Thursday, July 18, 2013

I got a 520 on math on the SAT!

This is the kind of confession which is so good to get out you just have to say it in one breath--IGOTFIVETWENTYONMATHONTHESAT. And just like that, a weight is lifted. Okay, 520 isn't terrible. (I have friends who would read this and shake their heads right now saying, "Yes, Adora, yes it is." I have friends who have done that, in so many winces or raised eyebrows or sympathetic displays of lip-biting if not in words.) Well, it could've been worse! 400. Or 300. 520 is, anyway, 20 points lower than what I got the first time I took the test, and many hundreds lower than what the majority of my friends got their first time. For the record, I also took Algebra II as a junior and haven't done an AP science! The latter revelation prompted a family friend to sigh sympathetically, "Ohhh honey." I got F's on some French tests and a B overall that year.

In three years of high school, I have never gotten all A's.

As the modern-day prophet Billy Mays said, "But wait! There's more!"

When I sing, my sister, gifted with perfect pitch, asks me to "please stop." (Three cheers for not singing on key! Three cheers for not knowing what the key is!) My ability to serve successfully in badminton or tennis is sporadic at best. I have never whistled, and snapped successfully once in my life. But this is all extracurricular. Let's just reemphasize--in summary, I fail, a lot, on academic things that most of my friends don't fail on!

I say all this because of two things: comments like "oh my god you're so smart Adora" and the fact that this is the season of "WOO LOOK AT ME I GOT 800's AND 5's" for so many people.

To address the first: I feel like an impostor when people say "you're so smart" with absolutely no freaking idea how insecure I can get, feeling the need to uphold the sustainability of that compliment. I've often wondered (no joke here) if anyone would like me if they realized just how inept I am at some things.

To address the second thing: if you got a good score, congratulations!! I mean that, without resentment. I got 5's on the APs I took this year (Psych, Comp Gov, US Gov, and AP Lang, so playing to my strengths a bit...) 800 on reading and 780 on writing on the SAT! But that matters as little as my 520 and sucky transcript. I'd be a hypocrite if I picked and chose. We're defined by our good numbers as little as by our bad ones.

Sure, this 520 is probably etched into my mind the same way runners know their marathon times. It's a part of me. But it's a tiny part of me, because hopefully in my fifteen years I've learned at least that I should live a life complete enough (even as the work in progress that it is) that I have cooler failures to dwell on and better successes to treasure than 520s or 5s. Some of the smartest people I know got terrible SAT scores. Even as I get incredibly stressed out, like all soon-to-be high school seniors at this time of year, I have to remember: tests are taken, scores are given, acceptances are mailed, and life goes on!

When I was younger, speaking at the Entertainment Gathering conference in Monterey, CA, I delivered a talk about education, testing, and creativity--the kind you probably hear a lot, nowadays. Afterwards, the author Amy Tan, of Joy Luck Club fame, walked up to me. I died a little bit from fangirling. This was AMY TAN, after all, AMY TAN with her little-Chinese-lady haircut, dark red lipstick, and intimidatingly large handbag. She said that my speech had resonated with her. (Swoon.) And then she added, "I got a terrible score on my SAT!"

I could turn this into a blog post about testing culture and underlying issues in education or the like, but what I'm really trying to say is this: a lot of you have secret failures. Maybe not things like my 520, but the kinds of things you switch the topic deftly to avoid or live in dread of anyone but your closest friends knowing. You're not alone. You never have been. It gets aggravating, scrolling through your Facebook newsfeed and seeing pictures of beautiful people with their perfect scores and happy lives--the lithe runners taking all APs, the social butterflies on dance team who win medals in speech and debate, the math kids who got into Stanford and Harvard AND landed hot prom dates--but none of us have it all figured out. I have incredibly accomplished contemporaries who consistently make me feel like an underachiever, but their struggles also helped me realize that every win has its flipside.

In the end, if I love you, I love you no matter what your resume says or what you got on the SAT or how fast you run a mile or how well you write a story or any number of things at which it is entirely possible to fail at--in fact, I love you knowing those failures.

