In the spring of 1966, when I decided to get an MA in theatre, I learned that one of the non-negotiable requirements for admission was passing the GRE (Graduate Record Exam). I’d been out of school for years and dreaded having to take any exam, much less one that determined my fitness for graduate school. I kept putting it off until I ran out of time. I had one last chance to take it if I wanted to enroll for even a single course in the fall of 1966.
Although I usually wasn’t good at talking about my feelings—sometimes I didn’t even know how I felt—I had no hesitation when it came to complaining about the exam. The last time I’d taken a math class was in junior high school, decades ago. My only current connection to math was balancing my check book, and sometimes I had trouble doing this. In spite of my worries, resistance, and fears, I signed up for the exam to be held in early summer.
I moaned. I groaned. I whined. As the time to take the exam drew near, I was a one-note complainer. Why did the university require an exam? Why weren’t my credentials enough? On and on I went, spewing my misery on any person unfortunate enough to be within hearing distance.
Some members of the community where I lived told me I needed to go out the night before the exam, have a drink, relax, and think about something else. Hah! That was about as possible as not breathing. Besides, I don’t drink much or often. No matter. Three people made the decision among themselves to take me out despite my protesting I needed to have a good night’s sleep before the exam. They pointed out that given my tension level, it was highly unlikely I’d sleep. A drink would do me good.
Before they picked me up, on the night before the exam, I was so tense I couldn’t stand myself. I was willing to do anything that might distract me. I allowed them to take me to a restaurant that stayed open late—till ten o’clock. We had cocktails before the meal, wine with dinner, and, they insisted when I protested, brandy afterward. They drove me home, laughing, telling me I was sure to be relaxed tomorrow. I set the alarm clock and passed out.
The exam was held in a local high school. On Saturday morning, the sunshine was too bright, the traffic noise too loud, too many people in the exam room. When I finally made myself take a seat, the proctor brought me the test, handed me two sharpened pencils, and walked to the front of the room. “Begin,” he said.
I looked at the paper. The words were spinning. I forced myself to focus. I had to work to clear the fog from my brain, cursing myself for agreeing to the night out. The room was cool but I was sweating and thirsty and hungry. I’d been unable to force myself to eat breakfast, and drank only a small cup of coffee before leaving my house. I looked at the math problems and felt only despair. It all looked like scribbles in a foreign language. I decided to do the language part of the test first. At least I sort of understood what I was reading. With more difficulty than I could have imagined, I finished the language arts part.
Dreading what was next, I looked at the math section. Nothing made sense. I tried to figure out some of the problems but the answers I came up with didn’t appear in the blanks to be filled out. Hoping I’d guessed the right answer I blacked in a blank after each problem, but soon gave up even trying and filled in the remaining blank circles arbitrarily. I handed in my exam, depressed and in despair, absolutely certain I’d failed. Graduate school was not a possibility. I would have to keep teaching dance and movement, scraping together enough classes to pay my bills and support my son.
When the Chair of the Theatre Department called to tell me he had the exam results he was laughing, which made me cross. Why would he laugh at my failure? I was about to tell him how much I wanted to get a degree in theatre and was there any way he could help me bypass the exam, when he said, “Nancy, you got 100%.”
“How is that possible?” I asked, more than a little incredulous. There was no way I could have done so well and his response was making me feel worse.
I started to tell him how bad I felt about failing, that he didn’t have to tease me, when he interrupted, still laughing. “You scored 93% on the language part, which is great, and 7% on the math. Imagine, only 7% of the people taking the exam knew less than you, but this doesn’t matter. Your total score means you passed the GRE with one point to spare. Welcome to graduate school.”
What do you do to prepare for a stressful experience?
Life tales from a woman different living in The City Different.