Wednesday, December 14, 2011

SAT Words for Gas Money

The Teenager’s friend parks in front of my house and walks in without knocking. He says he’s been video chatting with my son but was dumped when The Teenager received a chat request from his girlfriend. “Not his Real Girlfriend,” says the friend. “That other girl who he pretends is his girlfriend.”

All of this made complete sense to me. I knew the friend was talking about a girl from the mid-west that The Teenager had met on his Alaska trip over the summer. What I didn’t know was who the Real Girlfriend was, so I start grilling the friend, naming names. I’m met with only a coy smile.

I name the girl that The Teenager made a pact to pierce his ear with. And the other girl he spends Sunday nights “studying” with at Café Eclectic, a local antidote to Starbucks, with couches and loud music and table service. I know he pays for her when they sit for hours writing papers. I’ve had to remind him that even though they only order coffee, he still has to leave a tip.

I get no information so I go back to folding the laundry on the dining room table.

The Teenager and his friend bounce from room to room, snacking, playing with electronics, preening in mirrors. They stop in to the dining room to complain about the high cost of gas, perhaps hoping I might take pity and throw them a twenty.

Later, when the laundry is done and I’m back at my computer, they infiltrate my tiny office and whine about how bored they are. I suggest going to a movie. They can’t find a good one, they say. “You can go grocery shopping for me,” I tell them. I’m unable to fathom how two teenage boys, each with a car at his disposal, can’t seem to find anything to do on a Friday night.

The Teenager is picking things up off my bookshelves and putting them back in the wrong places. His friend has discovered that if he pulls down on my office door while moving it open and closed, he can make it creak like the doors in horror movies.

They complain more about gas money and the fact that I don’t keep enough drinks chilling in the refrigerator and I shoo them out and try to go back to work.

I’m not sure what made me think of the SAT flash cards, but a quick succession of ideas assembled in my mind – a phenomenon that has become so rare it left me marveling that the process could still take place.

I stick my head into the TV room. “We’re going to play SAT Words For Gas Money,” I say, knowing that the phrase “Gas Money” would get their attention.

“What’s that?” asks the friend and I quickly explain how I would ask them SAT words and give them each a quarter for every word they can define. I get the flash cards and my bowl of change and set up at the living room coffee table. They sit on the couch facing me, ready for action.

In my usual fashion, I revise the rules before we begin. “Not a quarter, a nickel,” I say. I was afraid I would go broke.

They pooh-pooh a nickel and we settle on a dime per word. As it turned out, my fear was needless; they botched up one word after another – words that I was sure they would know.

The Teenager is scheduled to take his first SAT in six weeks and I really had no idea how grim the vocabulary situation was. I’m not talking about crazy-ass words, either. Comprehensive. Notoriety. Altruistic. Words that I use all the time in sentences. Sometimes even correctly.

“Nuance,” I say to them.

Blank stares, both.

“Teenager, I used this word the other day when we were talking during breakfast,” I say to His Blankness. “Do you even know what I’m saying when I talk to you?”

“Not usually,” he says.

Occasionally, they get a definition or synonym correct and I slide a dime across the table into their small piles. If their definition is not quite right but was in the ballpark, I give them a nickel. By the end of the round, they each have $1.75, barely enough to drive to the next town.

“One more, one more,” says The Teenager, determined to win a full $2.00.


I think, How cute that his favorite hangout came up as an SAT word.

However, The Teenager does not look amused. Worse, he looks resigned. He doesn’t seem like he’s even trying to figure out why his Sunday haunt might bear that name.

“No,” I tell him, scooping up the rest of my change and dumping it back into the bowl. “Eclectic, does not mean ‘Coffee and Tea.’”


  1. Yipes! How can this be? Especially in your household, where you and Scott speak and write exquisitely and care about words and meanings. I wonder how my boy who is almost 9 would do on the same test, or a similar one scaled down to his size.

  2. I'm afraid you may find your experience
    A. Frugal
    B. Acrid
    C. Daunting
    D. Bleak
    E. All of the Above

  3. "Not usually."

    I spit up laughing.

    Meanwhile a great idea - "Vocab for Allowance."