Sunday, April 17, 2011

An Aptitude for the Truth

There was only one high school in the county where I grew up, and there was only one counselor in that high school to help all 400 or so of us figure out who we were and where we were headed after graduation. A lot of us weren't headed to college, and I don't think our counselor thought it was his job to change anyone's mind about that in the four years we walked those three halls. One thing he did do for every student, however, was administer a test in the sophomore year that told us what our interests and talents were, and what jobs we might be suited for based on those interests and talents.

Of course, a lot of us were going to end up doing what our own parents did, regardless of what the test said. When I was growing up in that mountain valley, there were still a lot of mink ranchers who sold to furriers, alfalfa farmers who ran cattle, and manual laborers who got hired on at the cement plant. Unless you commuted down through the narrow canyon to the larger towns below, there weren't many other local options. A decent number of my male classmates did end up settling "down below" (as we called the larger towns), and they've become salesmen and office workers and civilian employees of the government. My female classmates have largely ended up as stay-at-home moms and – if they do work – part-time cashiers, and you didn't need a test to predict that. My own mom stayed at home once she had children, and three of my sisters have as well. When my fifteenth high school reunion came around, I noted just how many of my female classmates listed "working in the home" or "homemaker" as their profession in the space on the questionnaire that we sent in to be shared. Rural Utah is a hard place to be childless, and an even harder place to be a mom who holds down a full-time, professional job outside the home. As we were often told at church, "The most important work you will ever do is within the walls of your own home." But based on the paths we followed as adults, what that prophetic aphorism really must have meant was, "The most important work you women will ever do is within the walls of your own home."

At that time in my life I had a few vague ideas about what I might like to do as a profession, and I had a firm sense that I'd go to college, as my dad had. But I didn't yet have a specific career in mind – or at least one I could admit to. I loved film and theatre, and I harbored a secret desire to act professionally. But even though I participated in the high school plays and musicals, I told no one about this desire. Mormons like musicals, but in my rural valley and in my father's house in particular there was a general perception that professional actors didn't lead lives that lent themselves to upholding church standards. Worse, there were a lot of "fruitcakes" among actors, who, according to my dad, played "let's pretend" so much that they would forget that right is right. So it was risky to be too closely associated with that dream. And since I couldn't pursue that dream (or, naturally, that "lifestyle"), I was genuinely curious to see what the career aptitude test might point me towards.

A few weeks after we took the test, the counselor met with each one of us individually in my class of just over 100 to tell us our results. It must have been a considerable undertaking for him. Like nearly every person in the county, he was a member of the church, and I've wondered whether it troubled him that the test didn't ask questions that might determine a women's interest in and aptitude for sniffing out poopy diapers or packing the perfect snack pack to keep a baby interested through all three hours of Sunday's church meetings. Actually, it was probably better that the test didn't contemplate such an ending, because those poor girls who weren't identified as promising future stay-at-home moms would probably have suffered a lot of discomfort in their post-test conversation with the counselor. I myself can attest to the intensely awkward discomfort a student could feel when the aptitude test results were not in line with normal expectations. In my particular case, the results were of the type that dare not speak its name. And I don't mean that they were inconclusive.

When I was called in for my individual meeting with the counselor to go over the results, I could tell that something was wrong. He was normally a mild and pleasant man, soft-spoken but direct. He was chubby and moved a bit slowly, but as was expected of any man there he had a firm handshake. He also always looked a person in the eye, which meant he sometimes caught his students looking up at his hair to confirm the rumor that he wore a toupee. He knew my older siblings, who had all gone to the same high school, and he and I had had a brief meeting in my freshman year to go over my results from one of those achievement tests that schools were required to administer from time to time. He had been friendly then and had seemed genuinely pleased with my results. He knew from that meeting that I was planning on college. But when he opened his office door to let me in for our discussion of the career aptitude test, he looked a little nervous – and a little confused. After giving me a quick and surprisingly loose handshake, he motioned hurriedly (for him) to the chair that sat across from his desk, and he shuffled back to his own big, worn chair behind the desk. He opened my file, paused for a moment and took a deep breath, then took out a copy of the results, looking off to the side of my head and baring his teeth in a tight, uncomfortable smile. As he looked over the print-out, he said, quietly, to some spot at least two feet to the left of my face, "You'll, ummm, you'll notice when I give you your copy that on the top it lists the kinds of activities you seem to do well and the kinds of activities you seem to enjoy. And then, uh, on the bottom it lists three possible career choices for you to consider. You know, based on your talents and your, uh, your interests. The thing about this test is it can reveal interests that you yourself haven't necessarily thought of. And, ummm, so, then, it looks like you might want to consider the following three, uh, professions." He paused for what seemed like an eternity, and cleared his throat. "The first one is, uh, actor. You might want to consider being an actor." There was a pause. "You know, you, uh, you were very good in 'Carousel.' My wife and I just loved that production last term."

I could feel my heart start to pound and my face start to flush. Part of me felt pleased that this test had picked up on my innermost desire and said I should consider it - and that the counselor remembered me from "Carousel." But I didn't want him to think I actually wanted to become a professional actor, because by knowing that he might know so much more. "Oh," I said, "Well, that's very unlikely. I'm not really interested in that as a life. What are the other two?" I asked.

He now looked even more uncomfortable, and I could see small sweat beads forming below his strangely perfect hairline. I was getting more nervous by the second. His eyes moved down to the print-out for confirmation, then back to that spot somewhere to the left of my face. "Hairdresser, and, uh, interior designer," he answered quietly.

I'm sure I gasped, and I must have closed my eyes, because I remember the room going dark and muttering into that darkness in my head the word "frig" over and over. (Good Mormon youths never, ever said the "f" word; our substitutes were usually "frig," "flip," or "frick," and even these substitues were not to be used in polite company.) The other two possible professions that were listed had exposed me even more! No wonder the counselor seemed so weird. Both he and I had thought the test was going to identify my interests in order to guide me in the classroom, but what the test really did was identify my interests in order to guide me in the bedroom. I had been outed by a friggin' career aptitude test!

I opened my eyes. He looked back at the paper, then down at his desk as he handed me my results. I mumbled something about college and other plans, grabbed the paper, and hurried out of that office. As I remember, I went straight to the bathroom and tore the results up into little shreds, which I flushed down the toilet. Needless to say, I didn't share the actual results with my classmates or my parents. Instead, I said that the test indicated that I should consider becoming a lawyer or a writer or a professor. And, indeed, those were the paths I explored once I got into a college classroom. As far as my bedroom is concerned, of course, the test was very accurate in its implications. But it was wrong on at least one count: playing "let's pretend" in the bedroom ultimately just wasn't in me.