Stranger in the Catacombs

There’s probably a couple hundred kids sitting awkwardly around lunch tables. There’s this dense feeling of anticipation. There was the feeling in the empty hallway with the kids’ drawings and painted handprints, and there is the feeling in the cafeteria with the high ceiling and the national flags lining the walls and the couple hundred kids whispering to their parents and eyeing me like I’m an alien. A lot are pale and dressed in plain clothes and sneakers.

Their judgmental stares aimed at me make my stomach feel like it’s boiling, like somehow they thought I wasn’t feeling shitty and tired enough already and deserved the extra kick of their big glassy eyes focused on me, of all people. Of course, it’s not all of them. It’s never all of them. I’m just generalizing because I’m feeling irritable and kind of hateful, and even more so because of the test.

“I signed you up for the HCC test,” Mom had said.

I looked up from my phone.

“How come?”

“I just thought it would be interesting to see.”

“Oh.” I didn’t totally know what to say. “Okay, cool.”

It was cool at the time, and even a little exciting, but not so much anymore.

And I’m still not sure what that means. ‘See’ what? If I’m on par with the kids from the other school that stare smugly at us in the hallways? See if I can prove that their staff are wrong to look down on our little school like we’re lesser? Their school will always get more funding than us, and always have like, five times as many art rooms not because they’re bigger, but because the school district favors them. They have a smaller percentage of Native kids.

The school district doesn’t care about us. They never have.

I am walking down an odd-smelling hallway with a dozen kids my age. I left my parents back in the unfamiliar cafeteria, and now I can only reassure myself. I take the smell in, because it reminds me of my old school building in Wallingford, and how I used to run down the halls in an animal mask and a fox tail (my parents bought it for me at a Scottish cultural festival a couple months prior), and maybe a little of all the closed off corridors and the ghosts in the basement. But the walls in this building are painted a sickly, waxy coral, the lights are bad, and the classrooms are deserted. There aren’t many windows. It’s all dark passages and the sound of other apprehensive middle schoolers shuffling around me. The teacher told us if we spoke, then we would be disqualified.

Chill out, it’s not like we have much in common anyway.

The line of kids comes to a stop at a classroom. It is across from the holes in the wall leading to the toilets. There are dim halls blocking either side, but the inside of the classroom is well-lit and there is a big window on the opposing side, and tables lined with chairs. We are filed into the room one by one and told where to sit by the teacher.

She is an older woman, probably in her late forties or fifties. She also probably has brown hair with ugly blonde highlights, I dunno. I’m biased against older women.

I sit tentatively into my chair alongside a couple other girls with pretty long hair and big fluttery eyelashes. I try really hard to pretend I’m just in a classroom with a few other students waiting for class to start. It’s easy for now. She’s rambling something about where she teaches and the school we’re in, but then begins taking attendance in an aggressively official-feeling way, and my guts drop. She goes around to the tables, passing out notebooks by grade.

I try to ignore my stomach continuing to spiral downwards. The other girls eye me. Am I making a weird expression?

The others at my table have an 8th grade and a 7th grade notebook. The teacher says we will have 10 minutes for each section. There will be a few sections. There will be one that’s based on words and phrases and making connections between them, one that’s based on solving logical problems and understanding numbers, and one that’s based on recognizing relationships between shapes and translating 2-dimensional objects to 3-dimensional objects. Each section has 12 questions. What is that, around 40 seconds per question? Or is it 20? 10 divided by 12 or 12 divided by 10? Neither? 60 seconds per minute. 60. Divided by something? I can’t think. God, my heart is beating out of my chest. What if I pass out?

People tell me I’m good at this stuff. That’s why my mom wanted me to do this in the first place, right? If people think I’m good at this then I have to be. This can’t be that hard. It can’t. But this is also unfair. It would be so easy to just say, ‘the other kids have an inherent advantage over me and there’s nothing I can do about it now!’ It’s a good excuse, but not good enough. What would their perception be if I just left the room? Left the room and trudged, defeated, back to where my parents are waiting in the cafeteria?

