That June, when I came home for the hols after my first year at St. Cuthbert’s, my old governess, Becky Sharp, ragged me about Regatta Day before I could even unhasp my tuck box. My madcap cousin Reggie had bought a new sloop and was hellbent on burnishing the patriarchal escutcheon. No Janko had won the Cowes Regatta Cup since 1894, when an ill wind had wafted my great-great grandfather, Sir Windsock Janko, and his oaken trireme across the finish line in record time. The upcoming race was also to be a gala family reunion; my great-uncle, the Marquis of Netherlip, would be down from Droppings, and my mother’s side had already decamped from Newport and Saratoga, and . . .
Enough. None of this ever happened, of course. I didn’t go to boarding school, I didn’t have a governess, and the only “sloops” that I saw growing up near Brooklyn were the garbage scows on Newtown Creek. But critics of the Scholastic Aptitude Test’s “cultural bias” clearly believe that I have lived something of an aristocrat’s life. No one but the elite of Newport could ever know what regatta means, they reason.
That word keeps popping up in articles that thunder against the cultural bias of standardized tests like the SAT. Those exams are unfair to disadvantaged kids, the argument goes, because kids growing up in poverty can’t possibly be expected to know about something as posh as a regatta.
The critics are wrong. Growing up, I wouldn’t have considered myself poor--ours was an extended family, and everybody helped out. But my father didn’t get a full-time job until I was 10, and I certainly had a childhood that some today would call “disadvantaged.”
Not far from where we lived, however, there was a great Social Leveler. It was called the public library. And there I found Vanity Fair. And in Chapter XXXIX of that book, I found regatta. Thackeray tells us that Bute Crawley’s daughters, despite their disappointment regarding a recent inheritance, “penetrated to Cowes for the race-balls and regatta gaieties there.” Reading such literature is the way plebes like me are let in on what the Mayfair swells are up to when they’re not out squiring or dowaging.
I still haven’t seen a regatta, but, small consolation, as a kid I once saw a tiara. It was on Wendy Hiller in the film Pygmalion. Nobody had to tell me what it was. I figured it out for myself, having slogged through a canto or two of Child Harold (with a dictionary at the ready) and having noted Byron’s reference to Venice with “her tiara of proud towers.”
The debate over the value of standardized tests will, of course, go on. And I probably did suffer “deprivation” by not having a madcap cousin Reggie and a great-uncle who was the Marquis of Netherlip. But at least I can find some consolation in the thought that when it comes to tests like the SAT, I was better prepared by spending my days in the library rather than hobnobbing with the clan and other swells in Cowes on Regatta Day.
Edmund Janko is a retired high school teacher from Bayside, New York.