May 14, 2020
Two weeks ago, my daughter’s AP Calculus AB exam looked like it was over before it had begun.
Sarah had barely cracked a textbook since school shut down on March 16th. Her public school calculus class wasn’t meeting on Zoom, so there wasn’t an imperative to show up at her computer screen on time. Sometimes, Sarah would log onto Khan Academy, the free learning site, for instructional videos.
Meanwhile, she made and watched TikTok videos. She FaceTimed friends and decorated pages in her journal. Come 11 p.m., she and her 10th grade crew met up on something called Netflix Watch Parties, which could and often did stretch on until 4 in the morning.
She’s usually a straight-A student who puts intense pressure on herself to do well. So when I walked by her bedroom and heard giggles, I just smiled and kept on going. I assumed she had it under control. Plus, she had this awful, hacking cough which could be heard through closed doors and hallways. I have the unfortunate tendency to focus on one crisis per child. So I worried about the cough.
Then, one Sunday night (or maybe it was Monday… or Tuesday… they all flow together), she started to sound like a modern-day Paul Revere. Only, it wasn’t the British who were coming. It was the A.P.s. It was like she’d woken up and discovered that she’d signed up for three Advanced Placement classes this year; the exams were about to attack; and our army was asleep in bed.
Quarantine has been taking its toll on our entire household, in ways that only seem predictable in retrospect. For Sarah, who always battles a tendency to procrastinate, the school days that barely existed, the calc teacher who couldn’t be seen, the classrooms she no longer inhabited — it all felt unreal, like something that could be put off, just one more hour, or perhaps one more day.
Or maybe it wasn’t her perception at all that was at fault. Maybe we adults expected too much of our 16-year-olds this spring. We figured they knew how to do this distance learning thing. But they had no idea. How could they? We didn’t. Many of us still don’t.
Anyway, there we are, just as April is turning to March, and my daughter is hysterical. The A.P.s are coming! The A.P.s are coming! And she’s surely going to fail them. How did this happen, she cried. How did this happen?
There are many possible reactions to this realization. Here’s the one Sarah chose: she doubled down. She cut out the late nights and the sugar. She added running and began her days with strawberry-banana-kale smoothies. And she started studying. Morning, noon, night. Weekdays, weekends. When she couldn’t figure something out, she called up her friends. When they all couldn’t figure it out, she dragged her brother, the college junior, out of his lair. He took two years of calculus in high school; now he was recruited back into action.
By Tuesday morning, she was ready. Somehow, she said, she’d learned it. She thought she might just pass this thing.
“Good luck, Sarah,” I said as I sat down at my computer to do an interview for an article.
“Good luck, Sarah,” said the college junior as he took off on another one of his bike rides.
“Good luck, Sarah!” the trombone-playing brother said, vacating the office-turned-music studio to give Sarah privacy and quiet. She arrived a half hour early, set up, logged in. In the dining room (me), and the family room (trombone boy), and out on the bike trail, and over at the hospital (her dad, working), we all said a prayer for our hard-working calculus student.
Dear reader, if you’ve gotten this far with me, be assured that she finished the entire exam. She even felt like she slayed the damn thing. But when she went to turn it in, the computer wouldn’t accept it.
She started trying to turn it in with four and a half minutes to spare. For four and a half minutes, Sarah tried everything she could think of to get the College Board, which administers the test, to accept her uploads of her work. That’s required to pass the exam. But the site refused to take it. And refused. And refused.
Then, after four and a half minutes, it shut her down.
The College Board says this has happened to 2 percent of all AP test takers this spring. But from what Sarah can see, among her friends and on social media, it feels like more than that — especially for this calculus exam, because it demanded uploads of handwritten calculations.
Yes, she raged. Of course, she cried. She questioned her technical capabilities and despaired at the time and effort sacrificed for this empty result.
She pulled it briefly together, to request a makeup exam in June. Then she got the trombone brother to take her to frozen yogurt, and over to a friend’s house, where the girls sat in the backyard and, six feet apart, Sarah nursed her wounds.
She’s got two A.P. exams next week — A.P. Biology and A.P. World History. It’s hard, she says, to get motivated to study for them.
This quarantine, folks. It’s a shit show. Old people, young people, middle aged ones like me — none of us are spared its slow, draining drip. But I hate especially the toll it takes on kids. To be a child is to hope and to dream, to have wild enthusiasms and mad determination, born not out of experience but the lack of it.
Of course, adolescence can be dark. But we adults, watching from the far shore, hope that the joy of this seemingly endless possibility, of what looks at 16 like a limitless future, can shine a light sufficient to banish the gloom. Probably not all the time, but often enough to make these years endurable.
This is the rub of quarantine. Possibility doesn’t feel easy to come by. The future seems to have disintegrated one dreadful week in March. We are left in a today that stubbornly refuses to become tomorrow.
It is challenging enough for me, with 52 years of experience under my belt, to create a satisfying existence out of these subpar materials. How much more difficult then, for someone with only 16 years behind her, a girl just starting to step out on her own, at a time when the path is so hard to make out.
I know the people at the College Board are trying. What happened to Sarah is exactly what they wanted to avoid. So I’m not mad at them. But I am mad. We both are mad. All five of us are mad about this. Mad, with nowhere to put it.
And so, we carry on. Pull out the next Barron’s Study Guide, Sarah. Bio’s on Tuesday.