In traditional Jewish prayer books, you will find sentences written in tiny print just above certain prayers. Directing the worshipper’s heart towards focused prayer, these meditative warm-ups are known as “Kavvanote,” meaning “intentions” in Hebrew. Over the centuries, rabbis acknowledged that effective worship demands intentionality, direction, and a sense of purpose. Ritual acts and commandments can also be preceded by the recitation of “Kavvanote,” statements that focus the mind of a person who fulfills a religious responsibility. The prayers and actions may be for the benefit of God or the community, but the Kavvanah – the statement of intention – allows the person completing the action to consider the motivating factors that lead to meaning and goodness.
As my 16-year-old daughter settles into the second half of her junior year of high school, a slew of standardized exams: ACTs, SAT Subject Tests, and Advanced Placement tests awaits her. The “ACT” looms over her head like a perpetual gray cloud. “SAT” subject tests and “AP” exams will flood her springtime with studying and tension.
Although my practical, no-nonsense daughter is not the type of person to utter a prayer before embarking on a four-hour test, I hope that she will take a moment to read this meditation before she sharpens her number two pencils and fills out her first bubble.
May my mind be clear as I solve the math problems, decipher complicated reading passages, and answer the questions set in front of me. May I understand that this test does not grade my spirit or my worthiness as a member of the human family. Whatever score I earn on the AP Chemistry Exam, if I am fortunate and can pull myself out of bed in time, I can witness the sun rise tomorrow in all of its pink and golden melted splendor. Whether or not I earn a 36 on the ACT, I can still foster my academic curiosity and make a second home for myself at many of the thousands of universities in the United States.
My answers on these tests will never reveal the way I refused to leave my little brother’s side after he returned home from the hospital after an operation. My responses on this test do not ensure that I will be a careful, considerate driver who will always use my indicator lights and remember to peek out on the left side one more time just before making a right turn. My answers on this test do not demonstrate whether or not I will allow myself to lose control of my faculties at parties in college and put my body and soul in harm’s way.
My answers on this test will never display to an admissions committee the disarming effect I have on small children and animals, who respond to my gentle voice and smile as if I were Walt Disney’s own model for Cinderella. When an admissions committee scrutinizes these scores, they will not see the extent of my hidden skills with babysitting, directing craft projects such as constructing lanyards with diamond, square, and spiral braids with an occasional pony bead for added enchantment.
My scores on this test will never show the supreme glee with which I approach a Rossini clarinet piece or hint at the graceful speed of my fingers on the keys of my instrument. My scores will not reveal that I show up for band practice every single day and assist the ninth graders, who test my patience with their refusal to read key signatures or count in 6/8.
A perfect score will not make me a better person, give me clearer skin, or grant me the common sense to go to a doctor if a sore throat lasts for too long. A perfect score will not help me intuit when a friend needs some tough advice or just a good hug. A perfect score will not make me more lovable or worthy of giving love.
A perfect score will not protect me from disappointments with the grade on my first college paper when the professor writes that it “smells like high school.” A perfect score will not help me know how to handle an awkward romantic situation with grace, compassion, and self-respect.
A perfect score will not reveal how I was the only person in the family permitted to gently pull my brother’s loose tooth with the razor sharp edge digging into his bleeding gum, or how I attend to all of the first-aid crises in our home in spite of the fact that my dad is a physician.
I understand that some people will read and comprehend faster, compute more efficiently, and breeze through these exams. I hope that these students will use their gifts to further scientific and medical research, improve the world through art, music, and literature, safeguard liberties through rigorous legal arguments, and solve the problems of global climate change, deforestation, droughts, floods, totalitarian and repressive political regimes, antibiotic resistance, and nuclear weapon proliferation.
People who could have used an extra half an hour on this test to achieve a similar score are no less capable of making meaningful contributions to Planet Earth.
Help me to retrain my tendency to dig in and not move forward until I arrive at every right answer. When the most difficult questions appear in the middle of the test, let me gather the self-control to move forward and then circle back to the tougher questions.
May I find wisdom in this process of evaluation and judgment, and help me, my family, and friends not lose their humor and sense of perspective. May I harness the energy of studying, preparing, and taking these tests for the sake of righting this world and not just filling it with right answers.
If not on the ACTs, may I achieve 36s as life scores, and bring intention and care to all of the challenges I will face.
Each new experience and tradition we shared with one another went off without a hitch. In fact, we soon learned our differences as a Jewish man and a Irish Catholic woman actually helped to bring us closer.