When Yom Kippur Prayers Don’t Help With Grieving by Judy Bolton-Fasman

My father was buried on the eve of Rosh Hashanah 2002 and the holiday began just a few surreal hours after I stood at his open grave. The shiva — the seven-day period of formal mourning — was cancelled to usher in the New Year. With a truncated shiva behind me, I debuted as a congregational mourner on Rosh Hashanah. It was the first time that I said the Mourner’s Kaddish. Arguably, the busiest day of the year in the synagogue, I stood up in front of 800 people to recite the Kaddish — effectively a love song to God whom I felt didn’t deserve my adoration.

The feminist, poet and liturgist Marcia Falk had a similar experience. In 1978, her father Abraham Abbey Falk died midway between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and her grieving was cut short by the advent of the Day of Atonement. After three days of shiva, Falk braced herself to mourn in a crowded synagogue. But the public face she tried to show faded away when she was confronted with the somber, terrifying words of the Un’taneh Tokef. The thousand year-old prayer, written by an unknown author in Northern Europe, is central to the Yom Kippur liturgy.

In a recent presentation at Brandeis University sponsored by the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute, Falk noted that her ambivalent relationship with the Un’taneh Tokef was the inspiration for her latest book, The Days Between: Blessings, Poems, And Directions of the Heart for the Jewish High Holiday Season.. “The Un’taneh Tokef” she said, “is a listing, a repentance. The message it conveyed to me, five days after losing my father, was that if he had been a pious, righteous and repentant man the decree would have been averted and he would not be dead. No one actually believed that, but nonetheless the words were hurtful and unhelpful.”

Falk described the experience of hearing the traditional Un’taneh Tokef as one that left her feeling “hollow” and then angry.

I remember feeling similarly distressed that the Yom Kippur liturgy did not address my grief. For Falk, though, it led her to her life’s work as a composer of a new Hebrew liturgy — a liturgy expressed in a gender-free, non-hierarchical language. In prose and poetry and prayer, Falk jettisoned the image of God as father, king and ruler and brought a more inclusive voice to wide attention in her opus The Book of Blessings: A New Prayer Book for the Weekdays, the Sabbath and the New Moon..

“The Days Between”, however, focuses on the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur traditionally known as the Yamim Noraim — the Days of Awe. Falk calls these days by a gentler name: the Aseret Y’mey T’shuvah, the Ten Days of Turning, or Returning. In keeping with that welcoming spirit, there is no image of God as a judge or executioner in these pages. God is a spirit, a force, a benevolent presence in the world. In her rendition of the Un’taneh Tokef, Falk reflects her belief that “our mortality is the core of a spiritual life.” Her interpretation of the prayer begins: “Our lives are stories/inscribed in time./At the turning of the year/we look back, look ahead, see/that we are always/in the days between.

I was most affected by Falk’s rendering of Yizkor, the service of remembrance. She transforms Yizkor from a communal, one-size-fits-all liturgy into something more personal and meaningful by renaming it Ezkor, “I recall.” The traditional liturgy asks God to remember the souls of our dead, but Falk recasts the service as a personal journey in which recollections of our dead are individuated. “’I Recall,’ writes Falk, “offers a way to mourn while acknowledging the fullness of one’s experience.”

There are parallels between traditional liturgy and Falk’s prayerful renditions. For example, in Falk’s Ezkor service, her poem “Beneath the Shekhinah’s Wings” corresponds with Psalm 23. The phrase tahat kan’fey hash’khinah (beneath the Shekhina’s wings) is from El Maley Rahamim, God of Compassion, the hymn customarily recited at funerals.

As I read through Falk’s prose poems and “re-visionings” of the High Holiday prayers, I realized that she has written a machzor, a High Holiday prayer book, for the 21st century that is nothing short of revolutionary. This machzor begins with the beautiful, simple idea of exalting the world around us rather than limiting ourselves to the traditional extolling of God’s name as we do in the Mourner’s Kaddish. In “The Days Between” Falk encourages us to confront our mortality while delving into the richness with which we commemorate our humanity.

