Day 48: AP Exams

May 14, 2020

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on

This post, in a slightly edited format, is now live at Grown & Flown, a wonderful website and blog about parenting older kids. You can find the post here.

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.

Day 19: Inspiration

April 13, 2020

At 16 years old, my daughter is a bundle of contradictions. She’s loud on the phone with her friends at midnight, and so quiet at three in the afternoon I forget she’s in the house. She can giggle one minute, rage the next.

Half the time, she wants me as far away as possible. But I forget that the other half of the time, she probably would welcome me banging down her door and dragging her off of her screens.

Well, lesson learned. I’ve been eating breakfast and lunch by myself, but today I happened to make a lunch for both of us, and so we sat down at the table together. “Can I show you something I wrote in my bullet journal?” she said, and was off to her room to get it even as I was nodding yes.

As much as I like to write, my daughter likes to make art. That painting up above is the way she spent Sunday. It’s also in her bullet journal, which is a leather-bound book with blank pages that she fills with her artwork, inspirational quotes, and when she’s in school, a colorful homework schedule. Come to my house when this thing is all over and we’ll show you the whole thing. It’s spectacular, and I’m only a little bit biased.

So when she laid the journal out in front of me today, I was expecting to be impressed. But I was also touched, and inspired by her wisdom. With her permission, I’m posting below a picture of the entry, and the text she accompanied it with on Instagram. I also did a short interview with her, which follows this.

Me: Why did you decide to do this?

Daughter: I think that social media has been all consuming lately because we can’t see our friends in real life. I’ve been feeling down lately and I felt like I’ve been totally consumed with social media, so I wanted to find a way to combat that, because it’s been kind of messing with my self image. I was up really late and I started to think how I wanted to feel better about myself. I looked up a quote about self-confidence and I saw it and I was inspired. I took out my bullet journal and started writing in different colors. I wrote down the quotes, and decided to make a list of what I was proud of myself for. I wanted it to be colorful and fun. And once I wrote it I realized how good I felt and I was thinking I couldn’t be the only one who felt this way about what’s been going on lately or felt not their best about so much exposure to social media. So I took a picture of it and wrote a paragraph on my note page, and posted it on my [Instagram] story at four in the morning, and went to bed. And throughout the day, I’ve been getting texts from my friends like, “I love you,” and people who just liked my idea and are going to try it. It’s been really good to get good feedback.

What were some of things that were driving you crazy?

On Instagram and Snapchat, people are always smiling. On TikTok, they’ll post cute videos of their family and stuff. If I didn’t feel like I was in the same situation at the time, or I wasn’t as productive and happy as they were through this quarantine, it would beat me down a little bit because I wanted to be having a fun time and stuff but that wasn’t what was happening.

Like, what were some of the things you remember?

People were having themed dinners and stuff . People are working out and posting ab routines. I guess hanging out with their families. And if I wasn’t as happy at the time, or if I didn’t really want to leave my room at the time, then I just kind of felt like I wasn’t doing enough or , it just kind of got me upset.

All right… do you wish that we were doing more?

I don’t know.

Are we falling short as a family?




Do you want more themed dinners?

No, no.

But they are posting ab routines and working out. Meanwhile, why aren’t you working out?

Well, I started.

But why weren’t you working out? There was a good reason.

I was sick?

Yeah. You were sick. Weren’t you sick?

Yeah. But it was still making me feel unproductive. Even if I was sick I felt kind of helpless. I couldn’t move that much.

So it seems like people are posting like, how they are having this wonderful quarantine.

No. Some people are posting how they are upset or bored. It wasn’t just the happy ones. It was just overall. I was getting drained from all of it. I needed something to break that. I feel like, when you’re on your own for so long, you’re in your mind, thinking all the time. Sometimes you can be hard on yourself. This kind of helped. By writing things like, I’m doing the best with what I’ve got and understanding like criticizing myself isn’t going to help myself get anywhere.

Are there things we could or should be doing to pull yourself out of your room more?


[Leaves the room, then a few minutes later, returns.]

Another reason I did this was I thought it was a good way to put out a message about mental health. I wanted to say, it’s okay to not be okay.