I want my daughter Tashi to think she’s one of the smart kids, so when Tashi entered first grade, I got her tested for the gifted program.
The six-page results arrived in the mailbox. I didn’t understand most of it, terms like “perceptual reasoning index” and “crystallized intelligence.” What? Intelligence crystallizes? And at such a young age?
I did, however, understand these lines: “Your child has not met the required criteria for placement in gifted. Your child’s intellectual ability falls within the average range.”
I remembered that cloudy day when I was 17 and ran barefoot down the pebble path to the mailbox. When I saw my SAT score, I sank into the grass and cried.
I got a 1090. Back then, in 1985, the highest score was 1600. All of my friends — the smart kids — got somewhere around 1400. I thought I was one of the smart kids.
In fifth grade, I was put in Miss Thweat’s Language Arts class, which I knew was the hardest. In junior and senior high, I took honors classes and graduated Palmetto High in the top 10 percent.
Being smart meant getting into a good college, then becoming a brain surgeon, or a Supreme Court justice or winning a Nobel Peace Prize by ending world hunger. These were on my list of things to do when I grew up. Until I took the SAT and I found out I was average.
I took the test again. And again. And again. I even took a prep course. 1090 was my best.
I’m no genius, except at tennis, so I got into the University of Pennsylvania, an Ivy League school, because I was recruited by the tennis coach. My SAT score didn’t kill my opportunities. It killed my confidence.
Once at Penn, I felt outclassed. There were no dumb kids, except me. And that one girl who scored a 1010. She was the U.S. backstroke champion.
Before the SAT, I’d done well in school, but at Penn I panicked over exams. I couldn’t focus in class. I got C minuses, and was put on academic probation.
When my tennis coach sent me to a counselor, I said, “I don’t need a counselor, I need a tutor.” But my coach was right. My problem was psychological.
I know this because after spending my junior year in Spain, something shifted. In Spanish, I wasn’t the same average Andrea. I was Ahndrreeah. I read “Cien Años de Soledad,” conquered Ferdinand and Isabella, and mastered subjunctive verbs. I remember thinking, “If I can get A’s in Spanish, I can get A’s in my own language.” When I went back to Penn my senior year, I did get A’s.
If I had still believed I was one of the smart kids, I might have done well at Penn from the start.
So, I read through my daughter’s evaluation and thought, “We’re average.”
The next day, I saw Tashi’s teacher. While the first graders filed into the classroom, I pulled Ms. Soto aside and said, “Tashi failed the gifted test.” I was sweating that nervous sweat. I said, “I’m devastated.”
Ms. Soto hugged me and said she understood. But how could she? She didn’t live with my 1090.
"1090" was my college nickname. SAT scores came up so often my freshman year. I was asked, “What did you get on your SAT?” as often as “Where are you from?” I suspect the topic was born of an insecurity particular to a lesser-known Ivy League. There are no students more self-conscious about not getting into Harvard than the students at Penn.
My mom said, “Your score is nobody’s beeswax. Why do you tell people? Are you that stupid?”
I said, “Maybe. But I don’t care what other people think. It only matters what I think.”
Since college, I've struggled to stop thinking of myself as 1090. I got my first job as an environmental activist in Washington, D.C. My job: to inform the public about toxic chemicals in our air and water. I was so intimidated; words like carbon butane and methyl-ethyl death were all the same to me. Once a month, I addressed the canvassers — high school and college kids in oversize sweat shirts and dreadlocks who walked door to do to raise money for the cause. When I read off my note cards, my upper lip quivered, a nervous spasm, and my voice came out like a robot. I got fired. I got fired four more times, from every job I tried.
Even now, when I watch “Jeopardy!” or when I hand-write a note and there’s no spell check, I’m hounded by that old insecurity. Without it, maybe I would have solved world hunger.
Tashi’s teacher told me to get her tested again with an outside consultant, so I called my sister-in-law Lisa, who has three gifted daughters. Lisa said, “You tested her through the school system. Are you that stupid?” She told me no one gets in that way. She said, “The smartest way to get Tashi into gifted is to pay an outside consultant $300.”
I set a new test date.
They say IQ can’t be learned, but believing that meant Tashi’s IQ was crystallized. It meant I was forever a 1090.
So Tashi and I got busy training. We studied the metric system. We practiced Vedic Math, an ancient Hindu method of holding numbers in the mind. Since our perceptual reasoning index was low, I bought a game called Trango, which requires building shapes out of triangles. We got so good at Trango, we took down the rest of the family, including Tashi’s three gifted cousins.
I made sure we got plenty of rest the week before the test. And drank tons of water to stay hydrated. The night before we carbo-loaded on SpaghettiOs. (I’m an athlete. I know how to prepare for competition.)
On the way to the test, Tashi said she didn’t want to take it. I said, “Won’t you? For me?"
And then I promised to take her ice-skating. Ice-skating with Tashi is not fun. She hangs on me and drags us both down. Then she blames me for our falls. I end up bruised and cold but Tashi loves it. She agreed to the test.
The consultant was an older woman named Lucy, with a thick Cuban accent. My wife, Victoria, who’s Venezuelan, taught me to distinguish a Cuban accent by the way Cubans sound like they have potatoes in their mouths. Lucy walked us through her house into the testing room, which was a converted garage. Tashi sat opposite Lucy at her desk. I waited in the living room.
I paced the room, then noticed if I stood outside the door to the office, I could eavesdrop without being seen. Lucy asked Tashi to repeat numbers in the order Lucy read them. Working memory index was our specialty. I followed along each number sequence, hearing it in my head just as I heard Tashi repeat back each line.
“Beautiful, beautiful,” Lucy said. But I wanted her to stop it with the “beautiful.” She was messing up my rhythm.
Lucy said, “Now I want you to define the following words. Asian.”
Tashi said, “What?”
Lucy said “Asian” again in her heavy accent. The she spelled it, “A.N.C.I.E.N.T.”
I felt hot. Then cold. "Ancient" was one of our vocabulary words two weeks ago. Tashi knows ancient. I knocked on the open door. Or maybe I just barged in. I said, “I think Tashi’s not understanding your accent.”
Lucy said, “I think she’s understanding me beautifully.”
I walked out fast.
I called Victoria and told her what happened. Victoria said, “You never tell a Latin person she has an accent. Are you that stupid?” Before I had a chance to answer, she said, “Andrea, who’s the one getting tested here?”
I stood there, like I’d been slapped in the face, which I deserved. This wasn’t about helping Tashi believe she was one of the smart kids. Why wouldn’t she believe she was one of the smart kids? She didn’t get the 1090.
After more than 25 years, I was still dogged by my SAT score. But worse than tanking my SAT or almost failing out of Penn or getting fired five times, I was using my daughter to prove something about myself. This was the stupidest thing I had ever done.
I dragged myself back to the living room, sank into the couch. A few minutes later, Lucy called me in. She recommended Tashi for gifted. Lucy said, “She’s a smart girl. You should be proud.”
I said I was. But I wasn’t proud of myself.
Tashi and I went ice-skating as promised. When Tashi tried to hang on me, I said, “No, baby. We both have to skate on our own.”