A traditional translation of the Un’taneh Tokef

On Rosh Hashanah it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed.
How many will pass and how many will be created?
Who will live and who will die?
Who in their time, and who not their time?
Who by fire and who by water?
Who by sword and who by beast?
Who by hunger and who by thirst?
Who by earthquake and who by drowning?
Who by strangling and who by stoning?
Who will rest and who will wander?
Who will be safe and who will be torn?
Who will be calm and who will be tormented?
Who will become poor and who will get rich?
Who will be made humble and who will be raised up?
But teshuvah and tefillah and tzedakah (return and prayer and righteous acts)
deflect the evil of the decree.

This piece was originally published on the Sisterhood Blog of the Forward on September 30, 2014

Goodbye and Thank You to My Jewish Advocate Readers

Dear Anna and Adam:

Like all of the parenting columns I’ve written for The Jewish Advocate, this final one is dedicated to you. For eight years, with grace, humor and love, you have allowed me to chronicle you growing up. I’ve chosen to end my run as the Advocate’s parenting columnist because like you, I’ve aged out of the subject. I no longer do the hands-on parenting I once did. Anna, you are away for most of the year at college and Adam, you are on the cusp of leaving for school. And you drive! I’m no longer in a carpool – once a natural incubator for nurturing so many of these essays. Your conversations in the back seat inspired me to look further into issues like bullying, adolescent relationships and the general angst which your age group comes by naturally. But most importantly, your thoughts and ideas moved me to look deeper into my soul. Writing about you has led me to what Abraham Joshua Heschel calls moments of “radical amazement.” Simple moments like watching each of you walk into school when you were little.

Anna, I marvel at the young woman you have become. You epitomize wisdom and empathy. When I started writing this column you were 12 years old. These past eight years you became a bat mitzvah, you graduated from high school and you went to college. Attached to those milestones were other significant events, about which I promised you I would never write. That promise is forever. But I admire how you have negotiated relationships and academics with equal aplomb.

Adam, you are a gentleman and a scholar. When you’re around you won’t let me carry the groceries or bring in the pails. You’re as equally comfortable playing video games as you are discussing metaphors in “The Great Gatsby.” You are also the bravest person I know. You have always been forthright about who you are. I was never prouder of you than when you came out this year with such poise and dignity. But I also love that you’re still very much a kid.Nothing makes me happier than when you ask to come into my bedroom to read near me. It’s the best kind of parallel playing!

PuertoRico

I also take my leave of Advocate readers during the High Holiday season. As you might remember from your day school education, the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are called the Aseret Yemei Teshuvah, the ten days of repentance. Last year I did something a bit different to commemorate that time by participating in the 10Q Project. During those ten days, I answered an introspective series of daily emails from the folks at 10Q and Reboot, a Jewish cultural organization that seeks to reinvent and reimagine Jewish rituals and traditions. My answers were then locked in a virtual vault that will reopen three days before this coming Rosh Hashana. I thought it might be fun to answer a few of them here in relation to the parenting column and to you.

The first question was basic, expected, yet somehow hard to answer in the same way that writing this last column is turning out to be. “Describe a significant experience that has happened in the last year. How did it affect you? Are you grateful, relieved, resentful, inspired?” Among the significant experiences I’ve had with this column are invitations to talk to synagogue groups where – surprise – I talk about both of you! I’m so grateful to everyone who has followed my adventures in parenting. So grateful to people who have wished us well over the years. Without readers I’m just writing into a void. It thrills me that you and I are in the hearts of so many people.

Some of the 10Q questions went outside personal experience to “describe an event in the world that has impacted you this year. How? Why?” We talked a lot about the world, particularly about Israel, this past summer. Anna,you worried about how you would make the case for Israel on a college campus. Adam, you grappled with the events in Ferguson. As a family, we said Baruch Dayan Emet (words that are uttered upon hearing about a death) – God is the true judge – too many times in the past few months. You are young adults now with strong opinions of your own. My actions no longer make as deep an impression on you.You must decide for yourselves if God is the true judge or if you even believe in God.

But it was the 10Q question about the future that made me both anxious and hopeful. “Describe one thing you’d like to achieve by this time next year. Why is this important to you?” It’s time for me to take the energy that I’ve put into this column into other projects and causes that are equally dear to me.

