By Akshay Seth, Managing Arts Editor
Published February 21, 2014
I remember the light, the way it dampened my skin. It spilled out of an old-fashioned projector, warming my clip-on tie as it burrowed its way through my oversized button-up shirt. I remember my chest sweating. I remember thinking how ironic it would be if an overenthusiastic light bulb bled radiation into my veins while I spent 15 minutes gesticulating overenthusiastically about radioactivity. I was speaking about alpha particles when I saw the way they looked at each other — the knowing glances teachers only exchange if the presentation is going very well or when they’ve finally noticed the sweat stains start to expand.
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Maybe it was both. A month later, I knew the presentation went well because I had two glowing letters of recommendation in hand as I nailed together the finishing touches on my application. One by one, the pieces were falling into place, and I watched, smiling, as the MIT of high schools came into reach.
I was in 8th grade.
For those unfamiliar with Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, it’s a magnet school in Northern Virginia. A magnet school that, over its 26-year history, has become noted for a rigorous, science-heavy course load and an equally rigorous application process, which features a verbal/mathematics written exam, letters of recommendation from middle school teachers, followed by the obligatory “what makes me a special snowflake” essay entry.
But that’s just scratching the surface. Preceding the three-part run through the gauntlet, students spend months pouring over practice books, wadding their extended lists of extracurriculars and attending hours-long tutoring workshops that all flaunt the “hidden secret” to getting into TJ. It’s a slightly dulled down, kiddie version of the college application process, four years of getting figuratively beaten with a graphing calculator waiting beyond the finish line. And after a while, it all congeals together, like a fading, smearing memory — a forgotten dream that hangs in the air, lost behind layers of repetition.
I’m not here to critique it. The people who dive into it headfirst know the water’s a rough, churning mess that, when conquered, can be as rewarding as it is difficult. Every journey through it is different. I want to talk about mine. I want to talk about how the scars it gave me make me the person I am today. I want to talk about how it let me reevaluate my understanding of what it means to be Indian.
I don’t remember the last time I wasn’t afraid. No matter how many days, months, years I scroll back, I can’t recall ever waking up and not feeling that cold paranoia twining around my diaphragm.
I’m pretty sure it was before high school, but the precise moment escapes me. I see it floating around somewhere in those summer hours of lethargic nothingness — the afternoons lost between seventh and eighth grade. Or maybe in an evening I spent alone, and the weirdly in-depth conversation I found myself having with an old lady who often hung out at the local independent movie theater.
I don’t know.
I know the ecstatic anxiety that washed through me when, at 13, I learned I’d gotten in. I go back to that moment a lot. I was downstairs, thinking about whether or not Richard Karn combed his goatee before tapings of “Family Feud” when my mother burst out of some imaginary hole in some imaginary wall, unable to wipe the excitement dripping from her voice as she exclaimed, “YOU GOT IN. YOU’RE IN.” I was overjoyed — who wouldn’t be moments after being accepted into the number one public high school in the country?
There was pride in my parents’ eyes — in the way they ruffled my hair and held my shoulders. That same pride leaked through the phone call to India as they explained, in rapid Hindi, to my grandparents how this was just the first step, how I was on my way to changing the world. I’d felt it all before, but there was a palpable difference tainting the air — it was as if they understood better than me how significantly this experience would define my life.
Then they handed me the phone. I went blank. My granddad spoke first, asking me about my career plans after high school. My tongue stuck to the top of my mouth as I swallowed, unsure. Before I had a chance to move it, he added, “doctor or engineer?” Doubts flooded over me. Was I really prepared? Is this what I was setting myself up for?
In order to get ready for the verbal portion of the entrance exam, I used to keep a flash card, pencil and dictionary next to me whenever I opened a book. I’d meticulously note down words beyond my vocabulary and before going to bed, spend an hour repeating them back to myself. The next day, I’d work them into conversation. Memories of an interesting afternoon I tried to slip the word “concubine” into discussions about McDonald’s come floating back.