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The Dreaded SAT!

A Tale of Two Watches, Green Tea, and the SAT

October started off with a nail-biting weekend when our son Nicholas took his SAT test. To tell this story I have to back up to our first experience with a child taking the SAT test. Those of you who have heard this many times, please bear with me, and I’m afraid you’ll have to hear yet another brag about it.

When our daughter Cassie took the SAT almost five years ago, I had no idea what to expect. She had never spent a day in school and had never taken a formal standardized test. I didn’t know if my homeschooling style was going to translate well for the SAT. But when we picked Cassie up after the test she had a cat-ate-the-canary grin on her face. I asked her how she did and she said that she aced the reading section of the test.

Oh really? NO ONE does that, no one in my world anyway. I couldn’t believe it when we got her test scores back, she DID ace it! I screamed and screamed! She got a perfect score on two sections of the SAT (800 out of 800 on Critical Reading and 80 out of 80 for Writing Multiple Choice section). And even her math score, that she had been concerned about going into the test, was a respectable number at 640.

Cassandra Thomas KiLA iLO artist newspaper clipping web

Now, fast forward to this month. Our son Nicholas is not his sister. He’s not a rabid reader or a competitive academic. Oh no. He’s our mellow musician, our dreamy inventor, and computer programmer. He has a great laugh and charisma. He’s brilliant, in his own way. He taught himself Japanese, and he’s more proficient in it than Cassie, who is taking a college Japanese course. He’s taught himself how to play many different types of instruments. He’s amazing in so many ways, but none of them bode well for taking a standardized test.

He’s always struggled to do simple tasks, like write his own name. Even now, he struggles to write in a normal way. He had great difficulty learning his letters. For the longest time he argued with me that the letter A was a triangle.

A

Finally, I looked at the letter A from his perspective and indeed it did have a triangle in it. Of course, it did. Why had it taken me so long to make that connection?  I said, “Yes, Nicholas, the letter A does have a triangle, but it’s a letter. It stands for a sound.” That seemed to satisfy him because he stopped fighting me. He submitted to calling the letter A an A, not a triangle.

Dramatic Mom comic by Natalie Buske Thomas and Cassandra Thomas
Nicholas as a character in DRAMATIC MOM, “cleaning his room”

And so it began… the realization that teaching him would not be an easy task. Nonetheless, we plowed through and somehow he grew from the little boy in a Superman costume to a young man of eighteen. And suddenly the moment of truth was fast upon us: the dreaded SAT test.

I worried that Nicholas might feel intimidated by his sister’s success. After all, a perfect score is hard to compete with! But no, I needn’t have worried, not about that. Nicholas’ attitude toward the SAT was relaxed, I’d even say “chill”. He cheerfully reported that he’d  looked up what the average SAT score was and thought he had a good shot of hitting that. He figured he might come close to average at least.

Cassie was kind enough to find SAT practice books at the library. They were larger than phone books, and heavier too! I wasn’t feeling optimistic about the odds that Nicholas would read those books.

Lo and behold, that kid surprised me! He approached the task in a no-nonsense way. He read the first book from cover to cover, doing every exercise precisely as instructed. He was so studious and determined that it looked like the SAT test might go well for him. And then things took a turn…

Nicholas finished (sort of) the practice test from the book. Unfortunately, the result was just as I’d feared. He couldn’t finish it on time. He wasn’t even close! He failed the practice SAT!

Nicholas had always been a plodder. Rushing him had been disastrous. After much frustration, I eventually learned to let him be. Oh, from time to time I cracked the whip, but only when it was really important. Sure, I coached him, but I didn’t try to change who he is. I backed off and let him work things out for himself. Given enough time and space, he was (usually) able to accomplish amazing things.

But, had I made a mistake? What if he couldn’t handle the SAT test? Had I crippled the boy? Images of him living in our basement flashed through my mind. This was no time to be pessimistic though. Nicholas needed confidence, and fast! Thankfully, he got it, thanks to his can-do spirit.

He tackled that mammoth SAT guide book again. Then he took the practice test a second time, and this time he did a decent job. His score wasn’t great, but he did hit that “average” score he’d aimed for. It was time to prepare for the real thing, and I thought that Nicholas was ready. His backpack was packed. But the night before the SAT test he told me that he couldn’t find a watch with a working battery. He needed a watch to time his math problems during the test (as the book had suggested).

