In first period U.S. Government, Colonel Potalki handed out photocopies of a one hundred question fill-in-the-blank American citizenship test. All us sophomores wedged into our desk chairs had only expected a syllabus and textbook sign-out on the first day of class. It wasn’t even 8 AM yet.
“If you pass this test,” Colonel Potalki said, “Then I’ll give you an A in this class.”
After handing out the test, Colonel Potalki took a seat on a stool by the door. As he crossed one knee over the other, his khaki pant legs rode up and revealed a spot of skin above his calf-high socks. He tapped the face of his watch with his thumb. The American flag hung limply on the wall behind him.
For the first period freshman year, after we said the Pledge of Allegiance, I sat at my computer station in Business Systems and Technology, a typing class. I reached under a darkened cover to the keyboard’s “home row.” My left pointer found the raised Braille-like dash on the letter f and then my right pointer moved two keys to the right onto the same dash on j. One day during our drills, I heard behind me the old TV mounted to the wall click on like a bullet sliding into a chamber. I figured Ms. Weaver wanted to check out the day’s weather. She always put on the closed captions so as not to disturb us. I kept typing. The clack of my fingers across the keys filled the screen with sentences. My typing errors had decreased over the past several weeks since school started. I had improved slowly, not wanting to set the bar too high, because each week we were expected to improve our words per minute.
The girl sitting next to me swiveled in her seat. I glanced at the crooked scar that gashed across her lip to her cheek like a fishhook had caught, tugged, and then torn her skin. I had heard it was a childhood dog bite. That day she didn’t untuck her hair from behind her ear to cover it up.
Everyone had stopped typing. When I turned around, everyone was staring at the TV. It was on the local news station. The all capital letters of a green MUTE layered over the LIVE in the corner. At first, I thought the smoking building on the screen was in Orlando. The headline below the image read about a plane crashing into a tower. It was probably an idiot private pilot that had drifted on takeoff from the executive airport downtown into the skyline, which had happened in Florida cities before. Then I read the white text on black background that said NEW YORK. The bell rang. Ms. Weaver kept watching TV. Students left for second period, not wanting to be late. In Simulation class, where I was working on a 3-D computer model of a dolphin swimming through water, Ms. Roach had her projector playing the TV. Since first period, another plane had hit another building.
I heard the words, “Revenge…War…Draft.”I thought, What? Why? Who?There were no school announcements. In third period, Mr. Roleledder had his TV turned off. He had written a Latin lesson on the board. Everybody was talking about the planes. “Can we turn on the TV?” a Puerto Rican girl in the class asked. She had family in one of the
“Nothing changes,” Mr. Roleledder said.
I didn’t know if he didn’t want to change his lesson plan or if he thought students don’t change how we all want to skip class or if he thought that our world hadn’t changed that morning.
That week skies were quiet and without contrails. Soon, the words Never Forget would be seemingly everywhere as bumper stickers on cars, screen printed on T-shirts, and inked as tattoos. That day, we opened our books to the dead language. I had taken Latin to help with SATs, but I didn’t think I could think as far ahead as college ever again let alone my final period of block scheduling. Nothing seemed to be able to last anymore.
“Time’s up,” Colonial Potalki said. Then, he told us to swap tests with a classmate. He told us to mark wrong answers. He called out questions, allowing students in the class to answer. “Who wrote the Star Spangled Banner?”
Nobody raised a hand. Everyone knew the Secretary of Defense, but nobody knew this. It didn’t feel as important. “Francis Scott Key,” Colonial Potalki said. After, Colonial Potalki had gone through all the questions. He had everyone raise their hand. He told us to drop our hands once we had scored less than the number he called out. “Less than fifty,” he said, and only a few students dropped their hands. It was embarrassing to watch them. “Less than forty,” he said, and more than half of the students dropped their hands and collectively groaned.
“Less than thirty,” he said, and only a handful remained raised. I was one of them. “Less than twenty,” he said. Everyone, except me, put their hand down.“Less than fifteen?” he asked as I put my hand down. “How many?” he said. “Seventeen,” I replied. “On the real test, you’re only allowed ten,” he said. I shrugged. I wasn’t my father in high school studying over questions for naturalization. I thought that it wasn’t a real test, but it had only proved that none of us knew our country well enough to be accepted to live here.