But mostly, when I think about the future I think about both of you. I pray for all of us to be healthy, creative and productive. I now realize that has always been the subtext of my columns about the two of you. Everything I do, I do with you in mind. You are my muses. You are the loves of my life. And I thank God every moment of every day for you.

All My Love,

Mom

Lasts and Firsts by Judy Bolton-Fasman

Welcome to the 2014-2015 school year.

Senior year has finally arrived in our house. Ever since Adam entered his preparatory school, we’ve been counting backwards from Class VI. And now here we are among the parents and members of Class I. For Adam and us, his parents, it will be a year of lasts and firsts. This will be the last time I launch a child of mine into the school year from our home. The next stop is college. This will be the last time I attend a back-to-school night; I won’t meet his professors in college. This will be the last year I cheer from the sidelines during one of Adam’s cross-country races. He probably won’t be running competitively in college.

But it will also be a year of firsts for Adam. Most notably he’ll be going through the arduous process of applying to colleges. We’ve done the prerequisite legwork of the college applicant, dutifully making our way to look at schools. There’s no clear favorite, although parents and child have their opinions. Having gone through this before, I try very hard to keep my opinions to myself. I work on remembering that this is Adam’s life and that I must wholeheartedly support him much the same way I do during a running meet.

Grace—I think that will be the watchword to which I return over and over this year. The grace to understand that, perhaps for the first time in his young life, Adam must have significant control over his decisions. The grace to appreciate the decisions he makes. The grace to accept those decisions. Grace is an odd word for a Jewish parent. Ask a Jew if grace is an overtly Jewish concept and the answer is most likely no. But in Judaism, the idea of grace is bound up in G-d’s infinite mercy. Rabbi Rami Shapiro who wrote a book on the subject of grace in Judaism notes that grace encompasses, “G-d’s unlimited, unconditional, unconditioned, and all-inclusive love for all creation.”

I’m surprised that my thoughts have turned to G-d in this essay. What does G-d have to do with the college process—G-d who has bigger and more important issues to which to attend. But I must confess that I saw flashes of G-d’s grace in the required autobiographical essay that Adam wrote for his college counselor. Note this is not the common application essay—the autobiographical essay was strictly written as informational for the people writing his school and teacher recommendations. And yet, it was profoundly eye-opening for me.

I knew that Adam and Anna got along well—in fact I have often marveled over how close they are. They are, in many respects, best friends. But this was driven home for me when Adam’s essay described the way Anna influenced many of his decisions ranging from playing soccer and singing in the school choir, to the way she treats people. As the older sibling, Anna has had a profound influence on Adam’s derech eretz—literally, the ethics that he holds dear in life. He wrote, “My sister showed me that it is sometimes more important to listen to your friends than talk. She was nice to me and in turn encouraged me to be nice as well. She taught me how to retort with wit, how to lose with grace and how to generally function as a person. She taught me how to be a confidant, by placing her trust in me, and in turn never told my secrets. “

After reading Adam’s words about Anna I thought, yes, Ken and I have done our jobs as parents. As I read on, I was buoyed by Adam’s descriptions of his late night talks with Ken about science. “My father and I had this tradition when I was younger,” Adam writes. “He would sit in the rocking chair in my room and talk about science with me. He would entertain my questions about space and anatomy, which I used to think were the only important parts of science. He fostered in me a scientific curiosity that remains to this day. I credit him with my infatuation with all things scientific. He encouraged me to always ask questions and to learn what was really going on around me.”

I think I was most surprised about Adam’s observations of me. It did not escape Adam’s notice that I have a difficult relationship with my mother. But he lauded me for sticking with her and doing my best to make her comfortable and happy. I was touched that, as young as he is, he appreciated that, “my mother never told me to distance myself from my grandmother. She told me to always love her and respect her. She taught me how to be patient.”

Adam’s essay reflects the best of lasts and firsts. Through his observations, I understood that this may be one of the last times that his parents have such a primary influence on his life, But it’s also a first—the first time that I recognized my son had the grace and empathy of the adult I hoped he would become.