Instead of buying him a new battery, we took him to the store to pick out a special watch. This would be his gift from us for working so hard to prepare for the SAT test. I told him that he was getting a celebration gift before the test because it’s not about the score. It’s about the effort that he put into it, and we appreciate how hard he’s worked. I don’t think I’ve seen that child work so hard on anything in his life (except for when he was working on the TARDIS console for the Doctor Who convention, but I’m sure you’ll agree that that’s different).

Nicholas found a gold plated watch that was delightfully marked down in a clearance sale. He was pleased with his choice and he put it on before we’d even pulled out of the parking lot. Everything was perfect, happy kid, proud parents! But when we got home, we realized that his special gift was problematic. It made electronic noises, which is a big problem during the SAT test.

If a gadget goes off during the test, the student will be kicked out! Nicholas was anxious about this. His was a new watch that he was unfamiliar with. What if he accidentally turned the sound on? Of course it didn’t help that I was pondering– aloud –what could happen (i.e. he could accidentally hit a button while filling in the bubbles on the answer sheet). After some dithering, he decided that it wasn’t worth taking the risk, but he still needed a watch.

We could have exchanged the watch, but it was already special to him. So we went back to the store and bought him a second (cheaper, also on clearance) watch for the test. That wasn’t the ideal way to spend the night before taking the SAT, but oh well, what can I say? We got the job done in the end, the frazzled end.

I have a patient husband, by the way. In case you were wondering how all of this played out, Brent did what he usually does. He stayed out of it and then drove us (back) to the store. Ours was a quiet “frazzle”. We kept a cool head and simply bought a second watch.  It began to look like we could handle this SAT thing, no problem.

The next morning I was worried about how Nicholas would deal with waking up so early for the test. All I usually have to do to get him up in the morning is make him breakfast. I open his door and say, “There’s food.” Then I leave. Within two minutes he always turns up in the kitchen. It’s quite magical! Fortunately that magic held up for SAT test day, whew!

Normally Nicholas makes himself a large tumbler of green tea in the morning. He wondered if he should have tea before the SAT test. I weighed the pros and cons in my mind. If he didn’t have his typical tea he might feel out of sorts, even more so than the nerves were already doing to him. I assured him that there was plenty of time to go to the restroom before the test. I said the fateful words “Go ahead and have your tea”. (Are you saying “uh oh”? Well, everything seems obvious after the fact…)

We were in great shape time-wise. He was ready. He had his ID, his crumpled and stained SAT ticket (sigh!), and his backpack full of snacks. Off we went. It was a good drive to get there, about forty-five minutes or so. We dropped him off for his four hour testing experience, not knowing how he’d handle sitting in a chair for that long, how he’d deal with the pressure, or how he’d manage even navigating the building. But, there wasn’t anything we could do but hope for the best–and pray!

Brent and I didn’t want to go all the way home, so we had a rare “date” morning. It was too early for anything to be open at first. We went to McDonald’s. Or at least I think that’s where we ended up. Good grief, my mind is already fuzzy on that. Did we actually go, or did we just talk about going? I think we went. I think I got hashbrowns. Oh well, it doesn’t matter. But, yeah, I’m remembering hashbrowns. Then we went window shopping, where I tried on many pairs of shoes and bought none.

We finished our date at Cracker Barrel, which we hadn’t been to in years. It’s usually a place we go to while on vacation. Vacation time is the ideal time to go to Cracker Barrel. SAT test day is not. Every time a baby screamed I thought my nerves would snap. The touristy restaurant was so noisy that we had to speak loudly to hear each other.

We ordered too much food for our fluttery stomachs. I gave half my meal to Brent. When I’m anxious I can’t eat. When he’s anxious he eats everything. We’re a good pair! Meanwhile, the clock moved slowly. Brent kept saying that we could “head back over there”. I reminded him that sitting in the parking lot for over an hour wasn’t going to help.

After we ate, we scouted the gift shop area. I found a flavor of Jelly Belly candy that Nicholas had never had (pancakes and maple syrup flavored). Wow, that’s a treasure! I looked forward to the glee in his eyes when we’d give it to him after his test.

