The Germ of an Idea

Wuhan seemed deserted, abandoned—
All hidden behind closed doors—
Surveilled and quarantined, while
Holding the attention of the world.

Yet, as we held our collective breath,
Our vain hopes for containment went
Unfulfilled, as the virus spread to
Regions, and then countries, beyond.

Did we really think this tiny crown,
As it stowed away on hands, in coughs,
Might obey our commands to halt—
Not to cross our border?

How naïve, or perhaps ’twas willful ignorance.
And now, while we should be concerned, there’s
No need for panic, no time for casual racism.
Disease spread can be slowed, even prevented,
Simply by following the advice herein.

©Rebecca Bigelow, March 6, 2020

Ten Things I ♥ about NYC

I grew up in New England. New York City, with all its bustling excitement, was about three hours away. We took several school fieldtrips there. My family would also visit my grandfather—a retired professor at Columbia, who still lived a few steps from that venerable institution.

Twelve years ago this week, the unthinkable happened in the city I love to visit. It hurts to watch destruction and carnage anywhere, but this was particularly painful because it was a place I had visited (I had been to the top of the World several times), so I could imagine everything as it happened. The terrible loss of life and emotions of that day and those following will be forever writ on my heart and that of everyone who experienced that awful day. Yesterday, the anniversary of that horrible day, there were plenty of memorials to those tragic events. But I don’t want to revisit that in this blog. I want to celebrate New York City and what I love about it—then and now.

1. Theatre. I have vivid memories of seeing shows with my school and my family. We saw plays, we saw musicals, and we saw ballet. I can still recall the thrill and awe of the 40-foot Christmas tree rising from below the state at Lincoln Center during George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker. It was one of my first theater-going experiences and the pageantry thrilled my seven-year-old heart. How did they get that huge tree to grow in the theatre? It was magic. It still is.


2. Museums. Fieldtrips are supposed to be educational. Our school day in New York usually included the American Museum of Natural History or the New York Hall of Science. In part, my lifelong love affair with history and knowledge began in NYC: the life-sized blue whale that hung over one of the exhibit halls, the dioramas of Native Americans, the bones of dinosaurs that once wandered the valley where I lived—millions of years separating our existence. All of this and more is on display. New York allowed me to explore King Tut’s tomb at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and modern art at the Guggenheim. Heaven for the girl who would go on to write the blog Curiosity Seldom Pays. (Although I will confess to feeling that I could easily replicate some of the modern art—a canvas that is entirely red? Who can’t do that?)

3. Standing in history’s shadow. New York was the nation’s first capitol. George Washington was inaugurated on the balcony of Federal Hall on Wall Street in 1789. You can stand where he stood, and I have! If you’re a history buff, you can totally get your geek on just walking down the street in Manhattan—from the architecturally significant buildings to the ethnic neighborhoods that tell the story of the American immigrant to the literary pilgrimage spots. New York has history in spades.


4. The Empire State Building. One of those architecturally significant buildings was completed in 1931, and for 40 years the art deco building was the world’s tallest at 102 stories (1250 feet, not including the spire antenna). With observation decks on both the 86th and 102nd floors, you can see all of New York City laid out below you, and on a really clear day, you can see almost 80 miles in every direction—giving you a glimpse of Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania as well. History, architecture, and a really great view. What more could you ask?


5. The Staten Island Ferry. It’s free! In a city where it costs $8.50 to get a small soda (okay, slight exaggeration), free is a miracle. Save your money and skip a harbor cruise; be a real New Yorker and try the ferry. The Staten Island Ferry makes over 100 trips a day during the work week (and around 70 a day on the weekends). The five mile, 25-minute (each way) trip offers a respite from the jostling crowds and some of the best views in New York: the famed New York Skyline, Ellis Island, and the Statue of Liberty.


6. Ellis Island. A recent addition to my New York favorites, we took the kids a couple of years ago. We were on what I like to call the Great AP US History (APUSH) Tour of the East Coast. I could easily imagine the nervous immigrants treading the stairs in the Great Hall. Some of my ancestors came through the earlier immigration station, Castle Garden, but I guess the feelings and emotions were the same. Freedom. A chance for a better life. The welcome of Lady Liberty’s raised lamp (Ellis Island opened in 1892, and the Statue of Liberty was dedicated in 1886.), which offer the promise of light and hope for the future, is still a powerful symbol today. The Ellis Island Immigration Museum is an excellent chance to recall where we came from and to reflect on where we want to go.


7. The food. When I was a kid, I loved it when my parents would buy us pretzels from the food carts. I grew up in a street-vendorless college town, so buying food off the street was an exotic experience. Then there were the restaurants: My first glass of red wine was in an Italian restaurant in Little Italy, which was also as my introduction to the antipasto platter. There was prosciutto and unusual cheeses from Zabar’s on the Upper West Side, which was my grandfather’s favorite; the smell of coffee from Chock Full O Nuts, where my dad liked to grab a cup of coffee and a snack; there were deli’s with stacks of meat on fresh rye bread—like at the Second Avenue Deli (which is no longer on Second Avenue!) where we took the kids on the Great APUSH Tour—and there was the fabulous New York pizza. (Note to the so-called NY-style pizza place locally: you’re doing it wrong.) So much good food and so many great memories of sharing it with family and friends!

