Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Just One of Life’s Many Tests!!!

Senior year of high school or the second year of your A-levels is a memorable time. A rite of passage, full of anticipation and fear, surety and uncertainty. Rebelling and conforming. A junction in life where we finally get to bid farewell to our present as well as our past and to embark on an exciting new journey. A journey that leads to a FUTURE the way we dreamt it. And as we desperately wait, we nervously also dread that exact same junction. The uncertainty of saying goodbye to a familiar present, the hesitation of embarking on an unchartered journey. A time of change….and waiting for change. Ending one era and starting a brand new one. One last year of dependence before a lifetime of independence. Fully aware that this life of both comfort and discomfort will never be the same once we board that plane and head off to college. Clutching on to our safety-belts we eagerly wait for what lies ahead. Decisions made on this year form the trajectory of years to come. Some refer to it as their long awaited escape (me), some simply view it as finally being able to return home (Peanut), some call it planning for the future while some are just following plans carefully charted out by their fathers. Plans, plans, plans. Mine was on a pizzeria napkin, for some it was on the back of a US News and World Report book and for some it was simply memorized words of expectations from patriarchs. A year when we are faced with some of life’s most important decisions, choices and tests. One of those just happens to be the Scholastic Aptitude Test. Or more commonly known in school corridors as the ‘bloody Ess – Ayyy- Teees!’

Why Yes!

The first time I ever gave those three alphabets any thought, was when a s slammed her thick SAT prep book in front of me. Jolting me back from a daydream of emancipated days in an American College, she was happy to remind me of a roadblock in those fading pen lines on a cherished napkin Alisha and I had once sketched my ‘escape’ plan on.
‘Have fun!’ she smirked and then with an equally sardonic laugh, she sauntered out of our school gates. She was hours away from boarding a plane to a much awaited liberal arts lifestyle. Me? I was still daydreaming. And her caustic exit taunted me because she had already crossed the bridge that I had yet to trudge on. The SATs were the first step!

A step that managed to put a damper in all our excited planning for escapes and futures. A three letter rain on our parade, in you will. Discussions of dorm room parties, shaving our heads, having threesomes and staying out without curfews were now suddenly replaced with vocabulary questions, math equations and cri reading sections.
‘Just one more year of this hell hole’ Peanut used to say.
‘And then we can move abroad.’ I would reply.
‘And live life on our own terms.’ We would chorus.
‘As long as we can get these damn SATs taken care of.’ was now also added to our comfort chant!

Suddenly, it was not rare to walk into the common room to find a classmate engrossed in their colorful SAT prep book.
‘Why would you use the word ‘Pusillanimous’ when you can just say cowardly?’ They would ask a very poignant question with marked frustration.
‘What the hell did you just call me?’ The other would bark!

Ah the good old SAT books. Quite possibly the worst gift, I have received from a senor in high school. A book that was only good for two things, migraines and bigger biceps. Page after page of sample tests, high frequency vocabulary words and amorphous shapes of geometry that only reminded us of how stupid we really were.

Sweet Dreams and Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles were now replaced with SAT prep books tucked under our arms. The overly ambitious ones even started to insert cumbersome yet antiquated words into their everyday jargon.
‘Yaar my driver has still not come to pick me up he is itnaaa indolent, ufff ab I am so truculent abhi!’ One would remark.
‘Benchod malefactor kaheen ka.’ Her boyfriend would reply.

It was also quite common to start noticing the geometrical shapes that our teacher’s faces were suddenly beginning to resemble. Urdu teachers were hexagons, English teachers were usually square-shaped and the Business Management teachers were always…and I mean always round. Don’t ask me why, it was just a probability theory Peanut and I came up with.

On some days our discourse was even reduced to multiple choice options.
‘Hey yaar what do you want from the canteen?
a. Coke
b. Chilli Chips
c. Samosa
d. All of the above’
But alas, the SATs were never that easy.

Sometimes we even took the traditional stab at group study. Some success that turned out to be! I remember going over to Peanut’s Flat after school to make flash cards of archaic words that we would never use once the test was over. We even pondered if these words were really part of everyday vernacular on American streets. Once I got here I realized the truth about American English; ‘bad’ meant good, ‘mugging’ meant glaring and ‘broke’ meant impecunious. Anyway, Peanut and I would barely get through 15 minutes of a math question or a paragraph from reading comprehension before we would find ourselves engaged in school gossip for the next three hours. The fault wasn’t ours. Studying for the SATs gave rise to excitement of going to college and moving abroad. Instead of vocab and math equations we would then end up fantasizing about parties, boyfriends, dorm rooms and roommates. Before you knew it, it was time to go home and we had made absolutely no progress on preparing for THE test which would be the only way those dreams of ours could come true. You see, to ‘move abroad and live life on our own terms’, we had to pass the SATs first.

