This is how I happened to take the Gateway math test that Tennessee high school students must pass to graduate.
Four of us were watching the presidential debates last week. The campaign has become so long and is so thoroughly covered that it verges on reality television — American Presidential Idol or Are You Smarter Than a Candidate for President?
If we don't remember the candidates' carefully crafted positions on health care, Iraq, and immigration, we know their quirks, personalities, and prior lives.
Hillary Clinton can cry.
Barack Obama resonates with Oprah and can shoot jump shots better than a writer for Sports Illustrated who challenged him to a game of one-on-one.
Mike Huckabee can hold his own with Jay Leno and play the electric bass guitar.
Fred Thompson can act but can't act like he really wants to be president.
John McCain can pilot a jet.
Ron Paul can deliver a baby.
Rudy Giuliani's mouth looks like it is upside down.
Mitt Romney has five sons who are as preternaturally well-adjusted and good-looking as he is.
Dennis Kucinich saw a UFO.
All this exposure makes the candidates seem less presidential and more like the rest of us. Which inevitably invites comparisons from the rest of us, or at least among the four of us who were watching the debates last week.
As hard as Chris Wallace and the other debate moderators tried, we missed the unpredictability of the CNN/YouTube debate a few weeks ago that was moderated by Anderson Cooper, with questions submitted electronically by people around the country. They were blunt, original, funny, and revealing. You can, for example, waffle on the issue of gun control, but you either have guns in your home or you don't, and one way or another that says something about you.
In the spirit of CNN/YouTube, we offered our own ideas. A presidential candidate Scrabble tournament, one of us suggested. Or make candidates go to Travelpod.com and take the Traveler IQ Challenge and see if they can locate Prague, Moscow, Beijing, Brasilia, the Taj Mahal, and the Whitney Museum on the world map. I bet the results would be surprising.
I want a nominee who knows public policy and history and economics in a broad sense, but I also want a nominee with a higher Traveler IQ than I have. I want a nominee who can pronounce and spell "nuclear" correctly. And I want a nominee who knows, within 20 cents, the price of a gallon of milk and a gallon of gasoline at the convenience stores in his or her hometown.
Which gets me to the Gateway test.
Start running your mouth, and sooner or later someone is going to tell you to put up or shut up. One of our foursome, an algebra teacher in the Memphis City Schools, had a copy of the Gateway practice test in her car. Pencils ready, begin.
There are 62 questions on the test. It took me an hour and 15 minutes to answer them. I cruised through algebraic expressions (2x + 8 = -26), correctly calculated pizza sizes, pay rates, and price-per-pound in the lives of Shelby, Shradda, and Shamika, but stumbled when it came to graphing equations and inequalities. And, sad to admit, I confused the terms mean and median. That's one reason why we have dictionaries, computers, and editors here at the Flyer.
A score of 39 is passing. I got 53 right, thanks to my high school algebra teacher, Miss DeJong, known as "Ma" because she had also taught some of our parents. In those days, we didn't need a Gateway test to prove our competence. Ma DeJong made sure of that. She would pick up a piece of chalk, wind up her right arm like a propeller, and draw perfect circles on the blackboard before our astounded eyes.
I will remember her passion for algebra as long as I live. On a Friday afternoon in November 1963, I was taking a test in her class. The intercom came on with a news bulletin, but she made us finish. I don't remember how I did, but I'll never forget where I was and what I was doing when President Kennedy was assassinated.