Too Poor For The SAT

In high school I had to make a difficult choice between a $90 prom dress and $90 to register for the SATs. I chose the dress, and I don't regret my choice.
This photo of me was taped to my locker at Sanrio Valley Fair, ca. 2007, my sophomore year in high school. I worked 20–30 hou
This photo of me was taped to my locker at Sanrio Valley Fair, ca. 2007, my sophomore year in high school. I worked 20–30 hours/week for minimum wage, which was $7.25/hour. After taxes, that’s $464/month. I never got a promotion or a raise because I didn’t know you were supposed to ask.

Growing up in Cupertino, I always felt like my family was poor. That’s probably because we were, relatively speaking. When I was 14, my father lost his job. My mother, training for a paralegal job at the time, singlehandedly supported our family as we wavered at the poverty line for the rest of my adolescence. My friends took SAT prep courses and bought designer dresses for dances. I could barely afford to buy lunch from the school cafeteria  —  so I took a job there instead, working through lunch in order to take home leftovers. I became responsible for myself financially, taking a job at the mall to pay for my groceries, school supplies, and back to school wardrobe, which we had purchased at Goodwill for as long as I can remember.

During my senior year of high school, I had to make a difficult choice between a $90 prom dress and the $90 to register for the SATs. Since I was responsible for my own money, it was my fault that I didn’t have enough money to pay for both. I chose the dress, gladly buying in to my friends’ opinion the SAT was a waste of time. I resolved to register for the ACT later on, but turns out it was even more expensive. My father consoled me, saying “The SATs are bullshit.”

During my senior year of high school, I had to make a difficult choice between a $90 prom dress and the $90 to register for the SATs.

In all my years of public education in California, I consistently scored near the top in the state in every subject on the STAR test. Yet my family’s financial hardship and a lack of resources at my school prevented me from registering for the PSAT, SAT, or ACT. As a result, I was never considered for the myriad merit scholarships I undoubtedly would have qualified for. How many other students have fallen through the same cracks I did?

The $90 Jessica McClintock dress (on sale) that prevented me from taking the SAT. Photo from the bathroom of the boat that Cu
The $90 Jessica McClintock dress (on sale) that prevented me from taking the SAT. Photo from the bathroom of the boat that Cupertino High School rented for senior prom. Clearly I was feeling pretty emo.

Up until today, this single decision in my life has cast the most shade upon my ambitions. It prevented me from applying for universities straight out of high school, which led me down a seven-year path working in the service industry and jumping from community college to community college. It stunted my academic learning, and people I met began to think that I was dumb. I witnessed the change in the way people perceived me — I went from being the youngest student in every class, where older students hated me because I was at their level, to virtually giving up on learning, where the teachers hated me because I came in smelling like cigarettes. I ended up transferring to UC Berkeley at age 22, where I sat next to 17-year olds in introductory classes. Missing the SAT, it seems, set me back about five years.

How many other students have fallen through the same cracks I did?

Up until today, I have viewed this moment with the utmost regret. I constantly judged myself based on my age and my life path relative to others in my grade. I shouldn’t have bought that dress, I told myself, I should have applied to Cal straight out of high school. But today, I really analyzed these thoughts. I asked myself why I was still thinking about the SATs. And the answer was so simple and contrived I wondered why I didn’t ask myself earlier. The answer was, so that people would think I was smart. And then the record scratched in my mind, and I wondered how, after all these years of living diverse and non-traditional experiences, I could have such insane cognitive dissonance. I wondered why some part of my mind still equated intelligence to academic learning.

Long before today, I understood that intelligence is not how much knowledge you can recall, but your capacity for understanding. With a framework based on reason and a healthy dose of curiosity, an intelligent person can build upon facts to discover new truths. You don’t need to have taken latin, or history classes, or statistics to have the capacity to learn. It’s like judging a computer by the files on its hard drive rather than its processor speed and random access memory.

After all these years of living diverse and non-traditional experiences, I could have such insane cognitive dissonance. I wondered why some part of my mind still equated intelligence to academic learning.

I understood this distinction as soon as I left my bubble of intellectual superiority in high school. As soon as I started working with adults after school and falling behind in my coursework, I understood what intelligence meant. I’ve exercised my intelligence outside the realm of academia and I’ve recognized this capacity in others. Yet I still had encounters with people who made me feel like I was stupid. These encounters made me feel horrible and worthless, until I discovered developmental psychology and action stage logic.

Turns out every single person who insulted my intelligence was an Opportunist at worst, sometimes showing signs of being an Individualist. These people, at least in my life, were lone wolves who thought every other human was inferior. Coming from a world in which expertise was drilled in, followed by recognition and the knowledge that they were the smartest in their field, it only seems natural that these people looked down upon anyone who didn’t meet that same narrow definition of success.

The people who saw me as unintelligent thought so because I lacked the same years of expensive training that they had. What they did not see was my capacity for learning.

The people who saw me as unintelligent thought so because I lacked the same years of expensive training that they had. What they did not see was my capacity for learning — the very same thing their teachers saw in them. If I had kept up with them, I wouldn’t be able to understand the true meaning of intelligence.

Coming back to my SAT story — in hindsight, I am so glad I took a break from school, worked some fascinating jobs, and started a few careers in those years. I am glad that I suffered, I am glad that I hustled to get to a better life situation. Most importantly, I’m glad that I was forced off the track to academic success, because I can now give my life the meaning I want it to have.

My “Me Board” from 9th grade CORE class, showing my mission “to tell everyone that I care about them because our time on eart
My “Me Board” from 9th grade CORE class, showing my mission “to tell everyone that I care about them because our time on earth is limited.”

Today, those years I spent away from school look more like a blessing than they ever did. Everything happens for a reason — and the experiences I’ve had have allowed me to learn patience, empathy, and the ability to see potential where others cannot. I learned that each human deserves fair access to basic rights. I realized that I am passionate about fighting for those rights. I know now that I am a human rights advocate. I am ready to take on those responsibilities in order to be a hero for myself and for everyone on this planet.

I wasn’t ready back then, but I am determined now.
I wasn’t ready back then, but I am determined now.
There is no force equal to a woman determined to rise. –W.E.B. Dubois
CONVERSATIONS