No. There’s no turning back now. ‘Get a grip.’ That’s what Jo always says.

The teacher looks down to her phone.

“I’m starting the timer now. Ten minutes, go.”

My eyes move to my notebook and the sheet of paper with all the bubbles and letters. I’ve never taken a test like this before. Why the extra steps? It feels very serious and official and my hands are sweating. The first few questions. Words. Associations. Marking the answers on a separate sheet? At least the words feel intuitive to me. If this is the entire test, then I figure it won’t be that hard. This won’t be the entire test though. I look at the other girls at the table.

They’re both very focused. They look like professionals. I bet they’ve practiced. I bet they have tutors.

“Five minutes left,” the teacher with the ugly blonde highlights calls out.

That’s fine. I’m almost done anyway. I think I saw a few other kids finish before me, though. Good for them. I’m totally not contemptuous at all.

“And we’re done with section one.”

Section two is the mathematics one. Oh man, I’m going to fuck this up. I just know it.

“I’m starting the timer now. Ten minutes, go.”

Oh great. I knew it. Of course it had to be the math problems that I’m the worst at. I can do the algebra stuff but I can’t find patterns in numbers. Especially when the room is spinning and my eyes can’t focus on the page. The other girls look like they’re doing fine. I might as well feel the cogs in their brains turning. Mine are stuck and aren’t coming unstuck any time soon.

Okay. That’s fine. I won’t pass if I just lay down in a ditch, I’ve got to get a few answers down and hope they’re right. I’ve got to get over myself.

“And we’re done with section two, ten minutes is up. Get some water and take a bathroom break.”

Her voice is like stone. It pisses me off how official she has to be about it, not understanding how stressful this must be for us, how much I worry I’ll fall over when I stand up.

In the bathroom, there is a person on their phone in one of the flaky painted stalls. I don’t report them; I just wash my hands and leave, preparing for section three.

What the fuck is this? The girl next to me is counting something on the page under her breath. There is a bitter, acrid taste in my mouth and I cannot perceive anything around me. The paper, the notebook. 8th grade, across the front. There are shapes there, on the page, shapes which supposedly have some kind of identifiable relationship with one another. Some of them are folded. Some of them I am supposed to translate to the third dimension. Vaguely, I am aware I am supposed to breathe, maybe. Maybe I’m supposed to breathe. Breathe, I am, maybe.

Breathe. I should probably take a second; separate myself from the situation so I can calm down.

But the clock is ticking.

“Five minutes left,” says the ugly old teacher-woman with the shitty blonde highlights and the hard voice.

Alarm wracks my brain. I can’t finish in 5 minutes. There’s no way. I tried to rely on intuition for this one but it isn’t working out. The girl next to me is counting something on the page under her breath. I am staring, unseeing eyes, the page. The page. The page with the shapes, which supposedly have some kind of identifiable relationship with each other; some of them are folded, and some of them I need to translate to the third dimension. No folding paper. “No folding paper,” she had said; the ugly old teacher-woman with the shitty blonde highlights and the voice like concrete.

I am literally underwater. I am water. It is all just swimming. There is no way I’m actually here and perceiving the world. It’s all fake; the walls, they are waxy like plaster coated in old plastic, its pores oozing decades-old grease and petroleum from its home in the Earth. The halls, they are silent and dark. The halls-- they are like catacombs. Childrens’ painted handprints on the walls. Childrens’ drawings strung up on the vertically-oriented floors and the ceilings in this surreal, godawful place. The privileged kids with the tutors from the big schools lined up like marionettes in the cafeteria. Lined up like objects; like musical instruments or human skulls on stands in an empty silent dark hallway like a catacomb. I really want to get out of here.

And maybe, actually, I don’t want to pass this test.

****

Katt LaSarte is an enrolled citizen of the Schitsu'umsh Nation (Coeur d'Alene Tribe) and Mandan, Hidatsa, and Cree on her maternal side.  She lives in Seattle, WA, in Coast Salish territory.