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See Inside June 2005

Dim Wits

Academic exams taken by true and false people
Steve Mirsky



FRANK VERONSKY
Despite their names--Brightly and Leitner--this is a dark story. Wayne Brightly was a social studies teacher at the John Philip Sousa School in New York City, with a conspicuous record of nonachievement that included multiple failures of his teaching certification exam. Rubin Leitner had spent part of his life homeless and reportedly has Asperger's syndrome, a developmental disorder marked by "an obsessive focus on a subject of interest, poor relationships and communication difficulties"--according to, well, me, in the Anti Gravity of August 2003.

But Asperger's is not necessarily an impediment to brainy accomplishments. As that 2003 column noted, British researchers theorized that Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein both had the condition. Leitner shined intellectually as well, enough to receive an advanced degree in history. Brightly had already enlisted Leitner as a tutor for the former's previous efforts at the teaching exam. Having successfully learned from that failing experience, Brightly allegedly intimidated Leitner into taking the exam in his place last summer. Brightly reportedly paid Leitner two dollars for his services, which would cover a one-way subway trip to the test site.

Brightly's scheme broke down, however, when Leitner did so much better than Brightly had in his prior attempts at the test that authorities got suspicious. In March the cover got blown off of Brightly's caliginous caper, and after getting the third degree he's facing charges of first-degree coercion.

Now, I told you that story so I could tell you this one. There's been something on my chest for more than 25 years that I feel I have to confess, especially as the statute of limitations has surely run out by now: while still misspending my youth, I adopted a false name, learned a fake signature and got paid to take the infamous Scholastic Aptitude Test, or SAT, for someone else.

(Forgive this digression into personal history, but I've been listening to a lot of old Jean Shepherd radio broadcasts, now available on the Web, in which the humorist tells stories based on his own feckless childhood. He also often discusses science--one show is devoted to quarks, one to a contemplation of the seismological effect of millions of people jumping up and down in unison, and one to symmetry theory, in which Shepherd refers to the aforementioned John Philip Sousa: "You can play The Stars and Stripes Forever from either end, and it sounds the same.")

Anyway, my transgression would have been far worse had I been taking the SAT for an actual person. But I was enlisted to take part in this scheme by a writer hoping to pose as a freshman at the same university from which he had graduated and discuss the experience from the vantage point of the 30-year-old he then was. He had already gotten a friend in some school system to create a student identity out of thin air. He now needed to get that fictional student some SAT scores to continue to navigate the college entrance bureaucracy.

So one blustery Saturday morning I drove to a school reasonably far from my home turf, to avoid being recognized, and endeavored to put up numbers good enough for admission into the writer's college of choice but not so good as to be memorable. Instead I wound up being stupidly smart, doing better than I was supposed to--when the test results arrived, the writer called me and said, "We're going to jail, you idiot." (He also paid me only half my promised fee, which was still well more than what Leitner got.) In fact, I even did significantly better than when I previously took the SATs for real, for myself. In that first effort I scored much higher on the math side than on the verbal exam, which could explain why these columns may be forgettable, but they almost always exactly meet the assigned count of 650 words. Seriously, they do.

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