The most instructive test I ever took was given by my 10th grade English teacher, Mr. Graff. It had one simple instruction at the top, “read the entire test before you begin,” followed by 40 numbered questions.
I don’t recall the teacher telling us that there was any advantage to finishing quickly, but that was how I always took tests. I was usually among the first ones to complete in-class quizzes and exams. It flattered my sense of my own intelligence that I could do the same work as others in less time. It was also a reliable way to indulge in my favorite school-time activity: not being spoken to. Any respite I could get from having to pay attention to teachers was golden to me.
Mr. Graff’s test was unusual in that it was not meant to test our acquisition of any material we had covered in class. It included problems to solve and activities to perform, kind of like the IQ test I had recently taken. My guidance counselor had leaked to me that my IQ was in the genius range (one of many things he did to try to spur me to stop being a C-average underachiever), but this only made it imperative that I be the first to finish, me being so smart and all. All the competitiveness I lacked in gym class came out in the speed with which I could finish a test.
There were so many numbered questions, I couldn’t afford to read them all. Besides, experience had long before proven to me that test instructions are mostly pointless, because the questions and formatting tend to make them self-explanatory. I wasn’t going to fall for that time-waster!
I read ahead through the first few questions, then launched in. They were so easy! One of the first questions simply said “rap once on the desktop.” I heard a couple other people rap on the desktop ahead of me, which spurred me on to go even more quickly. I rapped thunderously so everyone would hear how much progress I was making.
Ten more questions in, and there was another one that simply required me to make a noise, with my mouth this time. I was the first one to make the noise, so I knew I was winning the race. Weirdly, many of my classmates hadn’t even gotten to the desk rap yet.
I was getting close to the end of the test, when I finally got to a question that stumped me. Or, rather, that required me to stump myself! I sat there in disbelief, reading and rereading the question, knowing I would have to figure out the trick behind it before I could go on to the next one. There was no grammatical ambiguity, no clever wordplay, that could let me finish it correctly and move on to the next task. I hated having to leave a blank on a test, but I just couldn’t do what it asked me to do, which was “bite off your right index finger.”
Defeated, I went on to the next question, knowing a perfect score was now impossible. I cruised through a couple more simple problems, and then I applied my eyesight to the very last one.
“Question 40: Ignore questions 1 through 39.”
Fuck! I reddened with the instant realization that I was the fool!
I looked around the room, noticing finally that hardly any of my classmates were working on the test, but just sitting there with self-satisfied grins watching those around them who were still toiling away at the test paper. My mortification soon wore off. Now that I was in on the gag, I, too, could feel superior to my former competitors. Every time someone rapped a desktop or made the other noise, I had to cover my mouth to keep from giggling and giving away the game. Those poor dimwits! If only they knew what I now know!
The problem with ignorance is that no one knows they are in a state of ignorance. They just have a different set of received ideas and personal motivations driving their actions. It takes a self-realization that your previously-held beliefs are hollow and uninformed to be able to shed them and believe something new. If you’re caught out in an obvious way in front of your peers who are already in on the next-level way of thinking, like I was on that day in tenth grade, your only options are denial or acceptance.
Recently, transgender activist Janet Mock made headlines by “flipping the script” with a cisgender interviewer, making the cis person have to defend and explain her gender and her body parts in all sorts of dehumanizing, objectifying and otherwise identity-destroying ways. The cis interviewer has her “ah-hah’ moment and understands how oppressive and invasive the questions are that she herself had been prepared to direct at a trans interviewee.
I used to believe that the fact that I liked girls made me a boy, because I grew up without the simple information that girls can also like girls. I knew that, inside my head, I wasn’t at all like a boy, not any boy I knew (besides, “genius” could explain all that), but I also grew up without the information that you can actually be a girl even if everyone you trust believes you’re a boy. Imagine my embarrassment when I finally figured that one out at age 49!
But now I’m exchanging amused glances with the other people in the know, and watching all the poor fools, ignorant of their ignorance, who still rap loudly on desktops.