My First Test by
(12 Stories)

Prompted By Immigrants

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“So what do you think the white whale symbolizes?” my mother asked me as I sat in the kitchen of our new house in the afternoon. “And what was Ahab really trying to accomplish?”

A recent immigrant prepares for his first test at his new high school.

She was helping me prepare for the next day’s English quiz on ‘Moby Dick’, which the teacher had announced in class that morning.  I was terrified and contemplated pretending to be sick.  My English was passable, but certainly not good enough to compose an English literature essay.  I was a sophomore at Arcadia High and my parents and I had moved from Germany to Scottsdale, Arizona just two weeks ago.  To catch up on the novel, which had been assigned several weeks before our arrival in the US, I had spent the last week plowing through more pages of an English-language text than I had covered in my entire previous life.  I had completed four years’ worth of English lessons in Germany so I was not a total newcomer to English, but still very far behind everyone else. I was certain I would fail because my poor composition skills had already been exposed a week earlier when we had to write a paragraph on the subject of the metric system. Despite my superior familiarity with the topic, I only garnered an F due to poor grammar and sentence structure (“spelling excellent” was the only encouragement I received from Ms. Foster).

“Who was Ishmael?” my mom asked. “Why do you think he befriended Queequeg?” She encouraged me to think about the book’s meaning so that I might be prepared for whatever questions our teacher might pose the next day.  In Germany, literature exams required analyzing the deeper meaning of a text or deciphering the author’s message. I had detested those exams.  My mom understood my trepidation and thus spent all afternoon with me, talking to me while she was preparing dinner, cleaning the dishes, and organizing the cupboards.

The next day I sat down at my desk chair and dreaded the moment the test would be handed out. Ms. Foster walked down the aisles and handed out a single sheet of paper. She ordered us to leave the paper turned over until everyone had received one.  Several agonizing minutes passed.  Finally we were allowed to look at the exam! I turned over the sheet to discover that the quiz consisted of ten questions.  And I couldn’t believe my eyes.

I was half-angry for spending an afternoon preparing for this exam and worrying about it all night, and half-amused by the absurdity of the questions. “What was the name of Ahab’s ship? Who was the ship’s owner? What type of wood was used to fashion captain Ahab’s pegleg? What was the color of Queequeg’s eyes?” Ms. Foster didn’t care whether we had grasped the novel’s significance.  Comprehension was not what was required.  She just wanted to check whether we had read the book!

Judging by the groans coming from my neighbors I knew that most of them hadn’t. While they grumbled, I filled in the blanks in a matter of minutes. I looked up and saw everyone else hunched over their desk, chewing on their pencils and looking dejected. That’s when I knew I would survive just fine in this new school, in this new country, in this new language.

Profile photo of Lutz Braum Lutz Braum
Ever since I penned my first short story (a detective story) aboard a train in Germany as a 10-year-old boy, I've considered myself an aspiring writer. I still do, 40 years later. And I still enjoy the process of writing immensely, even if nobody else reads my work (but secretly I hope someone does).

Visit Author's Website

Characterizations: funny, moving, well written


  1. John Zussman says:

    It’s masterful how this story sets us up for likely failure yet ends in triumph. It’s also a fitting companion to your previous stories that document how difficult it was to adapt when you first came to America. Glad you made it!

  2. Suzy says:

    Lutz, I love this story! Such a great insight into the difference between German and American literature classes. And beautifully written. Thank you for sharing this personal immigrant story.

  3. Betsy Pfau says:

    Lutz, I was sweating along side you, as you turned over that exam. I think we all empathized with you as you struggled to prepare to write an in-depth analysis in a foreign language. It seemed daunting, indeed. Yet you were the only one in your class who was truly prepared. Great use of irony and a wonderful first person story about your struggles to keep up with this foreign language, but knowing that you truly would.

  4. rosie says:

    just wrote a long comment, basically too long for a tired person to rewrite at 1 am in the morning, loved the story. Hope this glitch in my connection to retrospect is fixable.

  5. rosie says:

    Hi Lutz,

    Basically I took German in college and enjoyed the language. It has many similarities to Yiddish, which I never learned much of, except for various insults. Kind of funny isn’t it?

    In any case I was a decent student and loved the precision and logic of the language which also had the flexibility of allowing us beginners to invent words if we couldn’t find the ones we needed in the dictionary. Trying to think in German, caused my writing to become less flowery, and more dramatic, by coming to the point of the paper or story, more quickly.
    So I can appreciate your situation. Going from German to English, had to be confusing. The gift howerver is that I gained a better understanding of different ways of thinking and creating. You certainly more fluent in English than I ever became in German.

    • Lutz Braum says:

      Yes, I strongly believe that being bilingual does influence one’s thought processes, as it encourages one to look at things from two different directions. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

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