Friday, May 29, 2009

SAT (For Better or Worse)

Key West -- It's that time of year for those of you who will be applying to college in the fall. You have to take them. You have no choice (well, almost no choice). But look at it this way. You can't possibly do as poorly as I did. (More about that in a minute.)

A few years ago I was asked to give the commencement address at Mount Holyoke College. Usually I think long and hard about accepting such an invitation. But not this time. From the moment their invitation reached me I didn’t think twice. They had no way of knowing this, but they'd given me a second chance.

To explain I have to take you back to 1956 when I was a senior at Battin High school in Elizabeth, NJ, the only all girls public high school in the state. When it came time to apply to colleges I knew next to nothing about the different schools, though I’d heard there were a lot of boys in Boston and boys were high on my list (but that's another story). I knew very little about the College Boards (SAT) either, except you had to take them. We didn’t have Kaplan courses or coaches to prepare us then, and our teachers never mentioned them.

I can still remember that sunny Saturday morning in May when my mother dropped me off at the Pingry School, site of the dreaded test. I remember opening the booklet and reading the first paragraph of the first essay. I remember it not making any sense to me. I read it again, or tried to, but by then my heart was pounding, my mouth, dry. The words on the page began to blur together. I had a fantasy of getting up from my seat and calmly walking out of the building, calmly walking away from Elizabeth, NJ.

Instead, I flipped through the test, the panic inside me rising – then I picked up my number 2 pencil and filled in all the little circles at random. No kidding. I really did that. When the test results came in my high school guidance counselor, who had never spoken to me before, called me into her office.

“You have to take the College Boards again,” she told me. “You’ve got the grades. You’ve got the activities. But I want you to go to Mount Holyoke and you’ll never get in with this score.” (I think it was something like 350 -- that's probably as low a score as you can get -- which is why I don't recommend random answers.)

The only thing I knew about Mount Holyoke was they required the Afternoon Boards. (That's what we called the achievement tests) so I told the guidance counselor, “Never – I’m never taking any of those tests again.” She shook her head. “What a waste.”

Cut to that invitation from Mount Holyoke. When I read they had the funding to try a different way of identifying students who might do well there -- that for three years they weren't going to require standardized test scores -- I knew I was going to give that commencement speech. And when I did I told them why that day meant so much to me. It wasn't just that I was there at last – it was that today I might even be accepted as a freshman. I thanked them for that on behalf of all of us whose minds work differently. I got my honorary degree and that day remains a highlight of my life.

I've been arguing against judging prospective students by their SAT scores for years. Doesn't test creativity, doesn't prove how well a student will do at college or at life.

So why am I kvelling (beaming, swelling with pride) that my grandson has just received his SAT scores and they hit the top? (He would not be happy if I told you his actual scores.) Partly because it's amazing to me that anyone with at least some of my genes could come up with scores like these. Especially in math! He actually likes standarized tests.

My husband says -- "You, of all people, Judy -- who've railed against these tests for years -- how can you be so impressed?" Sorry, George -- can't help it. I know it doesn't predict how you're going to do at real life. I mean, Amanda hated the SAT almost as much as I did. She graduated from U New Mexico and guess what? She's a huge success at life and has a thriving career as a political consultant. Much in demand. Nobody ever stops to ask how she did in her SAT.

I cut a story by Sara Rimer out of the New York Times on Monday, September 29, 2008. The headline reads:

Study of Standardized Admissions Tests Is Big Draw at College Conference

5,500 college admissions officials and high school guidance counselors gathered in Seattle at the annual conference of the National Association for College Admission Counseling. The main event was William R. Fitzsimmons's first public presentation of the findings of the Study of the Use of Standardized Tests in Undergraduate Admission. Basically, after he said the SAT had many advantages, he affirmed that they and other standardized admissions tests are "incredibly imprecise" when it comes to measuring academic ability and how well students will perform in college.

I'm sure the debate will go on for years. I have to thank NYU for accepting me as a student despite my dismal scores (and Boston U, and Syracuse). I was a good student. So is Elliot and I know he'll do well wherever he goes. Those scores of his may mean he has more options and it's always good to have more options. While test results don't tell the whole story (and he knows that) I'm a grandparent first, so I'm entitled to celebrate, right?

