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Lessons learned in June tests

I think of June as the time when the classroom clock stopped inching its way toward the end of the school day and stopped moving altogether. I thought the last day of school never would arrive. The kids on our block already were turning on fire hydrants to cool off, and I could leave the imprint of my shoe in the hot tar that melted on the city streets. The annual picture of someone frying an egg on the sidewalks of New York appeared in the newspaper, and everyone knew that was the official beginning of summer. But here we were, still stuck in the classroom.

In New York, the school year ended the last week of June, so while we listened to the call of summer outside, we suffered through the boredom of reviewing the lessons of the entire year at school.

I thought my teachers paid an inordinate amount of attention to examinations, and it also was my exalted opinion that entirely too much fuss was made about neatness and handwriting. By the time June rolled around, there was no doubt left in our minds that the nuns in our parochial school meant business when it came to passing our final exams.

In our last year in grammar school, we were expected to pass the "Regents." These were the exams given by the Board of Regents of New York state to eighth-graders in private schools to make sure we had covered the work necessary to enter high school.

I developed an awesome respect for the Regents. If the package containing the exams had been carried into the classroom on top of a royal red pillow, I would not have been surprised. The secrecy about what was inside those packages of exams would equal anything the FBI required for classified information.

At last, Sister Mary Melissa opened the wrappers, the exams were placed face down on our desks, and the blue lined, spotlesspaper for our answers was handed out. We held our breaths, hoping the answers we wrote in our very best handwriting would launch us into high school.

When we learned we had to have a proctor during Regents, I could hardly believe it, but there was Sister Mary Timothy standing at the back of the room. I figured anyone crazy enough to cheat on a Regents exam would have been sent flying out of our class a long time ago, and this was all unnecessary hysteria.

The first exam was arithmetic. The word math had not yet appeared in grammar schools. You could have heard a pin drop in the classroom when we were told to turn over the Regents exam. I looked at the first few questions and panicked. I was a goner.

I was about to send up an emergency prayer as far into heaven as it could go, when my eyes met those of Sister Mary Melissa. She gave me the broadest, most encouraging smile I was ever blessed to receive in my scholastic career. I was so surprised, even my panic stopped for a minute or two. Could this possibly be the same stern teacher I knew all year, who was forever reminding us that the idle mind was the devil's workshop?

Suddenly the English language made sense again, and I set to work on the arithmetic. I kept up the momentum and by the time I reached the last question, I knew I had done well. At the end, I skipped a line as we were instructed to do, wrote, "I do so declare," and signed my name. Now I ask you _ can anything have been more solemn? It was like signing the Declaration of Independence.

There were never any Regents exams in high school that seemed as awesome as those we took in eighth grade, and I never had to write, "I do so declare" at the end of them. It was a different world in high school. I always was surprised at how different the world increasingly became.