-soaked cloth over the head of each animal. I felt as if I were mugging them. The rats were tame and had no survival skills, so I couldn’t simply turn them loose. I found homes for a few.
Killing the pigeons was even harder and more upsetting; the carbon tetrachloride sickened and hurt them, but wasn’t an efficient killer. I set free as many as I could. I had to transport them miles away before release; otherwise they’d congregate on the lab’s roof. My bosses were callous, but they weren’t dumb.
As a student I was expected to participate in research. In one study we surgically implanted electrical wires into the rats’ neurological pleasure centers. We then taught the rats to press a bar that stimulated the pleasure center. (Other studies involved activating their pain centers.)
One night I took two friends to the lab so they could watch a rat — who was already scheduled to die — work for his pleasure shocks. It was impossible to find homes for rats with Frankenstein bolts attached to their heads, so we decided to turn the pleasure-bar dial past the limit and leave it on much longer than normal, thinking it might result in an orgasmic electrocution. I figured it couldn’t be worse than inhaling carbon tetrachloride in a bucket.
I turned the control to the red zone. The rat pressed the bar and jumped into the air. He lay quivering until he recovered from the shock. Then he went right back and pushed the bar again.
After that I quit my job at the lab to work in a gas station. I also changed my major to social work.
Spring Valley, New York
The outcome of six years of college and four years of internship depended on one half-hour oral exam. If I passed, I’d have my license to work as a marriage-and-family therapist.
“Dear God,” I prayed, “please help me remember what to say and do during this test.”
Four pairs of eyes stared at me. The examiners asked me questions about abused kids and alcoholics and what I would do if someone came into my office with a weapon. I gave the best answers I could.
I had worked my way through school delivering pizzas and cleaning houses. My daughter and I survived on Medi-Cal, food stamps, and three hundred dollars a month. She had severe asthma and was frequently hospitalized. When she was sick, I’d stay up all night with her and then go to class or work the next day.
I got my license, but I realize now that the half-hour exam was just a formality. Those years were the real test.
Last night I came home to find the December 2005 issue of The Sun in my mail. The Readers Write topic was “Tests.” Just that morning my nine-year-old had cried her heart out, saying over and over that she didn’t want to go to school because they were being given a big social-studies test that day. She was afraid her learning disabilities would get in the way, and she wouldn’t even be able to read the questions, much less know the answers.
Her fears grew until they made her physically ill. It took me more than an hour to convince her to get dressed. By then she had missed the start of school, and I was late for work. I agonized over how to handle the situation: Do I yell? Do I threaten? Do I call my ex and let him be the bad guy? I opted instead for patience and a lot of cajoling. It took another hour to get her into the car.
When we arrived at her school, she begged me not to make her go inside: “I just can’t do it, Momma. I can’t take that test.” I was afraid I was going to have to physically drag her from the car when suddenly she wiped her tears, got out, and walked with me to the door. I marveled at her bravery, but my heart broke to think how many tests she will have to face in her future. Tests, which have always been so easy for me, will be a struggle for her, and she will likely never think of herself as smart. Will anyone ever understand how much courage it takes for my little girl to face a simple test?