 

A Father’s Day Prayer by Judy Bolton-Fasman

The Amidah is so named because it is literally the standing prayer. As nineteen blessings unfurl during its recitation, one must stand perfectly still in the hope of connecting to G-d. I fondly remember the Amidah as my first sustained reading of Hebrew. I came to Hebrew later than my peers in Day School and so I read haltingly my first year there. The Amidah’s centrality and its inherent repetition—it’s said morning, noon and night—made it the perfect vehicle to ride towards fluency. The choreography of the Amidah appealed to me too—there are cues for bowing and for pounding the chest in repentance. In one variation or another the Amidah is the core of Jewish liturgy. And it begins by invoking the old guard at the outset:

Blessed are you Lord our G-d; G-d of our ancestors. G-d of Abraham, G-d of Isaac, G-d of Jacob, G-d of Sarah, G-d of Rebekah, G-d of Rachel and G-d of Leah.

What a group to take along on a search for G-d. Maybe the rabbis were on to something when they drew up this list (although the ancient mothers were originally omitted). These names form a canopy of memory over me much like the tent of Abraham and Sarah—the same tent that is the model on which the marriage canopy or huppah is based.

Abraham and Sarah’s tent was open on all sides—as exposed to the elements as it was to G-d’s will. On Father’s Day I will step into Abraham and Sarah’s metaphorical tent—buffeted by the winds of fate—fate that sometimes makes no sense to me. Or worse, makes me despair.

The Dads, the grandfathers in our family—the old guard—died in the early 2000s. This makes Father’s Day both sad and joyful as we memorialize them and celebrate their wonderful son and son-law. So here we are, Ken and I, one step closer to becoming the family elders—the old guard ourselves.

Dennis Fasman & granddaughter Anna

Dennis Fasman & granddaughter Anna

The traditional Jewish image that I think of when merging joy and sadness is a wedding. Hasidic folklore says that weddings are haunted because both the dead and the living dance together. The new fangled image for that maxim is the wedding video where there are so many of my dead who are alive on that tape (yes I got married in the era of VHS), dancing around Ken and me. It breaks my heart to watch it and so I haven’t in many years. But here is what I would see again: My father-in-law Dennis spiffy in his tux, his smile illuminating the tape brighter than the lights the videographer lugged around. Dennis, whom I called Dad too, died much too young of a brain tumor. In nine months he was gone and the world felt more precarious to me with his passing.

Our wedding video also features my father who was just beginning to decline from Parkinson’s disease. He and I shuffle down the aisle towards stairs leading to the huppah. It was only after viewing the video that I noticed Ken extended an arm to help my Dad up those steps. But that’s not the father that comes into my mind when I remember him. My dad had several incarnations. One of my favorite pictures of him is from the Second World War. He was a young ensign—twenty-two years-old and recruited into the navy as a Ninety-Day Wonder straight out of college. Ninety-Day Wonders were fast-tracked to become officers in just three months. That was my father—a wonder unto himself. A man who could learn anything quickly and completely.

Harold Bolton circa 1942

Harold Bolton circa 1942

Then there is the father who had all three of us children in his forties. Throughout my childhood I never noticed that my athletic, handsome father was so much older than my friends’ dads. He was the dad who took brisk walks to do errands a couple of miles away. He put his patriotism on display at every holiday that called for a flag by leading us around the house to the beat of a John Philip Sousa march. He mailed me birthday cards as sweet as the cereals he forbade me to eat.

When I had just crossed over into adulthood there was the Dad who wrote me letters. He penned his advice in neat primer-school ink, placing his missives in envelopes in which he used blue ink for his return address, green ink for me the addressee, and red ink for the return address again, this time on the flap of the envelope. And then there was my Dad in his old age, frightened and confused, after he was stopped for driving over the median. The police officer didn’t have the heart to write him a ticket. He called my mother instead to tell her that he had no choice but to revoke Dad’s license.

Somewhere between the Amidah’s blessings for understanding and salvation comes an invocation for health to “remove from us all suffering and grief.” I don’t expect that to happen especially when I think of my dads. After all, everyone is vulnerable in Abraham and Sarah’s tent. But I do pray that G-d sustains us in memory and love on Father’s Day and everyday.

