I got a perfect score on my SAT and all I got was this lousy feeling of never being enough
The first essay for Season One!! A big deal frankly! critics are calling it a "wow" and "oh right I forgot about this, looks cool" // S1E1
This is the first essay of Season One: I’m (Not?) The Best? A multi-month deep dive into the ideas of competition, comparison, testing and achievement.
Because there are — humblebrag coming hang tight — a whopping 6800 of you here, I’ll be exploring these questions mostly behind the paywall, so please consider becoming a paid subscriber today. You’ll get access to other goodies too. Oh and it helps me make a living as a writer no big deal lol.
For most 4th graders in 1997, life was a cotton candy dream. They’d take care of their Tamagotchis, play 007 on N64, and rent Good Will Hunting from the local Blockbuster. Not me though.
I was busy.
I was prepping for the SAT1.
On Saturdays, most kids watched One Saturday Morning, Disney’s all-star lineup of cartoons including Doug, Recess, and Pepper Ann (much too cool for 7th grade). Not me though.
I was busy.
I was getting dropped off at Russian Math School where, from 9am to 1pm, I’d take practice SATs and get myself ready for the test that could change everything.
I was eleven years old, the SAT was six years away, and time was running out.
The ‘school,’ a remodeled basement of some Russian couple’s residential house, contained two ‘classrooms,’ each a bedroom sized space with three square folding tables and a giant whiteboard at the front.
Our class was five kids strong – me, the son of the Russian couple, two other Russian yo-yos and Tom Ling. Tom Ling and I were the two smartest kids there. Tom Ling was taller. He also had a cool jet-black bowl cut, but I was funnier. I was charming.
Our teacher, Eynstein, would stomp down the stairs at exactly 9am, his mop of frizzy hair shooting out in all directions as if he’d just emerged from an all night math bender so explosive that his pencil making contact with the paper caused an actual explosion.
That was his first name – Eynstein.
Einstein’s first name was Albert.
Our Eynstein didn’t look like a goofy grandpa with his tongue sticking out like he was rolling on the molly. He had more of a mad scientist super villain vibe – not manic, but focused, intense, and measured. He knew things, and soon we’d know them too.
His job, I remember him telling us, was an ‘actuary.’ To this day, I don’t really know what he did, but I knew he made a lot of money, which made everything he said important and true.
The SAT was an easy test, he explained, we just needed to know how it worked.
Each class would begin with a few practice sets. Fractions, powers of ten, the frikkin coordinate plane. Fifth grade stuff that we’d never do in school, but here we were and – get this – it all made sense to me. I was smart and I was ahead. There was a race of some sort, and I was winning.
I loved solving the problems. It put me in this flow state, and I was good at it. Each problem had a right answer – that was a given – and all I had to do was find it. It made sense. It was clean. And I loved being good at it. It filled me up with a pulsing am-ness – I was alive and I was seen and perhaps most importantly, people cared. Specifically, my parents cared. They were so proud.
Eynstein would read off the right answers in a heavy Russian accent. I’d get most right. Sometimes all. So would Tom Ling, that jackal.
Eventually, a smell of fried eggs wafted its way down from the kitchen – Eynstein’s wife Ana, who also taught us sometimes, cooked up some egg snack for us. And so we ate.
With nothing to compare it to, the whole thing, including the fact that 4th graders were preparing for the SAT, felt just about normal.
After eggs, we’d get 15 min to play basketball outside. I remember Tom Ling’s hair flopping around as he got super sweaty. Mine got sweaty too, but it looked cool. Here among the math school kids, I wasn’t just smart, I was cool too.
We moved to America from Ukraine when I was seven years old in 1994. By 4th grade, I could pass for American.
A chubby-go-lucky little guy, I spoke English fluently and with no accent, thank you very much. Sure, my parents didn’t allow me to do the two most American things possible - eat McDonalds and have sleepovers – but still.
As a lonely only child, I craved friends. Now, I was ready. One Saturday afternoon after coming home from Russian Math School, I called up a few kids from school to see if they wanted to hang out. They weren’t friends but we were friendly. Mike wasn't home and Ben's mom said he couldn't. Oliver said he'd call me back later.
Samantha lived down the street. We weren't friends exactly but whatever. I pulled out our school's booklet, found our class list, and dialed.
HI, Samantha this is Alex. Do you want to play?
Oh hi, she said, um...I'm sorry i can't right now I'm busy. I'm watching my sister.
Oh no problem. Maybe I could come over to your house?
…No I don’t, no I don’t think my parents would want that.
Determined, I called every single kid on the class list. I wrote a little note next to any kid who said they might be free later.
This sort of thing happened a lot. I had Russian friends from the apartment building, but they didn’t count. I needed American friends. One time, a kid named Jason came over and we stood outside for thirty minutes playing with his cool airplane toy until he said he wanted to go home. I cried for a long while after that.
Young and gifted
Three armpit hairs later and I was in middle school.
At Math School, we were bigger and definitely sweating a lot more during the 15 minute basketball break, but everything else stayed just about the same. Algebra and geometry in 7th grade, Algebra II and Trig and Pre-Calc in 8th grade. Still ahead of schedule.
Our scores were improving, too. Eynstein and Ana recommended we all take the SAT. Not the PSAT, that was for pussies (that's what the P stood for, he told us ok no he didn't but can you imagine).
With a high enough score, we’d be accepted into the John Hopkins Center of Talented Youth. It wasn’t clear what that meant or what we’d get as a reward but boy howdy did I want it.
So I waddled my way into a high school testing center at age 12 and took the SAT surrounded by real bonafide high school juniors and seniors with their long legs and pretty faces. A few even had goatees. I felt important here. Special, the way you do when you hear about a kid who graduated from high school when he was 14. Wow, that kid is smart, you think to yourself. That was how I felt. Smart. Advanced.
Six weeks later, a fat envelope from The College Board arrived. My score.