There Was Learning - And Then There Were The Sats

September 16, 2006|By JACQUES KELLY

When I begin hearing the whistle of the school crossing guard just down the street, September has truly arrived. My life is thankfully no longer regulated by school day requirements -- although I suffer recurring dreams that I may be required to take the SAT again.

Precisely 40 years ago this month, I was in academic high anxiety. Toward the end of the summer of 1966 (why do anything important early?) I scurried around to bookshops and bought copies of Main Street, The Great Gatsby and My Antonia, required reading for Loyola High School juniors.

I then made a grievous, unintentional mistake. I read these books for pleasure, not for testing purposes.

The very first day of class was a beautiful September morning. In walked a young Jesuit-in-training named Thomas Gannon, who upon entering the Blakefield classroom announced that there would be an on-the-spot test on summer reading.

I was still half asleep from Labor Day's rest. He then shot out tough, specific questions regarding these works. This sort of boot camp in both English and Latin kept up for the year. Many quizzes, many recitations, many ambush drills, all in preparation for college and a session with an SAT quiz package.

On numerous afternoons, after the tedium of Latin drills, I would stay on the bus and not get off in Charles Village.

I went downtown, read the classics -- or dawdled on some other topic -- at the Central Pratt Library. I realized there could be beautiful translations of Homer, not just my pathetic, literal, word-for-word efforts. Also, along the way, I read these works for pleasure.

After enough bus excursions, I got to know my city better. By the spring, schoolmate George Gilmore suggested we bone up on our Cervantes (which we were not studying) by daring to cut class and take in a Wednesday matinee of the Man of La Mancha at the old Mechanic. We were both out the school's back door before we were missed.

The basic belief and reverence for education I learned as a child was a wonderful counterbalance to SAT insanity. In the old house on Guilford Avenue, the six adults of my extended family became occasional tutors.

On many an evening, between puffs on her Chesterfield cigarette and between chapters of her murder mystery novels, Great-Aunt Cora coached me through the memorization of passages from Shakespeare. Before his 1963 death, my grandfather, E.J. Monaghan, cigar in hand (occasionally a chaw of tobacco in his mouth), patiently drew upon his civil engineering background to assist the arithmetically challenged. My father, Joe Kelly, was a big help with the Latin poet Virgil at our review sessions on the kitchen table.

Few things excited my mother as much as a good report card. Her enthusiasm for decent grades translated into a curious practice. At the end of a successful school year, she took the cards and locked them in a wall safe, preserved for the ages.

The day of reckoning came when I took the SAT. (I was never afraid of exams prepared by teachers whose personalities and quirks I could anticipate. The SAT was created by an anonymous committee.)

I'll never quite forget being assigned to SAT testing sessions at City College and at Eastern High School, where I was bored with the black dots.

Finally, in one of the best decisions I ever made in my life, I said, "Enough of this," handed in the paper, boarded a No. 3 bus on 33rd Street, went downtown and caught a show at the Mechanic.

jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

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