I sat in the back seat of the Knox family station wagon. James and Marlin Athearn rifled basketball scores and trivia at each other up front. My brain had glazed over fifteen miles ago.
We cruised south on I-4 toward Orlando through an aisle of orange groves dotted with lakes. Every mile brought us closer to taking the SATs.
I checked in my purse for the three Number 2 pencils I’d rounded up from under my bed, the drawer in the kitchen, and my brother’s grade school pencil pouch. I pressed my finger against each point to make sure they were still sharp.
SAT’s counted for a kid who needed a scholarship for college.
My mind slipped to watching Mom pay bills, hunched over the checkbook at her French Provincial desk on our enclosed front porch. Worry rolled off her shoulders, like indigo clouds before a deluge.
Our sixty-year-old un-fixed-fixer-upper had been furnished with second-hand everything. Mom bought me new clothes and shopped garage sales for her own. My family of four scraped by on Mom’s nurse’s salary and a few bags of groceries Ralph bought from the miniscule bounty brought in by Behrens’ Book Store.
Mom couldn’t shoulder college.
I’d taken the PSAT, listened to the coaching to run through the test quickly, skipping the questions that stumped me to return to later. My heart sank.
No way would those questions get answered on my watch—the perennial last one done with any test.
I breathed in through my nose, out through my mouth, wishing I’d paid better attention to Dad when he yammered about yoga. I hated multiple choice tests. They zeroed in on obscure facts my brain hadn’t deemed important enough to record. True/False tests were plain devious. Why couldn’t the SAT be an essay test? Then I could spew all the facts I considered pertinent.
I broke into the boys’ sport-talk-radio barrage. “Did you guys remember to bring your Number 2 pencils?”
James snatched two new pencils off the seat beside him and held them up so I could see.
Marlin, six feet of basketball genius and curly blond hair, said, “Crap! I forgot to bring one.”
I stared at him, horrified. “You’re kidding me.”
“No, I’m serious. I walked out of the house scarfing down cold pizza and just forgot.”
I sighed and fished out my third pencil and handed it to him.
Civilization bloomed on both sides of the freeway now, and my stomach tightened.
A siren sounded behind us and my eyes shot over James’ shoulder to the speedometer. Great. Blue lights pulsed behind us.
James braked and pulled to the berm of I-4.
Not even a curse sounded as anxiety sucked up all the air in the car.
James rolled down his window, and dewy morning blew in with the officer’s command for James to accompany him back to the patrol car.
Five minutes slogged by, five minutes we needed to get to the test site on time.
Marlin blew out a breath of air and opened the door to see if he could help James plead our case.
The policeman’s voice barked over his PA for Marlin to get back in the car.
Marlin’s weight jostled the station wagon.
His door slammed.
We were screwed. We’d miss the test, forfeit the test fee, and probably lose the opportunity to take the exam more than once.
The French toast I’d eaten for breakfast congealed in my stomach.
Amazingly, twenty minutes later the three of us bottlenecked through an auditorium classroom door with a glut of students—right on time.
Relief cascaded through me.
I looked at James. “I’m sorry about the ticket.”
“What for? You weren’t the one speeding.”
“You were just trying to get us here on time. You were probably nervous about the test.”
I chewed on my lip. “Aren’t you nervous? I’m dying here.”
James shrugged. “If we bomb it, we’ll just take it again.”
I looked away, annoyed that I was alone in my freak-out. Of course, it wasn’t a big deal to James. He was intelligent, no doubt a few rungs above me, and his daddy was president of a bank.
His voice cut through the chattering and bodies engulfing us. “Couldn’t sleep last night.”
My brows shot up. “Me too.”
James gave me a wry grin, then turned away to find his seat.
The admission felt like a gift.
I should have known. He was a firstborn like me. Responsible. He always turned homework in on time, even when the “homework” was only songs he wanted me to critique.
The room quieted.
The proctor gave the go-ahead.
I flipped open the test booklet with shaky hands and plowed into the questions, coloring in the bubbles with the first answer that came to mind as I’d been coached. It seemed crazy. Fine, I’d do it the way I’d been told. There was still time to retake the test in the fall. Then, I’d use my perfectionistic method.
I moved on to the next section, reading comprehension. Panic ruffled through my midsection. I was the slowest reader in the literate world. I’d even failed the speed reading class I took the summer between sixth and seventh grades.
After a break came the math half of the test. The patchwork of math education I’d eked out of nine schools wouldn’t do me any favors. Nor the C in Algebra I or circumventing geometry when I heard the teacher spent more time angling down girls’ shirts than teaching angles on the board.
Mr. Davis and the A’s I’d gotten all year in Algebra II were my only hope.
If I had enough brain juice left.
An eternity later, I stood on our front porch beside Mom’s desk and peeled open the test results.
Respectable, without being stellar. Identical scores in verbal and math—a freaking miracle. Enough to snag a hodgepodge of meager scholarships, financial aid, and loans to land a Bachelor of Arts degree.
When I opened the scores for my second SAT attempt—the one I’d tested my way, mulling each question thoughtfully—I took one look and fired the results straight into the trash.
I value intelligence, smart people. I want to be bright. But I stop short of discovering my IQ. Like the SAT’s, the numbers would only disappoint. I don’t want to confirm what I’ve always suspected—that my husband, like Yogi Bear, pulled down a passel more IQ points than I did from his brighter-than-the-average-bear forebears.
I’m smart enough to do what makes my heart sing. I write well without approaching the plane of Annie Proulx’s prose or the poetry of Mary Karr’s memoir. And that should be okay with me.
Last week I jawed to good friend and bibliophile, John Berkshire, about a book I was reading. “…I’m too stupid to understand it.”
“Don’t say that!” John snapped, a sharp edge to his voice I seldom heard. “It’s not true.”
John, one of the most enthusiastic fans of my writing, made me feel what no test could ever do. That I am smart enough.
Marlin Athearn has spent his career as a teacher and coach in Volusia County Schools, Florida. Also settling in Volusia County, James Knox, who earned degrees in English and Journalism, pastors The Bible Church in Deland.