The written part of our licensing exam is held at one of those vocational high schools where they teach Driver’s Ed and certify real estate agents on the weekend. There is a lot of dingy gray carpet and all the fluorescent lights seem to have one bulb out.
Meg and I plan to meet outside, fifteen minutes early, so we can sit together. We’re both nervous and we both show up at least twenty minutes early. We are not the first to arrive.
When we reach the check-in table the first thing the old lady exam proctor says to me is, “Your purse is filthy.”
I’ve put it down on her table to search for my checkbook and am completely disconcerted. Is purse hygiene part of the test? Am I failing already?
“You need one of these,” she says, and turns around to show me the plastic bag clip that she’s attached to the back of her chair. Her purse dangles neatly above the floor. “Isn’t that the best thing you’ve ever seen?” she asks, beaming. “Keeps your purse clean. You can use it anywhere. QVC!”
I write the check and go to sit in front of Meg in the fourth row of desks. The room is filling up and, being clip-less, we all have no choice but to put our purses on the floor. Our proctor looks very disapproving of this.
As soon as everyone sits down, the proctors have us all line back up again to get thumb printed and hand over the little cards which say we’ve completed our 600 hours of training and are cleared to take the exam.
“Rub your thumb and forefinger together and the ink will disappear,” repeats Purse Proctor to every single one of us after we stamp. “Like magic!”
Meg and I don’t see anyone else from Beauty U. The other test-takers are mostly younger than us. They all seem to have straightened blond hair and wear sweat pants tucked into Ugg boots and I’m thinking they probably attend this vocational high school, which offers its own cosmetology and esthetics training programs. Having spent $8500 on the private version, I will tell anyone who asks that if you want to be a certified esthetician, nail technician or hair stylist, your hands-down best bet is to do the training while you’re still in high school and it’s free.
When we sit down again, I lean over to Meg. “Whoever finishes first waits outside for the other one,” I say. “Then we go to Dunkin Donuts.”
“So you’ll wait outside for me,” she says. “Then we go to Dunkin Donuts.” We laugh and behind me I hear the Purse Proctor stand up and clear her throat.
“As of this point, anyone talking will be asked to leave and automatically fail,” she says and I wheel back around like I’ve been shot. Our eyes meet.
There is a long pause, until Purse Proctor shakes her head and says, “There will be no further talking.”
I know I’ve been given a pass and try to look suitably humble. After all, I’ve already failed her on the purse front. And there is still a little ink on my thumb.
They distribute the tests and Number 2 pencils and we begin. Each proctor takes an aisle and paces up and down. It’s a very small room. Every few minutes, Purse Proctor stops by my elbow and stands there, breathing, while she watches me bubble in answers. At first I take it personally, but then I realize she’s doing it to everyone in our row.
I just checked the archives, and it seems like I never really told y’all about the final written exam that I took before I graduated from Beauty U. It was hard. You need to get 70 questions right out of 100 to pass, and I didn’t do a whole lot better than that. This surprised me and a lot of people who know me — let’s just say my SAT scores were a little more write-home-about-it.
The written licensing exam is exactly like that written final, so I’ve spent the whole weekend before this exam in crazy cram mode, making Dan drill me with flashcards until I’ve memorized an alarming number of muscles, nerves, skin lesions, and random facts about electricity, like the difference between an amp and a watt.
But I’m still pretty nervous as I’m bubbling in my answers. Of the 100, there are a solid 60 that I know cold. There are another 20 that I’m pretty sure of, but maybe wouldn’t bet money on, and then there are the 20 after that where I’m somewhere between “educated guess” and “throwing a dart.” Which adds up to passing — just. If I get my math right.
In the end, Meg finishes before me, because I can’t stop obsessing over those 20 “pretty sure ofs.” All of the girls in sweatpants and Ugg boots have finished up too, and it’s just me and Purse Proctor, alone in the classroom. She has unhooked her purse, put her clip away, and has her eye firmly on the clock because clearly, it’s time to go. So I hand over my test, gather up my now-even-dirtier purse and Meg and I go to Dunkin Donuts and take lots of deep breaths.
It’s almost a month before the envelope arrives in the mail. I open it in a flurry right there by the mailbox, dropping two credit card offers and a J.Crew catalog in the process. My math was right, though I’ll never know how close I came, since licensing exams are simply graded “Pass” or “Fail.”
I skip up the path to the back door even though it’s still snow and ice-covered and I’ve run out wearing a pair of Dan’s way-too-big shoes because they were handy by the back door.
Inside, my cell phone is buzzing on the kitchen counter. It is a text from Meg: “Hey I failed :(”
And I stop skipping.
Sure, I’m thrilled to have passed this exam — because I’m a type A grade junkie, because it gives me a sense of closure on this journey, because I want this esthetics license in my back pocket for whatever my future holds. But I didn’t get into this to become a full-time esthetician. I was after the beauty school experience, and what it could teach me about the price we pay for pretty. You don’t need a license to write about women’s relationships with beauty.
But Meg, and my other Beauty U friends took out loans and invested their time and money because they need this license for far more concrete reasons. I think about how Beauty U rushed us through Milady’s, covering one or sometimes two chapters every four days, pulling us out of the classroom to take care of paying clients, and offering no formal final exam prep or test-taking strategies geared towards students who aren’t necessarily standardized test pros.
And I can’t help feeling like my girls got set up to fail.