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Sandy Banks

When the SAT Tests the Parent, Child Bond

October 06, 2002|Sandy Banks

Soon my high school senior will be sitting for what has come to feel like the most important exam of her life, the one capable of laying waste to all those late nights of homework we once thought were enough to chart her course.

And while I have spent years deriding the SAT as a test measuring nothing that really matters, it seems to have become the barometer of her success, and I've come to regard it as fearfully as she. So I am willing to pay through the nose to help her cram for the magic numbers that she believes will unlock the door to the college of her dreams.

She needs to raise her score, she says, to improve her chance of getting in. So she sits night after night at the kitchen table, hunched over a thick binder of test-taking tips and practice exams, studying math worksheets and vocabulary lists. Prevaricate, gambol, avarice ... drop is to downpour as what is to blizzard?

And I feel the pressure building in both of us, as the clock winds down in her college quest.

"You would know these words if you'd read more books," I say with irritation, when she checks with me on a definition. I look over her shoulder, scolding her as she ponders a complicated analogy. "All those times I told you to read ....This wouldn't be so hard if you had listened to me."

She slams the book shut in frustration, yells something about being too busy working a job and doing homework and taking care of my kids--her sisters--to read. She stomps upstairs to her room, in tears.

And I feel angry not at her, but at myself, because I fear we are allowing one test, one choice, one imperfect process, to become a litmus test of my daughter's worth and, by extension, my mothering.

I've never been the sort of mother to place academics above everything else. I insisted on homework being done, but beyond that I simply sent my three girls off to school each morning with a kiss and a prayer, and an admonition to "do your best."

And now, as my oldest stands on the threshold of a life on her own, away from me, I'm forced to consider that her best might not be good enough for some faceless college admissions committee.

I've always told her to be herself, that her soul shines through her eccentricities. But now, I feel her comparing herself to the brainiacs--kids who spent their weekends doing research in medical labs and their summers digging for fossils in Greece--and I wonder if I've shortchanged her by not being more demanding.

Like tuning forks that vibrate at the same pitch, we feed on each other's insecurities. She frets about essays and exams and whether she's done enough to compete. I nag her to strike the word "like" from her speech and wish that she could recite passages from Shakespeare's plays as fluently as she does the dialogue from Austin Powers movies.

I can't help wondering how a college recruiter will rate a kid who drops everything and opens her arms whenever she sees a child in need, who puts her homework on hold and stays up all night when a troubled friend needs consoling, who worries before a track meet not just about whether she'll win the race but whether her competitors "will be nice girls who like me."

And my daughter must be wondering how her mother has come to see her as a package of grades and SATs, and turned her strengths into deficiencies.

She's in bed when I get home from work, surrounded by textbooks and lab sheets and calculators. Her eyes are glazed and rimmed with dark circles from lack of sleep. "Mommy," she says, in a voice that suggests the little girl she used to be, "will you lay next to me?"

I slip in beside her as she slides over, making room for me in the tiny bed she's slept in since she was 3. I rub her head and she closes her eyes, and our conversation flows easily ... from my car's squeaky brakes to her English test to what she should wear for homecoming.

And I find even the mundane bittersweet, our every interaction overlaid these days with the relentless sound of a clock ticking. A year from now, there will be no chance for moments like these.

I look at her and my heart seizes up, as I imagine her on a college campus miles from me, with professors who never learn her name, a roommate who likes smoking weed, a boyfriend I might not get to meet.

She drifts off to sleep as I stroke her hair, just as she did when she was a baby. And for that moment, at least, I forget about grades and essays and SATs. She is perfect just the way she is.

This is not a measure of my daughter's worth or of my mothering, just a passage that will require us both to meet another of the challenges that growing up brings.

Sandy Banks' e-mail address is sandy.banks@latimes.com.

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