Is it too much to ask for the same?


  1. Anonymous2:47 AM

    I really enjoyed reading this.
    I've had many failures all related to "test scores".

    Obviously 5s , 800, 780 all can shadow the 520. This really isn't a failure compared to everything else you are doing.

    That's a little slip in the road.

    I've played to my strength in the APs And SATs too. But I've not received a good score. Which is surprising cause I understand and enjoy learning everything. I'm not a good test taker.

  2. The last paragraph is perfect.

  3. Anonymous1:23 PM

    Perfectly motivational post. Although your 2100 SAT score is practically a god-level compared to mine, realize that your strengths lie with reading and writing, not math (I mean well duh look at how much you've accomplished).

    I especially love the last paragraph though. Have a great senior year, my friend - you should totally come talk at WWU's TED Talks by the way, it'd be awesome!

  4. I know how frustrating it can be when people think you're smart and perhaps feel that you're somehow "above" them. One metaphor I like to use is a woodworking toolbox. It might contain a hammer, a screwdriver, a drill, a saw, etc. I'm rubbish at woodwork but even I can tell you that these tools are good at different things. You could use a screwdriver as a hammer but it won't be as good as a real hammer. But that doesn't make it a bad screwdriver. You could invent some kind of multi tool that can be used for everything, but I have a feeling it would end up being only average at each task. If someone thinks I'm better than them and somehow "above" them, I can usually think of quite a few things that they can do better than me, but it can still be difficult to make them see this if they think the areas of their own strengths are things that "don't count".

    (By the way I have a kind of brain damage that affects my brain's visual processing, making me what is known in America as "legally blind" although I am able to see some things. If someone thinks I'm "above" and I want to make them feel better about themselves, then I must try to avoid falling into the trap of naming a visual skill, because people looking at my white stick tend to dismiss those from the comparison. At least you don't seem to have that complication.)

    One thing I've been struggling with lately is how to persuade people that I do not have any kind of special aptitude for learning languages, despite the fact that I've taught myself Chinese up to the standard of being able to do simultaneous interpretation (not very well I hasten to add, but if there isn't a real interpreter around then I can make the best of a bad job). People look at this and say "oh, I could NEVER do that" and don't even start. (And it gets worse when I'm talking with Western-born Chinese whose parents have been pushing them to learn more than they'd like and the last thing they want is some half-blind white British guy to speak it better; how am I supposed to make friends with them after that?) Actually, the only reason why I got as far as I did is because I've been stubbornly working away at it for years. I made a computer program that tests me on words while I'm getting washed and dressed in the mornings (see if you're curious). Also I decided not to worry too much about Chinese characters and just concentrate on being able to speak it (I guess that means I'd get very low marks in a Chinese exam, because those tend to be oriented more to the written language, which I can't very well do without a computer). In the race between the hare and the tortoise, I'm definitely the tortoise; I'm very slow (in fact one of the schools I went to honestly thought I would never be able to learn a language and shouldn't even try), but despite my slowness I hope to get there in the end. And yet people now tell me I have some kind of magic special ability and that they'd never be able to reproduce what I've done even if they had all the time in the world. It seems that if I want to encourage or inspire people with the thought that yes they CAN do it (they just need a bit of time), I can't win: when I was only just starting, nobody listened to me because I didn't know anything, but now, nobody listens to me because they think I'm too good. I'm not trying to force anyone to learn Chinese, but I do them to know that (a) they can do it if they want, and (b) if they don't want to put the time in, that's fair enough, but they shouldn't feel inferior or anything because I'm sure they could do it if they put their mind to it. But how do I get that message across when they've stuck an "out of my league" label on me? It's not easy at all.

  5. Well you are up on me because I got a 490 on my math! But I beat you by 10 points on writing. mwahahahah. (Though really, as your former writing teacher, I suppose that is an inappropriate response...)

  6. i adore this/you (but actually)