Sunday, May 2, 2010

111 days to Bar Mitzvah: standardized tests

This week, as we begin counting down the days to my 45th birthday, I ask you to meditate on the limitless possibilities of being 12 and taking the SAT test for the first time.

Why would someone who is 12 be taking the SAT test? Beats me. While part of the suspension of disbelief required to live and raise a family in San Francisco is accepting that your child will be taking something called the SSAT (essentially a baby SAT required by all independent private high schools in the city and Marin and San Mateo Counties), I have to admit to being a little stumped over not so much the purpose of the Jawa taking the SAT at age 12 as the circumstances that led to him finding himself in a math classroom at St. Ignatius High School, three sharpened #2 pencils in hand, surrounded by high school seniors looking to nail down their spot at the college or university of their choice.

Sandra Bullock has explained it to me numerous times, as has The Hammer, whose son was also there Saturday to take the SAT. Another classmate was taking it at Riordan High School. Word on the street had two other classmates, the demonstrably brilliant Pollack twins, taking the test earlier in the year.

It's the result of an extra-curriular program run by Johns Hopkins University. As I understand it, these kids rang up killer ERB scores, acing the standardized test given every year whose aim is either to gauge the progress of individual students or to give independent K-8 schools something to either brag about or hide. Which characterization you get depends on who you talk to.

So the Jawa and long-time friend Josh K, plus the girl who plays the drums and the Pollack twins from Seattle, all "got" to take the SAT.

There are many ways to prepare for the SAT when you are 12 years old. The Jawa chose to follow the traditional preparation schedule established by his father in the fall of 1982.

Though we could not find a school dance for him to attend until midnight the night before -- actually, I'm lying. There was a dance, but dances, which take place at the JCC just about every Friday and are well-attended by members of the Brandeis Hillel Day School seventh grade class, do not exist in our house. The Jawa, ignoring overwhelming evidence suggesting that attendance at such dances carries great social weight for BHDS seventh-graders, leading to spontaneous invites to parties and the powerful capital necessary to participate in the middle school equivalent of Monday morning water cooler sessions, is working on Year Two of absolutely refusing to attend dances at the JCC -- he did follow in the spirit of his father's footsteps by spending very little time fretting about the SAT.

That this strategy is perhaps harmful to a high school senior was completely lost in Otcober, 1982, on the Jawa's father, whose SAT score was "good enough" that he never considered re-taking it, thus probably dooming him to what turned out to be attendance at a number of mid-tier universities when he could have gone to a really good one, possibly opening up a world of career opportunities which he could have then ignored or purposely sabotaged in the name of "art."

When you're 12, we figured, there's not much chance you're going to ace the SATs, no matter how much certain local real estate reporters think today's scores are inflated. We looked at the sample questions. They didn't look like things they teach you in seventh grade. Three pencils and a "scientific" calculator made up the majority of our prep. Thus armed, we jammed a granola bar into the Jawa's GAP size 16 slim pocket and off he went.

Our Jawa is a piece of work. He is not easy. What he is also, though, is unsinkable. Put him in a room full of 17 year-old high school seniors and toss an academic career-making-or-breaking standardized test in front of him and he shakes off the nerves and dives in.

Five hours later, Sandra Bullock and I are sitting on the steps in front of St. Ignatius High School, waiting for the SAT test to end. Somewhere inside the enormous, institutional building behind us is our son, hunched over a desk, filling in ovals on an answer sheet.

The Hammer lay sleeping in the passenger's seat of her Toyota Avalon Hybrid only a few feet away.

Soon, after a bathroom-seeking mission took me down several empty St. Ignatius hallways, confirming my love of high schools big and small and reminding me of my short stint teaching English to polite Catholics at Blanchet High School in Seattle, Washington, we were surrounded by teens, each sporting their own take on Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. The test had ended and they stumbled into the sunlight, squinting, their faces the expressional equivalent of five o'clock shadow.

Hidden in among them, equally spent but still unbowed, was our Jawa, a little kid and peer walking side-by-side with the high school crowd.

"How was it?" we asked as The Hammer collected her dazed teen. The Jawa smiled the broad grin of a wide receiver who, having just had his clock cleaned by Ray Lewis, realizes that he's somehow managed to hang onto the ball.

"That was the hardest test I've ever taken!" he crowed.

His cockeyed enthusiasm was easy to share. "I don't care how you do on that test," I told our battered post-test survivor. "Just the fact that you took it makes me proud."

He sat in the back seat, punch-drunk, describing the mind-blowing challenges each section presented. Funny thing was that, as he spoke he began to gain a subtle sort of confidence. Not the brimming cockiness of a hot shot who left vapor trails and broken hearts in his wake; more like the uneasy line drawn in the sand when Rocky Balboa, having taken Clubber Lang's best shot and remained standing, began taunting his volatile opponent. This time, the lilting "Ain't so bads" were coming from my Jawa as he threw little jabs back at the SAT test he'd just taken, five years early.

His test results will show up in an oversized envelope weeks from now, a dress rehearsal for next year's SSATs. Unlike his fellow test-takers, they won't determine his academic future. If his scores are impressive, we'll add them to whatever high school applications we send out next year, along with tales of middle school band and all the volunteer work you do on your way to getting Bar Mitzvahed at Temple Emanu El.

If they're not impressive, we'll chalk it up to experience and remind him that after taking the SAT, anything the SSAT can throw at him will seem like a cakewalk. It is the SAT, Jr., after all.

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