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It was a bright, breezy morning of drifting sunlight and chorusing birds, so I decided to ruin it by taking the SAT.
I had been deeply -- some might say obsessively -- involved in the application process for my college-bound son, Gillum, so in part I was moved to take the test by parental fellow feeling. But first I had to drop off Gillum into a swarm of teenagers hiving at the entrance of the local high school on the morning of his exam. There they waited for the great glass doors to swing open so they could slip into the seat of a flimsy pink-and-blue polypropylene combo chair-desk, open their test booklets, grip their sharpened No. 2 pencils, and submit themselves to the SAT. They would carefully mark only one answer for each question, and they would make sure to fill in the entire circle darkly and completely. They would not make any stray marks on their answer sheet. If they erased, they would do so completely, because incomplete erasures may be scored as intended answers. If they finished before time was called, they would check their work on that section. They would not turn to any other section. And this is how they would determine the course of the rest of their lives.
At least that's what a lot of them believed they were doing -- my son among them, I think -- and my heart went out to them, and to him. Waiting at the doors they all looked slightly lost, as if the combination of early-morning sleepiness and the weight of what they were about to do had settled around them like a fog. I learned later the real reason they were disoriented was that they had been told they couldn't bring their cell phones into the building; none of them had gone four hours without sending a text since middle school.
When I got home I made a cup of coffee and sharpened a packet of pencils, No. 2s, of course. I pulled a thick workbook from the shelf and settled myself in the sunlight at a table on our back porch. I'd gotten the workbook from my son, who had gotten it from Kaplan, which furnished all its students with fat compilations of real SATs to use for practice. The book, like the company, was an artifact of the gluttonous industry that surrounds the SAT -- fed by the same anxieties that stirred my son and that still had the power to stir me, as the clutch of my stomach testified when I glimpsed the command written across the bottom of the cover: do not open this book until the supervisor tells you to do so.
The pages of the book before me now looked unpleasantly familiar, as though I had bumped into a grade-school bully I hadn't seen in 30 years. The answer sheet, printed on pulpy newsprint, was the same: still stamped with the rows of little ovals, massed in military formation, waiting on me to fill in the wrong one. But there had been changes, too, the most dramatic one appearing right up front, on the second page. In the old days the test alternated math sections with sections covering reading ability, vocabulary, and grammar. This SAT opened with an essay question. The test takers are given two lined pages to fill with crisp, beguiling prose and 25 minutes to do it.
The instructions had that brisk tone I'd long remembered -- the tone of a not-very-nice adult trying to act friendly with youngsters. "Your essay must be written on the lines provided on your answer sheet; you will receive no other paper on which to write." Understood? "Try to write or print so that what you are writing is legible." Please don't be your usual slob self. "You will have enough space if you write on every line, avoid wide margins, and keep your handwriting to a reasonable size." Reasonable. That means not too big. Okay?
I set our kitchen timer to 25 minutes, turned the page and looked at the essay question, which instructed me to think about a quotation from the writer Patricia Moyes. "It is often interesting to consider the trifling causes that lead to great events," she wrote.
"Assignment: Do small events lead to catastrophes or are great events initiated by other causes? Plan and write an essay in which you develop your point of view on this issue."
Four or five sharpened pencils lay on the table in front of me, barrel to barrel like a little river raft. I picked one up and angled the tip into the soft newsprint. The timer ticked. As I wrote, I found myself unexpectedly inspired, to the point of writer's cramp. It had been a long time since I had written by hand continuously for 25 minutes. I concluded the essay with a question of my own, one that I thought nicely captured the ambiguity of the topic and served as a piquant summary of my thoughts.
