The Topic At Hand: This Is A Test

Mr. Berg, my high school trigonometry teacher, once took a military aptitude test (multiple choice, A-B-C-D) by checking his watch at the end of each question. If the second hand was in the first quadrant, then he would answer A. If the second hand was in the second quadrant, he would enter B, and so forth. Based on his performance on that test, Mr. Berg was put in command of a ship.

He graded purely on the basis of four exams per quarter. Homework was assigned, but never handed in. I never did the homework.

Celeste was a sweet girl with a big heart who also took Mr. Berg’s geometry class. She did all the homework. The night before each test, I would go over to her house, and she would teach me the formulas. “This time, you don’t have a chance,” she would say each time, before we began. The next day, I would get a higher score on the test than she would.

On the day of the final exam, as he was handing out the test papers, Mr. Berg said, “About half the answers to any given test can be found within the test itself.” Thirty minutes later, the room silent except for pencils on paper, Mr. Berg looked up from his newspaper and continued, as if no time had passed: “You see, part of the test – any test – is to see whether or not you are the kind of person who understands tests.”

And then he stood up and left the room, leaving the students to finish the final, completely unsupervised.

Geometry Chest

A "geometry chest."

In my final year of college, I took Introduction To Symbolic Logic. On the first day of class, the teacher announced that attendance would never be taken, homework would never be checked, and the entire grade would rest on the open-book take-home final exam. Until that moment, I had been interested in being introduced to symbolic logic. But my desire to circumvent rules was stronger than my desire to learn. A few weeks later, I stopped showing up.

On the last day of class, I walked into a classroom full of strangers and sat down. The professor looked at me long enough to be sure that I knew he was looking, and then he went back to walking the class through a review.

There was no book. The entire semester had been composed of lectures, and the “open-book” exam was, by definition, open to notes only.

I took out a sheet of a paper, and wrote FINAL EXAM STUDY GROUP at the top. Then I wrote my name and phone number, and passed it around. I reserved a conference room at the campus library, and invited everyone on the list. To my amazement, they came.

“Well, then,” I said, standing at the front of the room, waving a marker in the air in front of the whiteboard, “who has the answer to number one?”

Two years later, I was temping in Seattle, trying to find my way into Microsoft as a copyeditor. A friend with pull at one of the staffing agencies bulldozed them into inviting me to take their copyediting test.

I crammed, took the test, and soon after received a letter in the mail:

Dear ___Michael___,

Thank you for taking our copyediting examination. Although you made an impressive effort, your score, __100%__, was not high enough to justify placing you in a professional position. We wish you the best of luck in your career,


The W___ Staffing Team

I mailed a copy of this letter to every other staffing agency in the city. Two weeks later, I had my first contract copyediting assignment at Microsoft.

“You don’t have a chance,” my supervisor Caryn said to me, as soon as we were alone for the first time, half a day into my assignment.

We were in an office – my first office. I was filling out a form requisitioning supplies that I didn’t need. A whiteboard, magic markers, tacks. (I was ordering these things because that’s what Michael J. Fox had done when he got his first office in The Secret Of My Success.) The ergonomic specialist was on his way to give me an evaluation; the height of my desk might have to be adjusted.

“The group director, Jeff, already wants to get rid of you,” said Caryn. “He thinks you’re not working fast enough.”

“But you haven’t given me any work,” I said.

“It doesn’t matter,” Caryn told me. “He has it in his head that the way to make the work go faster is to go through a whole bunch of different contractors until he finds the fastest possible worker. And you’re the first one we’ve had. So, by definition, you fail.”

She handed me a thick stack of paper, on which was printed an organized but seemingly endless list of typos and their accompanying corrections. These were the mistakes most typically made by the seven non-native English speakers who had written all the articles that I was to edit.

“Like I said,” Caryn told me, “don’t feel bad when we have to send you home.”

For three days, I busted my ass going through the copy as fast as possible, and then staying several hours late each night. This extra time was neither reported nor paid; I pretended that I had left at 5:30 each evening. I also set up a macro that fixed the most common mistakes automatically. The amount of work that I got done, relative to the amount of time in which I claimed to do it, was impossible.

On the morning of the fourth day, Jeff came to see me for the first time. Many years later, I would be reminded of him when watching House, M.D., the title character of which only visits his patients in person as a last resort, preferring to work with the problem in the abstract. Jeff was tall and thin, and he wore a tweed jacket and a goatee.

“Michael, right? I’m hearing good things about you,” he said. “You’re on the ball. I think you’ll fit in here just fine. ”

Caryn rushed in immediately after he left. “I can’t believe this,” she said. “Congratulations.” She patted me gently on the shoulder, as if I were a neighbor’s dog.

Later, I sat there alone in my new office with my markers and my whiteboard and my ergonomically adjusted desk.

I stayed for the usual extra three hours, and then another hour, to extend the macro to include more corrections. At the end of the next day and over the following weekend, I learned how to add a small database of possible mistakes. I put a new button at the top of the word processor interface. Whenever I was given a new piece of work, I clicked on the button, and it was essentially finished.

Three days later, I had worked my way through every document that remained to be edited. I had essentially eliminated my own job.

“Wow,” Caryn said, going over the last of my work. “This isn’t really what I thought was going to happen.”

“You told me that I had to work as fast as possible,” I said. “You told me that I didn’t have a chance.”

“I was just trying to help you.”

“Will you write me a recommendation?” I asked.

“Okay,” she said.

And she did. I came back to the company for various other contracts over the next two years. I would see her from time to time on the corporate campus, in the hallway or on the way in or out of the subsidized gourmet cafeteria, and she would give me a weak smile.

Two years later, I was in film school. The transition is its own story.