Which brings me back to the SAT. A stressful time for many of you, I know, especially today when everything might depend on financial aid. But try not to worry. If you want to go to college, if you're determined, you will. And you'll enjoy it, wherever you go. Wishing you well.
xx Judy

Monday, May 11, 2009

Mother's Day

Key West -- I still think of Mother's Day as a holiday celebrating my mother, my grandmother, and my Aunt Frances. When I was young all three would get orchid corsages and and we'd go to dinner at the Tavern Restaurant in Newark, where my father knew the owner. (Actually, everyone knew the owner, but I was just a kid and didn't know that.) It's funny, because I'm writing about the Tavern now, in the novel I've just started. As for orchids, they grow everywhere in Key West (which doesn't make them any less magical). When they're done blooming in a pot, just snip off the stem at the fourth joint, tie them to a tree, and they'll bloom for seasons to come.

I realize my children and grandson have different ideas of Mother's Day. Randy likes to shop and I don't -- or let's just say I like pretty things but I don't like going into stores, so unless it's easy to find, forget it. This is why Randy sends me something to wear each year. On Friday her package arrived with a lovely and delicate summer sweater. I talked to all four of my dear ones on Sunday (well, maybe talked is the wrong way of putting it because I have total laryngitis -- can't make a sound -- not fun, though I don't feel at all sick).

Larry told me he was sending a donation to Planned Parenthood this year because he'd seen the fund raising letter I'd signed suggesting that this would be a good way to honor your mother. (I've pasted a copy of the letter.)

How did such a gentle letter become the major brouhaha it did? Ask the vocal anti-choice crowd. I shouldn't have been surprised when the hateful e-mails flooded our office computer the next day saying things like....

You're killing off your customers.

You'll burn in hell.

You are a baby killer.

Then there's this argument in various forms:

-- I was a great fan of your books, growing up. They meant a lot to me but now that I know you support Planned Parenthood I would never let my childen read them. I'm going to tell our school principal, the librarian, and the teachers they should boycott your books, or burn them.

I want to ask these parents if they check to make sure all the books their children are reading are written by people wh0 support only those organizations and charities that they personally support. But I don't. I don't respond to hate mail.

It might have stopped there if Planned Parenthood hadn't sent out a second e-mail blast -- letting their supporters know I was under siege. They meant well, I know, and I'm the one who gave them permission, not stopping to think that this would fan the flames.

The next day, another story appeared in the anti-choice online zine, and along with another round of hate emails, came hundreds of supportive messages from those who believe in Planned Parenthood. Somehow word got out that I'd received death threats and the media jumped all over the story
. The bloggers and twitterers were all abuzz. To set the record straight, I didn't get any serious death threats. Sure, there were emails reminding me what happened at this or that abortion clinic -- but this isn't the first time I was a target of the extreme right.

Despite what some people think, Planned Parenthood isn’t an abortion clinic. It is a health center that provides people with the proper tools to make the best, most informed decisions for them. It’s a place that offers breast cancer screenings, pelvic exams, pregnancy testing and planning, affordable birth control, STD testing, HPV vaccines, testicular cancer screenings for men, as well as issues of male infertility, education for all, and, yes, choice. Sometimes that means abortions.

May also is Teen Pregnancy Prevention Month. Surely the best way to avoid abortion, and reduce the numbers of unwanted babies born to teen mothers, is through sexuality education. But to those opposed to anything but abstinence education Planned Parenthood is well, evil.

As a college junior, about to be married, I asked my family doctor who to call to get information about birth control. He suggested Planned Parenthood, although it had a different name in 1959. I trembled as I made that call and ultimately hung up before I'd set up an appointment. I'd had a bad experience with a gynecologist at 14. At 21, I was still a virgin -- fear of pregnancy kept many of us virgins in those days. We had other ways of being sexual but we avoided intercourse, knowing if you got pregnant you were going to have the baby, like at least three of my high school classmates, smart girls who nevertheless found themselves pregnant before graduation. Abortion was illegal then. They were forced into hasty marriages and while the rest of us went off to college, they became parents before they were ready.

Ultimately I went to a doctor in NJ who knew my family doctor. He fitted me for a diaphragm and I went off on my honeymoon without the fear that I would become pregnant before we were ready to have children. There are many reasons I wish I'd gone to Planned Parenthood and not to that sexist doctor, who, it turns out, was a religious fanatic himself. Reasons I won't go into here. I wish I'd known then that at Planned Parenthood women are treated with respect.

When I read the Planned Parenthood online teen Q&A I feel glad that today's young women and men have a place to go to get information. I wish it had been there for me.

So Happy Mother's Day to all of the mothers out there, and grandmothers, and special aunts, and thanks to all of you who sent messages of support. There are times when you have to stand up for what you believe in. It means a lot that so many of you stood with me.

xx Judy