I’ve spent the entire last week in a last-ditch, desperate attempt to transform myself into a civil engineer. An inverterate procastinator, only true panic can chain me to a chair 10 hours a day, as I go over all the topics I never learned in an undergraduate in geological engineering. Transportation, wastewater sludge digestion, trusses and beams… It’s all a big stew of numbers this morning. Time for the test.

I’ve been shocked at how physically I’ve been affected by studying for the PE, the gateway to my professional engineer’s license. It’s not as if the consequences for failing it would be so terrible – I’ll be out a couple hundred bucks and 8 hours of my life, and then I’ll have to take it again.   My mind knows this, but my gut is a mess, my heart feels squeezed, and I reek of the bitter, acrid smell of the cold sweats. Taking the test couldn’t possibly be more miserable than waiting for it.

I pull up to the office building where the test is being hosted and I see them, my people. There’s a crowd gathering in the lobby, and they are all engineers. I feel a sudden rush of confidence as I walk in, my long braids swinging, feet shod in my lucky chucks. I’ve done this before, and I was smarter than them all then, too. We’re on my turf.

Looking around at my fellow sufferers and examinees, I wonder what it is that makes engineers so identifiable. It’s not as if we were all stamped out of the same caricature of badly dressed, awkward young men in ugly, old, white tennis shoes, although those guys are there. So is the group of snappily dressed Turks,  the cowboy with his belt-buckle gleaming, the hipster with sleeves, the smattering of us women. It’s just that any stranger who walked into that lobby would have known that we were all engineers. I must have it too, that invisible stamp.  I wonder what gives me away. Today though, it’s particularly easy to spot us. The exam is open book, and there is an entire library of engineering knowledge waiting with us in the lobby.

In the backpacking world, they say you pack your fears. It looks like that applies here, too. For just 80 questions , what incredible collections of books! Bankers boxes stacked on dollies, moving boxes, and several people with full-size rolling suitcases straining their zippers. I’m towards the middle-low end of panic by this measure, with just one milk-crate brimming with binders. A few men walk around with a single jansport slung jauntily over their shoulders. The ultra-lighters. I judge them.

A small woman opens the doors to testing rooms and they escort us to our seats, one at a time. I check my pockets at least five times to make sure I left my phone in the car – no point in getting kicked out now. The nervousness has returned and I’m trying to chat it off with my table-mate. She tells me this is her third time taking the test.

Eight hours of testing later and I’m like a wrung-out dishrag. I hit a wall at hour 6, slugged back a caffeinated beverage and tried to rally. I finished in time to check my answers, which I hadn’t been able to do in the practice exams I’d been taking. I may pass this thing after all. I’d feel relieved, but I mostly just feel squished.

Less than two weeks left before my walk-about!


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