 

 

Advice from a Jewish Mother on Marrying THE ONE by Judy Bolton-Fasman

I’ve been thinking lately about a line in the blessing for every bar or bat mitzvah at my temple, which declares, “And may your proud parents be with you when, in your own time, you stand under the huppah with your beloved.”

The power of that sentiment rests with the key words, “in your own time.” On the face of it, the message is that we’re not rushing our children to marry. But when I dig a little deeper for the subtext of that phrase, I find how crucial marriage is in Jewish life and to Jewish continuity. Its import is such that we begin to remind our children about it on the cusp of puberty.

According to the rabbis and Susan Patton, timing is everything in the marriage arena. Who is Susan Patton? She’s the Jewish mother of two young men and “the Princeton Mom” who wrote a letter to the undergraduate women of her alma mater a couple of years ago, encouraging them to be actively looking for husbands while still in college. Patton’s letter, published in the Daily Princetonian, went viral and according to her new book, Marry Smart: Advice for Finding THE ONE,” it garnered over a 100 million hits on the Internet. From there it was a quick jump to the morning shows and then on to expanding her thesis into a 200-page book.

w-susan-patton-marry-smart-031914.jpgIt’s easy to criticize Patton. She writes in rhythm to women’s “ticking biological clocks,” which she mentions early and often in her book. She tells young women—women just entering college—to think seriously about their life plan if they want to have children. To be smart at 20 is to realize that in 15 short years marriage prospects and fertility are severely diminished.

Whether it’s true or not, Patton makes me want to scream, “Slow down lady!” She writes that, “It’s never too early to start planning for your personal happiness and looking for a husband who will respect you.”

Patton admits that her book is highly anecdotal—a forum really for her blunt instructions on how women can avoid ending up childless and sad in their thirties. Although she acknowledges that her methods are not for every woman, she blithely assumes that ever woman’s happiness is predicated on having a husband and children.

Patton’s advice not only seems plucked from a different era, it’s sexist for the way she puts the onus on women to hunt for mates in college as intensely as she-lions scour the jungle for food. Yet for marriage-minded young women, Patton makes sense to some degree. During the college years there is a ready-to-date collection of age-appropriate men who are intellectual and social equals. Where things get ugly is when Patton tells a young woman she’ll never look better than she does when she’s 20. And if she’s not looking her best she might endeavor to do so with the help of plastic surgery or a serious makeover. But chip away at some of Patton’s ludicrous and sometimes offensive layers of advice on how to reel in a man and I think you have a well-meaning, albeit misguided Jewish mother.

When I walked down the aisle at the age of 30, I knew that I had won the marital lottery. And it’s true that when I looked around at my reception, I saw that a good number of my 30-something girlfriends—gorgeous, smart, talented women who wanted to marry—still hadn’t found their besheirt, their destiny. Over the past couple of decades some have fallen in love and married, some have taken matters into their own hands and become single mothers and some have abandoned their dream altogether of having a family.

At my engagement party, one of my friends asked me “How did you know Ken had the potential to be so adorable?” It only took a good haircut and a trip to the optician to spiff up my handsome groom. Patton would call him a diamond in the rough. Maybe so. But he wasn’t very hard to spot when I was 29.

I probably could have skipped some of the adventures I had in my early 20s. But without those formative experiences would I have been ready for an amazing man like my husband? I can’t answer that with any certainty. Will I sit my own daughter down and tell her that 75% of her time on campus should be spent actively looking for a husband? I don’t think so. But I will echo some of Patton’s advice on our hooking-up culture and the emotional fall-out from meaningless sex. I won’t put it in the same irritating terms as Patton does when she invokes the old chestnut of why buy the cow when she’s giving away the milk for free. Our daughters are not cows.

The big takeaway from Patton’s bluster is that young women should not be afraid or bullied into thinking that wanting marriage and a family is a second-class alternative. What is shameful is not honoring all of the choices that women make for their happiness.

And yes, God willing, I do look forward to being a proud mama under the huppah.

 

A Father’s Pain: Andrew Solomon’s Interview with Peter Lanza by Judy Bolton-Fasman

On Dec. 14, 2012, 20-yearold Adam Lanza entered an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., and gunned down 20 children and six school workers. He had also committed matricide before he turned the gun on himself.