Jelly Belly Pancakes and Maple Syrup

 

Armed with the Jelly Belly surprise, we were ready to pick him up, even though his test wouldn’t be over for another half hour. We waited in the van for about five minutes before Brent said he’d get out and just “go see” if Nicholas might be done. Brent found the classroom where the test was being conducted. The test was still in full swing. He came back to the van. About ten minutes later, he went back into the building.  He lingered in the hall and was there when the doors were finally flung open. Nicholas came loping out like a puppy.

When I saw them coming out of the school, I was much relieved to see a grin on his face. I took pictures of him as he neared the van. It was a beautiful sunny day and his future was bright!

Nicholas Thomas after taking SAT test

He was absolutely confident that he’d done well on the test. He was jolly and talkative (for him), meaning that he chatted with us for almost five minutes. He told us a harrowing tale about how his morning green tea had kicked in (had you forgotten about the green tea?).

During a break between sections he was in the restroom a bit too long. He was late for the next round of testing! The proctor had already finished the section instructions. When he entered the room she was saying,  “Open your test booklet and begin.” That’s when Nicholas plopped into his chair, grabbed his pencil, and opened the book; as if he’d been sitting there all along. The proctor said, “Good Lord.”

Oh, that’s my son. God must have answered my prayers because I’d feared that something like this would happen and he’d get locked out of the room, kicked out of the test, or something bad, bad, bad. I think this was a small miracle. Without my prayers, I bet he would have been locked out, I just know it. A mother’s prayers make the difference, surely.

I was grateful that Nicholas had a good testing experience, despite the nearly-disastrous green-tea-related incident. I told him how proud I was of him for working hard to prepare, for holding up well for the test, etc. But… What if that test score told him a different story? What if hard work doesn’t matter, a positive attitude doesn’t matter, and a good heart matters even less? What had come so easily for his sister didn’t come easily for him, and maybe, just maybe I had gotten this wrong as a parent. Maybe I should have pushed him more.

A week went by. I tried to put the SAT test scores out of my mind, but it was always there, lurking. I nagged Nicholas to check the college board site even though it was still too early. But then, something happened that made me forget all about the SAT scores (see “shipping” story). I was so distracted that when the date finally arrived, I had forgotten all about it! I was startled when Nicholas woke up early and made a beeline for my laptop.

He said, “The scores should be in.” How could I have forgotten? He sat in my chair and signed into his college board account. My stomach was in knots. The scores were in.

I blinked my eyes.

Was this his score?

Was I seeing the right numbers?

How could this be possible?

ALL THREE SCORES were over 600!

His writing score was in the 93rd percentile!

Had he scored better on the (political question, hmm) essay portion he would have been in the top 2 or 3 percent in the nation for writing! That’s my boy!

WHEEEEE!

I couldn’t believe it! I jumped around, screaming and screaming. Nicholas and Savannah looked at me like I’d lost my mind. When I stopped, I started again. I was like a crazy troll or a drunken elf — screaming and jumping, jumping and screaming…. clapping my hands, jumping in circles… all while wearing my ridiculously large zip-up red fleece robe. All I needed was a pointy hat and I’d have been a theater act. This went on for several minutes.

Then the texting began.

I took a picture of Nicholas giving us the thumb-up sign and sent it to both Brent and Cassie with the words “SAT test scores in!”. I let them stew for a bit.

They both replied at the same second.

Our whole family could breathe again! Nicholas somehow pulled it off against all odds — he not only conformed to a strict test taking regime, but he succeeded! He did it! WOW. Whew…!

Apparently he wasn’t harmed by all of those frustrating teaching sessions that had ended in tantrums (mine), and my eventual letting go to the point of him (mostly) schooling himself. Whew, whew, whew! And the decision to let him build and program a TARDIS console for the Doctor Who convention instead of doing regular high school work was not a problem…

I’m a confident parent 99% of the time, but there’s that 1% that is scared witless when it’s SAT testing day. Can I tell you again how thrilled I am that Nicholas scored high on his SAT test? I looked it up and his overall score is considered “Excellent”. He won’t have to take the test again, which is most excellent because I can’t take another Cracker Barrel nail-biting lunch!