A few weeks before the dreaded SATs, Muzna entered the common room with a stack of glossy black envelopes. They were invitations for a dance party on the night the darn test ended. She flipped through them before handing me the one with my name on it.
‘Someone just dropped these off with the chowkidar! Seems like there is a party that night and we’re invited!’ She exclaimed.
When I pulled out a card from the envelope, I discovered that some girl who went to ISAS was throwing a party. I say ‘some girl’ because I had no idea who she was or how she got my name. But - like most of the time during my A-levels - I would find myself on guest lists and invitations on parties by strangers I had never heard of. High school parties had a weird culture back in the 90s. Since I had attended parties with Alisha whose name was a common fixture on invite lists, I soon began to find myself invited to parties just because and all of a sudden, I was considered a fairly ‘cool’ girl (debatable I’m sure) who attended parties. And the more I went, the more I got invited! It was a sign of utter popularity in Islamabad’s high school world when you were invited to parties of other high schools by people you didn’t know. And although I should have been flattered – and I may sound cocky for saying this now – I was so used to it by then, it didn’t even matter.
‘This will be perfect, my parents are visiting my brother in Dubai so I can stay out past my curfew!’ I fanned my face with the invite.
‘I know, we take our SATs earlier that day so this will be a much-needed celebration. Uff Yaar, I haven’t even opened the book.’ Muzna replied.
‘What do you care….Daddy’s paying full tuition at any college…you won’t have trouble getting accepted anywhere.’
Muzna’s smile confirmed my statements veracity!

Then there was Wardah. The smartest of us all. And by smart, I don’t meant SAT-smart. That girl actually believed that England and the United Kingdom were two different countries. However, rumors were flying around school that she had paid one of the school geeks to take the SATs for her. The geek in question was Mohid; a bit of a loner with acne often competing with his dandruff. He adorned the quintessential spectacles and seduced Macro-Economics teachers with insightful questions about supply and demand while the rest of us rolled our eyes. He had already taken the SATs and on top of that he has also managed to score a 1330. Probably the only time, any of us ever spoke to him or may have even envied him. During a failed study session at the Flat after school, Peanut rolled up a joint for ‘good measure’ and discussed this latest, SATastic gossip in school.
‘How can Mohid take the SATs for someone else?’ I dismissed the lies.
‘Because he’s getting paid. And I’m not talking just money. Rumor has it, Wardah has not only offered to take him to the ISAS party that night as his date but some say she has even offered to let him feel her boobs at the party.’
‘That’s just BS…there is no way that’s possible!’
‘Why not….every other male in school has groped them. Well except for me of course.’
‘But she’s a girl and he’s a guy….’
‘Yeah it’s called heterosexuality! Unfortunately for me it’s quite common in this world!’
‘That’s not what I meant….I mean how can he pass for a girl during the SATs. Don’t they ask for IDs? They must have some system in place! Does Mohid realize that he can get caught and jeopardize his entire future.’
‘Well we already know she isn’t the brightest tube-light in the world but as for Mohid…I guess some men are desperate enough to gamble their futures for a quick feel of some Cha-Chas. Can I borrow yours?’
I slapped Peanuts head with a pillow but not before looking down to admire my own breasts. They were twice the size of Wardah’s…and for a second, I wondered if I too could put them to work for a 1300 SAT score!’

There were also some of us who were actually studying. Students with their noses buried deep in their SAT books and not using party invites as bookmarks. One afternoon, Peanut sat in the common room doodling on his SAT book while I sat next to him writing down the lyrics to ‘My Sharona’ from a dying walkman. Suddenly Metro Milan Agarbatti decided to sit down next to us. Ok, so obviously Metro Milan Agarbatti was not his real name. His real name consisted of the initials, MMA which he would often pen at the end of all his assignments and even on some bathroom walls with hero-maar calligraphy. Somewhere along the way, kids began to make fun of him and referring to him as MMA: Metro Milan Agarbatti. The name suited him like a glove and then just stuck like white on rice. An extremely skinny boy with a terrible mullet MMA often commuted to school on a wagon from Pindi. His most discerning physical features were his fixed-by-scotch-tape spectacles, his bony frame and an exceptionally dark complexion. The boy literally looked like an agarbatti. We never quite understood how he ended up at UCI or even in his A-levels, where his thick accent and bad grammar were often mocked and ridiculed by his burger peers. I may feel bad for him now but back then we didn’t blink twice before referring to him as Metro Milan – sometimes even to his face.