Although 28 people died that day in Connecticut, 26 is the symbolic number etched on every memorial commemorating the tragedy. It’s the number of times church bells tolled in its aftermath. It’s the number of stars affixed to the roof of the local firehouse. And it’s the number that President Barack Obama invoked on the first anniversary of the shootings.

After reading Andrew Solomon’s powerful interview with Peter Lanza – Adam’s father – in a recent issue of The New Yorker, there is no question in my mind that Lanza commemorates the number of victims at 26. “You can’t mourn for the little boy [Adam] once was. You can’t fool yourself,” he told Solomon.

It’s fitting that Lanza broke his media silence with Solomon who, among his many journalistic and literary accomplishments, has championed the joys and difficulties of parenthood. Last year I wrote about Solomon’s book “Far From the Tree” for this column. The book was an 11-year undertaking in which Solomon vividly portrayed children who were born or grew up in ways that their parents never expected. It included a chapter about parents whose children became criminals, focusing on the parents of Dylan Klebold. Klebold, along with his friend Eric Harris, killed 13 fellow students at Colorado’s Columbine High School in 1999.

Solomon’s portrayal of the Klebolds impressed Peter Lanza as fair and just, and when he was ready to talk, he reached out to Solomon. Lanza’s confidence in Solomon is well placed. Although the latter’s carefully reported piece directs a reader’s attention to the fact that things were amiss with Adam Lanza from an early age, he resists the temptation to regard Adam’s deterioration as foreshadowing the horror to come. Solomon further notes that the state’s attorney report found that the mental health professionals who treated Adam throughout his teen years did not predict his future criminal behavior. What strikes me in reading Solomon’s article is how hard Peter and Nancy Lanza tried to save their son, and how dangerous parenthood becomes when a child is as far gone as Adam was.

Adam’s anti-social behavior escalated in middle school and he was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome when he was 13. To be clear, Peter Lanza vehemently objects to any speculation that Asperger’s factored into Adam committing mass murder. “Asperger’s,” he told Solomon, “makes people unusual, but it doesn’t make them like this.”

Solomon similarly goes to great lengths to document that Asperger’s was not connected to Adam’s murderous rampage. “Violence by autistic people,” he explains, “is more commonly reactive than planned – triggered, for example, by an invasion of personal space. Studies of people with autism who have committed crimes suggest that at least half also suffer from an additional condition – from psychosis, in about 25 percent of cases.”

Among the other rumors swirling around the Lanzas was that Peter was an absent father. Nancy and Peter Lanza separated in 2003, when Adam was 9, and divorced in 2009. According to Solomon, the Lanzas were amicable when it came to Adam and his older brother. Peter saw his sons every weekend and, as four binders of printouts of emails from 2007 and 2008 suggest, was in constant contact with Nancy about Adam’s worsening condition.

Media reports noted that Nancy and Adam regularly went to the shooting range. Peter Lanza doesn’t overtly comment on the role that Nancy’s guns played in Adam’s psyche. Nor does he blame her, the custodial parent on the front lines, for Adam’s crimes. In that same forgiving spirit, Solomon observes that Adam overwhelmed Nancy and that her instinct was to indulge him.

“All parenting,” Solomon writes, “involves choosing between the day (why have another argument at dinner?) and the years (the child must learn to eat vegetables). Nancy’s errors seem to have been that she always focused on the day in a ceaseless quest to keep peace in the home she shared with the hypersensitive, controlling, increasingly hostile stranger who was her son.”

In the wake of the shootings, Peter Lanza has met with two of the victims’ families. But as Solomon reports, “The only reason that Peter was talking to anyone, including me, was to share information that might help other families or prevent another such event.” For his part, Peter says, “I want people to be afraid that this could happen to them.’”

No matter how vigorously Peter Lanza has looked for answers, there is only one chilling conclusion that he comes to: he wishes that his son had never been born. For the rest of us, we’re left wondering what we as parents would do if we were confronted with a child like Adam Lanza. There is no definitive explanation for what Adam did even as scientists analyze his DNA – just a haunting feeling that a parent’s responsibility can be both awe-inspiring and terrifying.