8. The rhythm of New York. People moved quicker. They talked quicker. They seemed to live quicker. The pace of the town I grew up in was sleepy, so it was eye-opening—and exhilarating—to adjust to the pace of New York. As it turns out, I’m more of a college-town girl, but I still enjoy the periodic foray into an urban playground.

9. The subway. The subway is an awesome tool for an aspiring writer. There are hundreds of people riding with you. Where are they going? What are their stories? Are they happy or sad? Tourist or native? Worker bee or boss? How do they talk, interact, live? The possibilities are endless, the stories infinite. Oh, and it’s also pretty dang fun to practice subway surfing. Look, Ma! No hands!

10. Everything else. It’s impossible to list only ten great things about New York—the resilient people, the fabulous Central Park, the skating at Rockefeller Center, the Christmas decorations, the movie locations, the collective knowledge of the universities, the parades, .… I’m so glad to have some small ties to this iconic city. Rock on New York. I’m delighted you’re there.


Text ©Rebecca Bigelow
Photos ©Rebecca Bigelow and Ian Brooks

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Pencil Pushing


I spent some time over the last couple of weeks working on college-related things with the kids. We were looking at various schools and trying to sort out some application and scholarship choices. In discussing options, we began to wonder about ACT scores, specifically which university has the highest average composite ACT scores. Several schools have an average ACT of 34, including Yale (CT), Harvey Mudd (CA), and the California Institute of Technology (also CA, of course). Then we wondered which university has the lowest composite ACT scores on average. Shaw University (NC) had the lowest that we could find, with an average composite score of 14. Fourteen may be the true lowest average or perhaps schools with lower ones don’t bother to report these scores! The national college and university average for composite ACT scores is currently 22 (out of a possible 36).

Money, Money, Money

The ACT is just one of the dozens of standardized tests schools use to sort and rank students throughout their scholastic careers. A Brown Center on Education Policy at Brookings report from November 2012 estimates states spend $1.7 billion per year on standardized testing. And let’s not forget that this sum does not include what parents spend! For although, Illinois, for example, has made it compulsory for all high school students to take the ACT and pays for them to do so, Illinois is no longer requiring the ACT with Writing. So if your student is applying to a school that demands the writing portion, you’ll be paying for that out of pocket (currently $50.50 per student) because your student will have to take the test a second time at a testing center. If you need to send your students’ scores to more than four schools, you’ll pay $11 for each additional report. And if your kid needs help studying for the ACT, you may decide to fork over money for books ($10 and up) or classes (which can run hundreds of dollars), all of which contributes to the very lucrative standardized testing industry (ACT, SAT, and half a dozen other major players—along with several smaller companies).

Testing Dynasties

But high schools students didn’t wake up one day and collectively demand a standardized test or a standardized testing industry, so where did all this testing start? A University of Iowa professor introduced a version of the ACT in 1959. The SAT is even older; it was first administered to high school students in 1926. Both of these tests, however, are Johnny-come-latelies to the world of standardized testing. To find the beginnings, you have to go back—way back—to China in the Han Dynasty (206 BC–AD 220). That’s right. Standardized testing is more than 2,000 years old. The Chinese wanted a way to test men hoping to train for civil servant positions. Subsequent dynasties tweaked the original test, and like today, over the centuries there were arguments against this sort of testing (as some scholars disliked the rote memorization of Confucian texts for the test), but the system was used in one form or another until 1905!

Just as the Qing Dynasty (1644–1912) was abolishing the Chinese scheme, the United States was adopting its own testing system. The College Board (maker of the SAT) was founded in 1900 to create a standardized admission test for colleges. The first essay-style exam was offered in 1901 and taken by almost a thousand students in 69 locations.

The modern standardized intelligence (IQ) test was also developed in the early 1900s. Alfred Binet (1857–1911), a French psychologist, and Theodore Simon (1872–1961), a medical student of Binet’s, created the Binet-Simon Scale in 1905—the precursor to the Stanford-Binet test still used today. This sort of IQ testing was adapted for U.S. army assignments in World War I, where tests were administered to recruits to select officer candidates. Army testing, in turn, was applied to education by Carl Brigham (1890–1943), who had worked on the officer recruitment project. Brigham was hired by the College Board to create a standardized test for college entrance, which resulted in the aforementioned 1926 SAT.

Tiny Bubbles

In the late 1930s, IBM made their contribution to the standardized testing world, patenting the IBM 805 Test Scoring Machine, which read marks made by a graphite lead pencil using wire brushes to scan the page for electrical conductivity. The technology allowed automatic scoring of answer sheets for the multiple choice test sections. By the early 1960s, the electrical method gave way to optical test scanning machines, which caused generations of students—from elementary school to high school and beyond—to learn how to completely fill in their answer bubbles.

In 2012 more than 3.2 million students took either the SAT or the ACT. That number is only likely to go up as more states make taking one of the tests mandatory for graduation. All of which means that test anxiety, the debate over the use and abuse of testing, and No. 2 pencils are likely to be around for a long time.

Text: © Rebecca Bigelow
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

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