‘Studying hard.’ His flashed a wide smile at Peanut as he sat down besides us.
Peanut shot me a disgusted look, as I tried hard not to laugh. As I shoved my face deeper into my book to stifle my giggles, Peanut took that as encouragement to pursue his mockery of MMA.
‘So Metro Milan are you taking the SATs too?’
‘Yes….Standurr test….’
‘Oh yes…..Standurrrrr test…how’s the prep going?’ Peanut imitated his accent and I turned blue holding back my giggles.
‘Intrusting questions…verbal is difficult…but Math is no problems.’
I was now going insane from controlling my laughing and Peanut was enjoying every minute of it.
‘Oh no problems I’m sure….very intrusting subject.’
‘I am nervous about Toefel you know.’
‘Oh of course…so stressed out about the Toefel.’ Peanut egged on.
‘I have been studying very hard only.’
‘I’m sure you have been. What are you aiming for?’
‘Well if you set a high aim, you do not feel bad if it is less.’
‘And what’s your aim?’
‘550….a little high but I like setting high aims.’
Peanut who had already gotten a perfect score on Toefel emitted a sarcastic smile and said…’550 should be no problems.’
At that point, I couldn’t bear it any more and burst into hysterics. I ran out of the common room and Peanut dashed after me, We ran all the way to the other end of the school and spent the next half hour catching our breaths and laughing hysterically like the bullies that we had become. Later that day, when we saw him again, we still couldn’t hold back our giggles. Metro Milan Agarbatti just shot us an uncomfortable smile ‘You two are very naughty…I think.’

The day of the test finally arrived on a brisk, cool Islamabad morning. We arrived at the Marriott hotel more worried about our outfits than the critical reading sections or the probability and algebra questions we had suffered through for the past few weeks. Kids from all the other schools of Islamabad were there and for teens with raging hormones image is more important than a standardize test score. Looking our best didn’t necessarily entail dressing like bimbos though trust me there were plenty of those too. It was just an effort to look different. To look like a rebel. To fit in by standing out. While some lathered on dark eye makeup and glared through nose-rings and clip-on lip-rings to appear angry and gothic, there were also those that sat in the corner with their walkmans apathetic to the questions they were going to expect. Some skimmed through the books still determined to chase their Ivy League dreams. And as we walked into a hotel where we had walked through a million times to go dancing at Muddys on a Saturday night, today we weren’t going to a discothèque. However judging by some of the outfits, you could have fooled me. Still, we were there to take the most important test of our lives. When we found familiar faces we flocked straight to our groups of friends. Guys checked out girls. Girls secretly flirted with guys. Some just watched at this strange burger world from the periphery – the men intrigued and seduced by the girls who rolled their eyes back at them. Aware of the spotlight, the burgers performed for this lustful audience even more. The girls accentuated their physical contact with their male friends. For some it was rare to see guys and girls high-five, hug and joke so openly. Although most still freaked out about the test, it seemed like everyone was more interested in the ISAS party that night. Who was invited? Who wasn’t? What were we to wear? What lie and excuse were we to give our parents? Who was picking up who, who was dropping who? Who needed a girl since most parties back then were a couples only affair in order to keep the stags away. Nights planned around each others curfews and fabricated stories of sleepovers at friends. Guys made sure their girlfriends found a way to get there so they could make out. Girls reminded them how hard it would be to escape overly protective and strict parents. Swear words chorused in the lobby of a landmark hotel where I too stood and laughed with my friends. We were slightly shocked to see Mohid approach our group.
‘Mohid….what the hell are you doing here?’ I asked him ‘Didn’t you already ace the SATs. Or are you trying to get a better score?’
‘Sssh’ He winked at me ‘My name is Wardah today!’
Peanut and I just looked at each other and laughed. The pep in his step confirmed that he too was looking forward to the party that night like the rest of us!