 

The New SAT by Judy Bolton-Fasman

When Adam saw the cover story of the New York Times Sunday Magazine a couple of weeks ago, he groaned, “Too late for me.” The headline that upset him, “The Story of the SAT Overhaul,” announced that a new version of the SAT was coming out in the spring of 2016.

Adam had just come off of taking the nearly four-hour exam the day before and he was not a happy camper. Ask Adam what he thinks of the SAT and he’ll happily give you an earful on the subject. “The SAT is quite possibly the worst way to gauge a student’s ability to perform at a college level,” he says. “The vocabulary is unnecessarily obscure, the reading analysis asks the most random questions, the writing section indoctrinates students to lose all sense of creativity and style and the essay is judging a student’s ability to write in a time limit not suitable for a well constructed paragraph.”

SAT
Of course, that’s one kid’s opinion, but I suspect many of his peers share it as well. It appears that the College Board has been listening too. For the second time in ten years the Board is thoroughly revising the way it tests college applicants. According to David Coleman, who took over as head of the College Board in 2012, the changes will go far in democratizing the test for all students.

In effect, Coleman is acknowledging the SAT’s dirty, open secret – families with access to wealth, education, a good school or all three have an unfair advantage when preparing for the test. The new SAT will be more aligned with what a college-bound senior should have learned in a common core curriculum. Before coming to the College Board, Coleman was a key figure in the development of the Common Core Standards. Those standards, with their emphasis on analytical thinking as well as key math and writing concepts, will be reflected in the new SAT. As it stands now, Coleman acknowledges the test is “disconnected” from the high school curriculum.

Some of Adam’s criticisms have been dealt with in the test that will be administered in 2016. The section that is currently labeled critical reading will merge with multiple choice writing questions from to form a new section called “evidence-based reading and writing.” Thankfully, current questions known as “sentence completion” will be jettisoned, addressing Adam’s complaint about defining “unnecessarily obscure” vocabulary.

The College Board will include more science, history and social studies questions for further analysis on the exam. New among those passages will be source documents from American luminaries like Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr.

The math section will focus more on data analysis, problem solving, algebra and topics touching on more advanced mathematics. As it stands now, calculators are allowed throughout the math sections, but they will be barred from certain portions in the future to determine math fluency.

The mandatory essay, an innovation of the 2005 SAT, will be optional in the future. Students will now have 50 minutes to analyze evidence as well as an author’s argument. Currently, test-takers have only 25 minutes to answer a prompt that doesn’t require them to verify facts or worry about accuracy.

The change that I am most excited about in this whole SAT business is that it has the potential to level the playing field when it comes to test preparation. Gaming the SAT is a $4.5 billion-a-year industry that preys on parents and kids alike. To end this madness (and yes, my kids took prep courses, so I got caught up in the frenzy too), Coleman has partnered with Khan Academy, which offers free online tutorials on myriad subjects ranging from literature to calculus.The academy was founded in 2006 by Sal Khan, 36, who left his job as a successful hedge-fund manager with the goal of bringing a world-class education to anyone with an internet connection. With that same can-do, egalitarian spirit, Khan Academy will offer its trademark free videos on preparing for the new SAT.

The new SAT will also hopefully make books like the newly published, The Perfect Score Project: Uncovering the Secrets of the SAT by Debbie Stier feel anachronistic. Stier is a suburban New York mom who decided that the only way to gain admission and win a scholarship to college for her B average son was to help him achieve a perfect 2400 on the current SAT. Thirty years earlier, Stier had done poorly on her own SAT exam, so in her quest to beef up her son’s academic profile she took the SAT as an adult – seven times in seven different test centers. She went to tutoring companies, engaged pricey private teachers and generally drove herself nuts. She didn’t achieve a perfect score – her verbal scores steadily improved but she never scored more than the mid-500s in math – but she learned a thing or two about the unfairness of the system along the way.

As for Adam, he says that SAT has too much power in teenagers’ lives. He’s doubtful whether a new version can come close to reigning in that power. He may be right. Yet after all is said and done, most college admissions officers note that grades, not SAT scores, are the best predictors of success in college.