I popped up from the table, pleased, and decided to reward myself with a fresh cup of coffee; 10 minutes later I remembered that I had three more hours of test to take. This is another way that an adult's life is different from a high school student's -- no proctors to tell you to stop screwing around. I hustled back to my seat at the table. There were nine more sections to go, ranging in length from 10 to 25 minutes. I set the timer again. Next was a math section, not my favorite. Page after page was strewn with x's and y's in weird combinations, bunched into equations and wrapped in parentheses, crouched under slash marks, sneaking around the corners of triangles, all of them laid out in a line and marching straight into a question mark, as if to say, "Well?"
For all I knew they could have been hieroglyphics. I had no idea I had forgotten so much, and wondered, while I was at it, how much I'd ever known to begin with. I'd been a word person exclusively, managing to make a living without ever having to trouble myself with integers, factors, quotients, prime numbers, or any of the other mysteries that were staring at me from the page. As a consequence, entire quadrants of my brain had turned to brick. I felt it physically, a large, dense, inert mass at the center of my cranial cavity.
At length the timer chimed and I raised my head from my hands, where it had been resting quietly. I rose to wash the breakfast dishes, defiantly aware I was again violating the time restrictions. When I returned to the table I consoled myself with the knowledge that the next two sections were what used to be called the "verbal" part of the test, now known as "critical reading." After a while, nervousness was less a threat to my performance than narcolepsy.
Thanks to the dish washing, coffee making, dog walking, and sports-page reading I'd indulged in to stretch the breaks and try to recharge my brain, I finished my own test session past lunchtime. I got through the 10 sections in about four and a half hours -- well over my allotted three hours and 45 minutes. By then my son had returned from taking the test.
"Hard" was all he said when I asked him how the SAT had gone.
"No kidding," I said. After he'd eaten a couple of hot dogs -- this took him 30 seconds -- I enlisted him to help me score my test. From the key provided he read the correct answers while I scanned my little ovals, which I had filled in darkly and completely -- very darkly and completely but, it was soon apparent, not very correctly. There were moments, while grading the math sections, when I thought he might be putting me on. Section 9, a series of algebraic problems, consisted of 16 questions; I had managed to answer 12 of them and got 11 of them wrong.
"Wow," he said. "That's like what, 8 percent correct?"
"How would I know?" I said, testy. "I can't do percentages."
I used his calculator to compute my raw score on the SAT scale, which runs from 200 to 800 for both math and critical reading. My reading score was okay -- pretty damn good, in fact. The math? I'm not saying. But it was low enough to take your breath away. Scoring the essay on a 1 to 6 scale was trickier. College Board guidelines say that for an essay to receive the highest score of 6, it must show "clear coherence and progression of ideas," "use language skillfully," "effectively and insightfully develop its point of view," and "use appropriate examples."
A fitting description of my essay, I thought. It had clearly earned a 6, but I knocked a point off for modesty's sake. Even with the strong essay score, my SATs were close to a disaster, as they had been 35 years ago.
When my son's scores popped into his e-mail queue a few weeks later, they were good -- much, much better than mine, for what it's worth. They were good enough, anyway, not to require serious revisions to the early list of schools he was compiling: The safeties were still a decent bet, the reach schools still a reach.
We were back where we'd started but with a deepened appreciation, in my case, for where we stood. My tussle with the SAT exemplified the phase of parenthood my wife and I were entering into. After 18 years it's time for letting go -- not just of our kids as they step into the wider world but also of the armor that has served us so well as parents. No more pretensions to omniscience; my math score had taken care of that. No more believing that they're under our guidance, when their talents and strengths so often and so plainly exceed our own. No more avoiding the truth that a teacher's greatest triumph comes when his student leaves him behind.
It was a bittersweet lesson, like so many others at this time of life. And I'm grateful to the SAT for teaching it -- but I'd trade it in tomorrow for another 300 points on my math score.
Excerpted from Crazy U: One Dad's Crash Course in Getting His Kid into College, by Andrew Ferguson, published by Simon & Schuster, New York, N.Y. copyright 2011 Andrew Ferguson. Reprinted by permission of the author and Writers' Representatives LLC.
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, April 2011.