Writer Is to Amateur …

as Mom is to Teen Boy? Scenes from an SAT smackdown.

THE FIRST TIME I TOOK THE SAT was to get into college. The second time was to show off.

That was the idea, anyway. I wanted to establish some street cred with my son, Teen Boy, who doesn’t believe that publishing six novels qualifies me to offer the slightest bit of editorial assistance. When, for example, I suggested to him in the middle of third grade that sometimes some writers of English occasionally like to begin sentences with, oh, say, a capital letter, he nodded politely, dismissed me with “We don’t do it that way anymore, Mom,” and continued on his merry, lowercased way. Since his math teacher that same year had presented the class with five “options” for subtracting, I could almost believe that capitalization had become a nostalgic whim as well.

So when the people who bring you a certain SAT prep course announced that they were field-testing their new writing section, I thought that would be the perfect opportunity to illustrate my majestic command of the English language and end capitalization debates forever. In a total setup, I challenged Teen Boy to enter. The winner would get either a free game of laser tag or a pedicure. If there was a tie, toes would be amputated.

We logged on to the appointed Web site. Up came suggestions on writing a good essay: Maintain focus, develop thoughts logically, provide supporting evidence, rebuke Satan and all his powers of evil, yada yada.

I’m a professional. Let’s do this thing.

We had a time limit—thirty minutes—and an assigned topic: “A familiar adage states, ‘Rules were made to be broken.’ Yet some believe that ‘an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust … is in reality expressing the highest respect for the law.’ What is your opinion of the claim that breaking the rules is sometimes necessary?”

Piece o’ cake. Morsel of pastry. Slice of confectionary. Since I’d been training for this event for roughly a quarter of a century, I gave myself a wee handicap and set my timer for ten minutes, Teen Boy’s for thirty, and declared, “Drivers, start your computers!” Not wanting to reveal my true identity and completely intimidate starstruck graders, I turned my name around to create the postnasal-sounding nom de plume Haras Drib.

Then I pounded the keyboard with stirring arguments supported by examples from Nazi Germany, the antebellum South, Abu Ghraib, and the lady with more than ten items ahead of me in the express line at H-E-B. I batted it out of the park with a rousing invocation of Rosa Parks, then hit “send” and sneaked a peak at Teen Boy’s screen. His effort appeared to revolve around slaughtering as many terrorists as he could in Counter-Strike. I reminded him that the clock was running and that perhaps he should be the one to administer the pedicure, buff my bunions, and so forth. Thus motivated, he dove in. I was certain victory was mine when, fifteen minutes later, he claimed he was finished and hit his send button.

While I waited for the stunned and amazed reaction to my essay to arrive, I wondered how I’d manage the full scholarship to Harvard they would undoubtedly offer me. Or, rather, Haras Drib, the supernaturally talented freshman who’d overcome the handicap of her unfortunate name. Would the other kids accept me? Would I be the only one in my dorm with a mortgage and lower back pain? Should I immediately lay in a new wardrobe of low-rise jeans and thongs? Or should I hold my firm line that, fashionwise, the Intelligent Designer gave women one giant advantage: the waist? For centuries this evolutionary bonus allowed us to put garments on our bodies and simply assume they’d stay there without recourse to belts, suspenders, and the bib overall. Would I surrender to peer pressure and abandon my principles simply to fit in? Would I be one of those girls shaking a leg like they were trying to get rid of a tick as they hitched up their britches and resettled the little mushroom cloud of flab pushed up by the low-rises? How would my collection of Mom Jeans, with their MC Hammer/Tweedle Dee/Tweedle Dum silhouette, go over on “the Quad”?

This was certainly way more thought than I gave to going to college back when it was actually my turn. My preparation for the SAT involved standing up, marching into the cafeteria, wondering if it was enchilada day, and opening the test booklet. Which is good, since nothing could prepare a person to deal with the dreaded analogies section. Money is to wallet as rutabaga is to: missile silo, the Transcontinental Railroad, two trains leaving the station at the same time.  I wasn’t exactly certain what the purpose of the SAT was, but it seemed to have something to do with diagnosing schizophrenia.

Teen Boy got his score first: an eight out of a possible twelve. The grader gave him some good advice for improving his score and signed her message “Huggles to you.” Not bad, I assured him magnanimously. Not bad at all—for a beginner. I worried that when my perfect twelve arrived it might cripple him to the point that he’d never use the alphabet again. I decided I’d pretend to have scored a nine, ten at the most.

My thespian skills were never tested. I got my score. We tied. A flat eight. I didn’t even rate any “Huggles.”

Haras,” my clearly deluded grader wrote me. “You have a good start.” Good freaking start ? I’m in the third decade of my career!  “But you need to communicate more clearly and make and articulate judgments.”  It was probably a mistake to care what some punk kid who couldn’t even use spell-check had to say about my writing, yet I did. He ended with a few more comments that all added up to: Nice try. I hope you’re good in math. Although the Forestry Service might be a good option. Maybe a fire watcher up in one of those tall towers where

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