The test came and went. Girls sashayed around the hall in their rehearsed catwalks and men followed them with their eyes full of lust. And as these men ogled with hungry eyes, they anticipated college life even more when girls and sex would both be easy. Once the test ended we all poured out into the parking lot hugging each other and rejoicing over the fact that it was finally over. Some discussed questions while most were just glad to be done. Now it was time to make plans. Outside, expensive cars blasted music as we jumped in and out laughing and high-fiving. Later, we all piled into different cars and whizzed off to Hot Spot for a celebratory ice cream. The entire time, aware of the non-member audience who followed us with intrigued eyes.

That night we partied past our curfews in rebellion. For me, it was easy because Mama and Baba were out of town. As far as they knew, I was sleeping over at a friends. And to be fair, it was the truth. The gender of this friend just happened to be male –a minor detail I had omitted. But in my defense once again, the male was Peanut. I was as safe as spending the night at a girl’s house. Literally! I got dressed that night in a white blouse and black leather pants. My frizzy hair that had gotten quite long by then were parted in the middle and with only a pack of cigarettes and the invite, I was as ready as I could be. Peanut picked me up with his driver and we headed straight to a party where we danced all night.
‘The SATs are finally over love.’
‘Brings us that much closer to moving abroad.’
‘And then we can finally live life on our own terms.’

In a way, the night and the party offered us a promise. We had done our part. We had taken the first step on the bridge to our escape. No longer just a bunch of spoilt rich brats dancing to pop music in the middle of a living room with bad strobe lighting and fog machines. We were high school seniors ready to graduate and start a new chapter in our lives. A chapter we had only witnessed through Pulse Global videos, flipped pages of paperbacks and glossy magazines or through shows on our Dish Antenna. Although we had a few weeks till our scores arrived in the mail, tonight we were just going to celebrate getting closer to our dreams. The song ‘Alane’ by Wes was thumping through the drawing room discotheque when I left the dance floor for some fresh air. Peanut’s dancing skills were raved about throughout the school so he always had a line of eager females ready to dance with him. I figured it was time to stop being greedy and let the others enjoy his slick moves. He could relish the female attention while I took a walk outside.

I lit up a cigarette and strolled through the perfectly manicured lawn of that large and fancy bungalow of F10-4. Ar a time in our lives when it was a sin to ever be spotted alone…especially at a party, I walked by myself and breathed in the moment as I looked around. Everyone had the same sparkle of excitement in their eyes. Something told me that we were all going to remember this night. The night we took our SATs. And as we laughed and giggled, swayed and wiggled, one thing was for sure, high school was ending. The present was quickly becoming the past. The future…OUR future…was just around the corner. I smoked my cigarette on a chair by myself, smiling as I observed my peers. Muzna was leaning against a tree, her body moving in rhythm to the exotic beats while her entourage of girls circled around her like moths hungering for her nimbus. Surprisingly, she did fairly well on her SATs when the scores arrived. She was accepted to UPenn and although, we were excited to meet up in Philly on my breaks, we never really hung out like we imagined we would. Apart from a few coffee dates at Xandos at 12th and Walnut, we barely connected in the States after my freshman year. After graduation, she returned home, married a banker and is now raising two lovely kids. Always a little plump, she gained some more weight and every now and then we run into each other when I’m home and in a matter of minutes we catch up on our lives through small talk. She became the Begum we all thought she would and the girls who surrounded her the night of the party, followed a similar trajectory in life too. Husbands, kids and country-club high-teas. The last time I ran into her was at a wedding. It was amusing how the sight of her was no different than what I saw at the party that night. She stood in the middle, leaning against a pillar as women enveloped her with eager eyes. On the night of the party they all wore jeans and blouses, years later they were doing the same in Saris.