The practical thing, at USC anyway, is to win a place as one of the few graduate screenwriting students whose short script gets used as the basis for an actual production by the production students, i.e. those who are learning how to actually make movies. The very few projects that get selected get a modest budget plus the school’s considerable resources in equipment and local expertise.

My script was a dark comedy about a guy who eliminates his own job at a huge software company.

Luke, a directing student from Montana who looked like Kurt Russell, chose my script from among many written by my classmates, and asked me to partner with him. This meant that he was effectively gambling his own future on our ability to work together. We went before a faculty committee to vie for one of the few coveted spots on the production schedule. Before and after us extended a long line of appointments made by our peers.

Luke and I sat in folding chairs facing a long table, at which sat five professors. (The cinematic nature of this setup was both a joke, and not a joke.) All of the professors were film professionals, accomplished to greater or lesser degrees. If I listed their names, you would have heard of at least some of them.

The teachers asked Luke a series of questions about how he would direct the film. How many scenes would it come to? How did he plan to deal with the challenges of the strange situations that I had described? He answered confidently and politely. And then it was my turn.

“So why does this guy eliminate his own job?”
“Because doing a meaningless job is unsatisfying.”
“Why is it meaningless?”
“Because the only human component to it is the part that needs to be eliminated.”
“Why does he want the job to begin with?”
“He thinks it will bring him satisfaction.”

The selection committee chairman cleared his throat.

“What we’re really concerned about,” he said, “is the question of decision-making in this story. When does the protagonist actually decide to leave the job? At what particular moment in time?”

“After the girl congratulates him on keeping the job.”
“And how is that decision made visual?”
“It’s not. The viewer comes to understand implicitly.”
“That’s not the way it’s usually done– “ he glanced at the paperwork, looking for my name.

“I think it’s useful to make a distinction,” I said, “between the way something is usually done, and what works in a particular case.”
“Let me give you an example from real life,” said the chairman. He poised his red pen meaningfully over the form that I knew was to indicate the committee’s decision, and raised an eyebrow.

From the seat next to me, I heard Luke let out a long sigh, as if he were a slowly deflating balloon.

The second day of my 20th high school reunion, there was a tour of the our old school. The tour turned out to be extremely unofficial, as the school was under construction, so we effectively broke into the building, about thirty adults in our late 30s, many with kids in tow. We found an unlocked classroom and sat down at the desks. I gestured to Celeste, indicating that she should sit next to me, and she did.

“This way, I can copy off you,” I said.

I don’t know why I said it. I had never copied Celeste’s test answers. She had been in a different section, so it was actually impossible. And why would I copy off someone who consistently got worse scores than I did?

“This guy cheated off me in math,” she said to her young son, collaborating in the fiction. Suddenly, we had created a new version of the past, and by vocalizing it in such quick succession, we had tied it off into a new kind of truth.

“Cheater!” her son started in, and he would continue shouting this at me for another hour, even as the group left the classroom and wandered the rest of the school.

I ran into Mr. Berg once, years after high school, the one time I have visited a golf range. He recognized me and shook my hand. I immediately turned the subject to the day of the final Trigonometry exam in the spring of 1989. Why, I asked, had he left the room in the middle of the test? Was he trying to give the students the opportunity to cheat?

“Cheat? Heck, no,” he said. “I just figured, I’d said everything I had to say, so I stopped.”


Geometry Chest photo by Arenamontanus.

Train photo by the author.

Post-apocalyptic TV preview image by Julie Lockwood. Larger version.

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    • margaretmoore

      And what did you get on that logic final?

      • I got an A. We all did.

        • margaretmoore

          If only that happened when I teach symbolic logic. I would certainly give an A to anyone who could get an A on the final, but unfortunately I get students who work really hard and still can't do that.

    • rzeroth

      Serves you right for being a smart ass to Robert Zemeckis.

    • I learned the letters A-E in sign language in order to feed answers to a friend on our chemistry final exam. I later became a sign language interpreter and don't remember shit about chemistry. So that worked pretty well.

    • Lizad

      Oh, always hated tests. I wish I could take the attitude you did/do…and play with the system. Nice.

    • Fantastic. Would love to know the film committee's decision. (Was it a No?)

      I took formal logic for a summer in junior high and was surprised to absolutely love it.

      So great to meet you last night, hope to see you again sometime!

      • Yes, it was a no, because I didn't tell them what they wanted to hear. A lesson in life. If it happened today, I would just shrug and say “fine, I'll write a scene where it's clear that he's changing his mind.” And, to be honest, that's the kind of compromise that real screenwriters have to make anyway.

    • slammyz

      What was the point? I kept waiting for a culminating element to which I thought each of the example stories was leading….did I miss it? Great piece of writing, but was kinda like reading all the way through an essay, only stopping before the last paragraph…?

      • You're totally right. It lacks cohesion. I need to do a revision to bring everything together. There was an earlier version where I talked a lot more about cheating, and I think I kind of chickened out on really following through. Thanks for your motivating observation.

        • slammyz

          Oh fantastic. Can't wait to see it. I felt like something was coming that was going to prove validating for all of us “rebels” who enjoy “circumventing the rules,” at the heart of which, is the tendency to think we're smart enough to not need the rat mazes to give us wisdom and purpose…which of course we are. 😉

    The Author

    Michael Bennett Cohn

    Michael Bennett Cohn has a range of experience in online publishing that spans creative, business, and technical aspects of the field. His former employers include Microsoft, CondeNast, and Federated Media. He also ran the online marketing campaign for the release of the first Amazon Kindle. He has an MFA in Cinema-Television from the University of Southern California. Michael is the publisher of Revolving Floor, which he also produced.

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