September 22, 2005
by Louise Norlie
The preparation for the examination had been arduous. It was a national, standardized test, administered throughout the country on the same day, in only one location in every state. Students had to secure a hotel room near the testing site to be on time, for if you were even a minute late, the doors would slam with an irrevocable clang against you. This was only one of many severe, stringent restrictions. Indeed, the rigors of observing the regulations that assured a national level of fairness, consistency, and regularity struck every student with the need to be especially on guard, to be humbly compliant.
Despite months of studying, Martha did not convince herself that her ability to pass the test was certain. It was just her way of never assuming too much until the proof was in her hands. Martha had some strengths in her favor: her mind was analytical, her memory capacious, and her perseverance tireless. She was physically disabled; however, this test was a purely mental exercise.
Martha could ignore almost any distractions. She had the ability to concentrate intensely where others were easily sidetracked. While she heard her contemporaries blast their siren call of thumping bass music as they cruised the streets, she felt no desire to follow them. The string quartets of Beethoven serenaded her academic progress as she pored over the study materials every night with the meticulousness of a medieval monk over his scrolls.
The application forms were to be filled out with great care. One mistake, one little misprint, and the application might be rejected as incomplete, the extensive preparation wasted. Also, a large fee had to be paid for the privilege of taking the test.
Martha pondered over the need to request reasonable accommodation for the test. She did not have a disability which made it difficult for her to read or write or made it difficult for her to sit all day at a desk. She could sit alongside her colleagues and do the same things that they could at such an activity. So, no reasonable accommodation was requested at the time.
Early on the testing day, bleary eyed students were drawn toward the testing center like sleepwalkers. There were nervous jitters, cold clammy hands, and a hush of trepidation. But there was nothing to be fearful of, was there? The important thing was to remain calm and undistracted.
Martha joined the queue of students in the lobby outside the testing room. Everyone had to bring a form of identification and a special testing pass. Any personal items, including pencils and small snacks, had to be transported in a clear bag for high visibility by the testing officials. The testing officials wore large nametags labeling them as the guardians of equity and conformity with the rules. One smiling elderly lady, labeled "Mabel," wished Martha luck as she waved her into the testing room after conducting a breezily perfunctory examination of her identification.
Martha went to her assigned seat, seat number 573, amid evenly separated desks spread in a perfectly arranged grid. She moved the seat to the side to make room for her wheelchair. Now she was in place to concentrate on the big test.
Then she noticed something ominous. A crowd of officials was gathering around Mabel, gesturing toward Martha. Mabel looked perplexed, defensive, and troubled. A woman with a particularly severe expression steamed across the room toward Martha. Martha did not know what she, or Mabel, had done wrong.
"You should have told us you were coming," she hissed to Martha. "We could have made special arrangements for you." Her name tag revealed her as "Candice."
"I don't need any accommodation for this," Martha replied. "As you can see, I am fine right here."
The woman moved away, toward the front of the room. She announced the instructions for the examination using a megaphone. It so happened that she was the head of the examination officials. For Martha, it was not a lucky start to have the leader of the officials against her.
As the testing session progressed, Candice paced up and down the aisles, watchdog and inquisitor. Candice paced most frequently in Martha's row. Martha heard her footsteps coming nearer and nearer from behind, then pausing beside her in a menacing halt. Martha tried to ignore her surroundings, see only the papers in front of her, and not look up.
Soon it was time for a break. The doors connecting the lobby to the outside were opened for students to step out and get some air. Martha needed to use the restroom, located in the lobby. Martha's aunt came in to help her in the restroom.
While Martha and her aunt were at the sink, Candice entered the restroom. She gave Martha a threatening glance.
Martha signaled to her aunt that they should exit the restroom immediately. They returned to the lobby. Candice burst out of the restroom, the door swinging behind her, and immediately confronted Martha's aunt.
"It is highly irregular for you to be here. I could expel her for this, but I won't do it unless I see you in here again. You should have told us that someone like her was coming. We would have had a room set aside for her to take the test."
"But I just have to help her in the restroom of the lobby. I am not going into the testing room."
"We just can't have you in here. Next time, let us know you are coming and we will set up a special place for her and you," she instructed Martha's aunt, then turned her authoritarian visage to Martha. "I could have you removed from the testing center for this violation. I might be forced to report this."
Martha did not want to be expelled from the test for which she had prepared so long. Thus Martha's aunt was banished from the premises.
Martha watched as Candice turned her attention to Mabel. Mabel was reprimanded for her carelessness at letting Martha, such an irregular person, into the regular testing room. She was made to take on the unique duty of searching Martha's wheelchair.
Martha had to stand up (the best she could) so Mabel could lift up the blankets she sat on and scrutinize them. Mabel probed into the folds of the wheelchair and poked into the every metallic crevice.
"I'm sorry I have to do this," she whispered in tone of embarrassment.
Apparently there was something suspicious about Martha. She was masquerading as a regular person, making it all the more likely that she would be cheating on the test. Surely in the seat and backrest of the wheelchair were entire volumes of study guides and "cheat sheets." She would have some way of hiding an answer key in the blanket she sat on. Within the wheels of her wheelchair were satellite signals to alert test takers across the country of the test questions. Martha could tap in Morse code along the wheels and all the answers would be made public. It was a vast conspiracy, a national security crisis, a breach of every rule and regulation. Martha must have planned this with the diabolical cunning and power of a secret agent.
There was something devious about that wheelchair. It was to be strip searched without warrant. The able-bodied students could have tattooed the answers up and down their arms, hidden papers underneath their sleeves, within the soles of their shoes, in the lining of their jeans. They could have secret signals in the frames of their eyeglasses, or transmitters in the erasers of their pencils. Yet no one would think to strip search them unless this controlled, hushed testing center were a crime scene.
Both Candice and Mabel escorted Martha out the lobby door at the end of the day.
"Next time, you must let us know when you are coming," Candice admonished. Martha nodded her head in submission.
The door was opened and Martha rolled out into the darkness of night, extremely fatigued.
Martha never had to take the test again. Her scores were the second highest in the state. However, she kept a low profile about her success, because if news of her high score and identity were publicly revealed, Candice might come forth and accuse her of having cheated.
Louise Norlie has written a number of short stories and is working on her first novel. Visit Louise Norlie's blog.
Posted on September 22, 2005
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