Gossip flew (and Peanut shared) that Mohid got to feel not one but two boobs at the party. In fact Mohid and Wardah ended up making out on more than one occasions even after that night was over. The night of the party, I saw them emerging from a dimly lit make-out room upstairs. Although people thought it was random for a nerdy guy like Mohid to be holding Wardah’s hand that night, few knew the actual deal. This nerd had used his brains to literally score, pardon the pun, not just a 1330 on his own SATs but also second base before he left for college. He had earned it. And although Wardah may have looked uncomfortable that night, it turned out to be worthy investment for her too. When the scores arrived Wardah was ecstatic and Mohid was slightly irked. The rest of the school couldn’t stop talking. A girl who couldn’t get more than an 800 on her sample SAT tests, had score a 1400 on her SATs. It probably pinched Mohid when he wrote 1330 on his own college apps while Wardah penciled in 1400. I should mentione though that Wardah never completed her degree. One winter, when I was home from college, I heard that she had taken a year off from school to deal with ‘homesickness.’ The year turned into two and then she just never returned back to finish her degree. It doesn’t really matter because she too is married now and her husband probably provides for her and their kids in exchange for a feel of her breasts at night. Some things never change, I guess. Mohid did finish his degree and went on to get some more. Not exactly sure what he’s doing, but I do know that he married a goree that he met in college. According to Peanut, they had wedding receptions both in the States and in Pakistan.

From where I sat smoking my cigarette, I could see the dance floor and Peanut was right in the middle going from one girl to the next. His T-shirt was drenched in sweat but he loved the attention. Years later, I would see him move the same way but shirtless and at a dance club in Chelsea when he came to visit me. He too did fairly well on his SATs. In fact, he was one of the few kids in our class, who got accepted to their dream school. St. Martin’s in his hometown London where he got to study art. It was his wish and also revenge for his business oriented father. His lanky frame was replaced by a chiseled, gym body. After a brief stint at Sotheby’s, he is currently the curator of an independent art gallery in Soho and continues to date wealthy older men who pamper him but those flings rarely last because just like myself, he too isn’t ready to settle down. If we are both single by the age of 40, we have promised to live together like the Golden Girls.

Me, well you all know how I turned out! And will continue to know as you read my columns. The only thing worth mentioning is that my SAT scores were quite terrible. And to this day, my family believes that I got a 1220. I hid the scores when they arrived and then lied. Hey if Wardah can get a guy to take the test for her, I sure could manage to get a nerd to make me a fake score-sheet! ;)

That night at the party, I didn’t just think about the people around me. I even thought of those that were not there. Who had not been considered ‘cool’ enough to have been invited to the weekend’s happening dance party. Those who I had seen earlier that day at the large auditorium in Marriott watching us from he periphery. People like Metro Milan Agarbatti. I think the only time, he ever got to see a dance floor or dance next to a girl was at our Farewell later that year. Even on that night, I probably only thought of him for a few seconds before returning to the dance floor. He never had plans to go abroad for college and his future plans had very little to do with flying across the world. It was a luxury he couldn’t afford and never entertained as a thought either. Yet he did quite well on his SATs. A few months later, he was accepted to LUMS and IBA. He ended up going to LUMS where he was probably treated no differently than how we was treated at our school but then again none of us knew how our futures would really turn out. That he would go on to become a successful Chartered Accountant. He now makes more than all of us and travels the world, staying in five star hotels of cities that are yet to be checked off on our bucket lists. He married a cousin of his, and by her facebook pics she seems quite pretty. The smile on her face in those same pics, confirms that she has no issues with his agarbatti looks. Quite often on his travels, he passes through New York. Once, I even agreed to meet up with him for an hour at a Starbucks. After we said goodbye, I walked back to work with a smile. He still spoke with that same thick accent we often mocked. And someone at his job probably still refers to him as Metro Milan Agarbatti. They probably still secretly giggle in business meetings when he makes grammatical gaffes like uttering ‘No Problems’. But now as our futures have become our present, did any of that really matter? No.

Just like the SATs, I would one day take my GREs and several other tests and exams. I have never been and never will be a fan of standardized tests. I think they are pointless. But I will agree with one thing. The SATs are probably still the most important test in your life. I learned a lot from them too. Not from the test itself, or the critical reading section or the algebraic equations or the hour spent circling the best option with a Number 2 pencil in a large air-conditioned Shadee Hall at Marriott. I learned from the experience of taking the SATs with my classmates. And the lives that unfolded after. The SATs taught me a lot about life and the future that lay ahead after you walk out of that hall. You laugh with friends outside you who think will always be a part of your lives. You plan for a party you think determines your worth in this world. You snicker at people you think will be as insignificant in the future as they appear now in the periphery. But only time is able to tell that the future can actually prove us wrong!

If there are any readers who are talking their SATs, GRE’s or any important test in the near future. I certainly don’t envy you. But I do wish you the BEST of LUCK! You never know. You may learn something!