Yesterday at noon I underwent my final speaking and reading assessment for Russian, otherwise known as the end of training test (EOT). I did manage to pass and receive the 2/2 I need to go to my assignment this May at the U.S. Embassy in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. This is how it happened.
I went to bed early the night before (Thursday). After several more hours of study I was so tired that I fell asleep quickly. On Friday morning I woke up early, sat for a couple of hours drinking coffee and speaking Russian to my plants, and then decided to go to the first floor gym and work off some nervous energy.
As I was down there doing cardio and watching news items scroll along the wall-mounted television screen, I made the somewhat impulsive decision to not attend the first hour of class from 10:40-11:40 to warm up before my assessment at noon, as I’d originally intended.
I think I felt a little fragile and tired, and wanted to protect my energy and spend the remaining time talking out loud to myself. I didn’t think there was anything more I could have learned or clarified at the last minute, but I could have easily imagined a scenario in which my confidence would be quickly and accidentally obliterated and drained. Maybe other introverts can understand how intensely, if not unexpectedly I really needed to be alone.
Another student in the Russian Department had told me earlier in the week that on her test day she wouldn’t go to class. At the time I found it odd, but now I understood. I had repeated my talking points for so many topics over and over, both out loud and in my head, until I just couldn’t do it anymore. I needed to get in there and do it one more time for real!
Yesterday was kind of a weird day besides all of this – there was a solar eclipse, a super moon AND it was the spring solstice, all in one day. It was also World Water Day, and in the entire DC area it was snowing!!
I drove to FSI feeling nervous and fleetingly wondered how bad it would be if I just didn’t show up to my assessment. (Answer: bad, and incredibly unprofessional.) I never seriously considered doing that. I was just fighting down that familiar feeling, “But I just don’t feel like doing THIS right NOW!” It was a brief flirtation with the fantasy of trading the delayed gratification that comes from success, for the short-term relief of not subjecting yourself to something unpleasant.
I walked into the F Building with about 45 minutes to spare and sat in my quiet place on a fourth floor windowsill. Wet snow was gently falling outside and I closed my eyes and cleared my mind. On the rocks of the roof garden a small dead bird lay on its back, feathers soaked, feet curled into little claws. Its eyes were long gone from their sockets. I had first noticed it lying there a week or so before, and I could see now how it was shrinking. I wondered how long nature would take to reduce the bird to its hollow bones, and then to dust. I stared at it for a long time and felt a strange mix of empathy and emptiness.
My nerves were calm one minute, and I felt happy and confident. Then the next minute my hands (and, oddly, my right leg) were trembling almost uncontrollably. I called my husband at work for a last minute pep talk, and he reminded me of how I felt before my May 2012 oral assessment, and how I ended up doing a great job.
In my mind, I decided to dedicate my test performance to my friend and former Peace Corps colleague who died in November of pulmonary hypertension, the brassy, brave and brilliant SP. I got up and walked down the hall towards the language testing unit (LTU) suite. It felt a little bit like an out-of-body experience and I reminded myself to focus.
The reception area inside was busy, crowded and a little chaotic. I sauntered in wearing a skirt suit and fancy wool coat as if I didn’t have a care in the world, smiling and greeting a few other members of my A-100 class there for the same reason. I filled out the requisite paperwork, stored my bag and coat in a cabinet cubby and took a seat. A man with very blue eyes sitting next to me asked me which language I was testing for. I told him Russian, and he said he was doing French.
I commented that there was a lot of nervous tension in the room and that it had probably been absorbed into the walls over the years. He laughed and asked me if he could make a confession. I replied, “Of course.”
He admitted that he hadn’t read a word of the magazine he was flipping through, but that he hoped holding it made him look smarter to the assessors. I laughed and admitted that my right leg was shaking so much I pressed my water bottle against it just to help keep it still. He told me that he had taken several language assessments in this suite during his career and the ones on which he performed most favorably were the ones when he was calm and happy. I agreed with him and said the real “test” would be at post, anyway.
It was nice to know in that moment that I wasn’t alone, but at the same time I had my own force field around me which nothing and no one could have breached. We wished each other luck, and just then our respective testers appeared in front of us.
I didn’t count the rooms branching off from the labyrinthine hallways, but I suppose there were at least a dozen. I was somewhat surprised at the tiny size of my testing room, and at how much conversational noise I could hear through the walls of the adjacent rooms.
The tester and examiner (both native Russian speakers) and I went through each speaking and reading section of the exam, and two hours later I walked out of the suite with a mixture of dread and relief.
My impression was that the speaking portions had gone reasonably well, and I was satisfied with my reactions to things that surprised me and my ability to organize my thoughts on the fly. (I had used approximately one minute of my allotted five panicking instead of preparing my presentation outline while they were out of the room before reigning myself back in and doing great.)
However, I was concerned that perhaps I hadn’t performed sufficiently in my English summaries of Russian texts. I was also somewhat bummed about all of the topics on which I’d prepared extensively that were never even broached!
I stopped by my instructor’s office to thank her and wish her a happy weekend, and I also chatted with my former classmate RG for a while. I ran into the French tester and he complimented my coat and wished me well.
When I got back in my car to drive home, I had the oddest feeling. Walking out of the building I had felt light and free. I had expected to feel more elation, a sense of closure. But instead I felt dread. I hoped the LTU would send me my results by COB and not torture me all weekend. My mind ran wild with speculation on what would happen if I didn’t pass.
But sure enough, I’d hardly gotten home, removed my four inch heels and started sending emails to several of my classmates to follow up on how they’d fared before I received the email: “Language Test Results – (my last name)”. My heart went into my throat and I clicked on the message.
The font was tiny so I used my thumb and forefinger to stretch it and zoom in and – BOOM! 2 speaking / 2 reading! Just what I needed. I was so happy, I immediately cracked open my latest bottle of Russian Standard vodka that I’ve been hoarding since last fall and began celebrating! Never mind the fact that I was alone and it was about 15:45!
In a way, if I’m honest, I had hoped to come in at a 2+/2+. However, I don’t want to set an expectation that I’m better than I am outside of a semi-controlled situation. And although I was able to discuss more complex subjects like global warming and human rights, I am sure I made grammatical errors.
Also, the articles I had to read during the reading portion were crazy! They were definitely pushing me. Seven minutes wasn’t even enough time to read and digest the information, let alone formulate a cohesive summary. It didn’t help that there were literally dozens of words that I not only didn’t know, but am quite sure I’d literally never even seen before! I was shocked by how much different those articles were than what I’d been reading in class.
At the end of the day, I felt very happy. I had a great dinner with my husband, did some laundry, watched two movies and grinned as my Facebook likes and comments piled up. We had planned to go out, but I wanted to sit in our clean warm apartment in my comfy clothes and drink without worrying about the slick roads.
The triumph is, as always, overcoming the things that frighten you in order to expand the comfort zone and achieve that which you really want – in my case, embassy employment abroad. #winning
Monday morning at 08:15 I begin my six weeks of consular training. I can’t wait! I feel so lucky, my heart is full. I owe a debt of gratitude to my instructors and fellow diplomat classmates for standing by me during these 6.5 months of training. The honor and privilege was mine.