I made sure to arrive 15 minutes early, just like the letter said. It was dusk and a storm was settling over the nearly-full parking lot.
Hurried by a clap of thunder, I shuffled past a cluster of women my mother’s age. When I reached the gymnasium, I stopped and waited an awkward number of seconds so I could hold the door for them.
“Are you a student?” one of them asked in passing.
Actually, I was here for the same reason she was – to take the county clerical exam. But when I told her so, she laughed incredulously.
“There’s no way you’re 18!” she said.
I was 22 then. To this day I get carded for a book of matches.
Inside there was a folding table with a placard that said “SIGN IN” in big, un-friendly letters. Behind it sat a big, un-friendly county employee. I smiled and said hello. She eyed me skeptically and demanded to see some government-issued ID.
I could tell she didn’t want to be in this musty gymnasium on a Wednesday night either. She put a checkmark beside my name and instructed me to find a seat. “The exam will begin promptly at 6,” she warned.
As I searched for an open spot, I noticed that most of the other candidates were women in their 40s and 50s. Many wore baggy Fruit of the Loom sweatshirts with embroidered designs of pumpkins and leaves and scarecrows (it was early November). They talked and laughed as if a game of Bridge were about to erupt.
Here and there I saw a handful of younger applicants – post-grads in newly-bought office attire – ready to begin the slow, incremental climb that is government clerical work.
I wasn’t sure who I should find more intimidating. At the time I had yet to graduate college, but I was close. I was working part-time at the county library, shelving books and mending videotapes. When I heard they were looking to hire a File Clerk at the courthouse, I figured I’d apply.
A month or so later, I received a formal letter inviting me to take part in the clerical exam. In order to be considered for this entry-level position, I would need to score among the top 12.
There were 250 of us in the gymnasium.
The lady I sat next to told me she had never used a Scantron; she’d never even seen one until that moment. I watched her flip the paper over and over as she examined it like some strange alien artifact.
The man across from us – one of the few in the room – said he’d gotten used to them when he was getting his MBA. “Just make like it’s a tiny Spirograph,” he said. I agreed with his analogy.
Above us was a massive banner bearing the slogan of the class of 2005. It said: “Dream like you’ll live forever; live like you’ll die today.”
At 6:05, the exam books were passed out and we began. The test consisted of two major sections: “Clerical Aptitude” (rudimentary mathematics) and “Verbal Ability” (reading and word comprehension). None of the questions were ostensibly difficult.
The challenging part was ignoring the frustrated sighs of fellow test-takers… folks who had way more riding on this than I did. At one point, the man with the MBA pounded the tabletop with a sweaty, red fist, then nervously apologized.
When I finished, I whispered good luck to him, turned in my Scantron and slipped out into the rain. I found out later that I’d scored among the top 20 – but not the top 12.
I never applied again.