Complete the Sentence



My son comes home with a worksheet from this week’s spelling practice.

Directions: Look at this week’s spelling words in the box below. Then, write a spelling word to complete each sentence.

roast    going   both     float     grow
loaf      cold     bowl    throw   soap

The choices begin like this:

  1. Do you think the pen will sink or ________?
  2. We baked a fresh _______ for dinner.

We baked a fresh bowl for dinner?, I wonder. Do you think the pen will sink or grow? Do you think a pen will sink or throw? Sure. This could be a very delightful exercise (for poets), I think to myself.

My daughter explains that you just guess what they want you to put. You just try to think of what your teacher would do, she says, and you do that.

Her brother has gotten two wrong. They are numbers four and eight, which he has transposed:

Mom will make her pot _cold_ on Saturday.
The wind made the weather feel roast__.

Yes, I think. Mom will make her pot cold on Saturday. It has been warm from tea all week; on Saturday, she will wash it and put it away. Or maybe her cold outdoor pots have been full of ferns she needs to move indoors. Warm wind does make the weather feel quite roast.

“What’s roast?” my son asks.

It means hot, we explain. Or, I say, pot roast is a cooked meat, in a crock pot.

“Ew,” says my son. He does not eat meat, and perhaps not uncoincidentally has never had—nor seen, nor heard of—pot roast. I have never made it. I have not made it on Saturday, and I have not made it any other day. I see the problem. This question had no cultural context for him, as it would have no cultural context for any child who had never heard of a pot roast, or who doesn’t use shampoo and soap when they shower, or who doesn’t bake a fresh loaf for dinner, or who doesn’t eat a bowl of cereal before school. This test has quite a bit of cognitive dissonance for those children, I explain to my son and daughter. It’s a problem of cultural literacy.

“We know,” says my daughter. “When you were a child, this would have been confusing to you.”

“No,” I say, “I read, and I understood prediction, so I imagined what they would want, like you do, and then I would answer based on context clues.”

“Like on the SAT,” says their father.

“What’s the SAT,” says our daughter.

“It’s a test, not for your mom.”

“But I did okay.”

“Yes, she did okay, because she could guess. She did a little better than me,” he says. “But she should have done a lot better—she’s smarter. It’s just that the test was made more for me. I had taken Latin.”

“What are the questions like?” our daughter asks.

Her father thinks. “Like this: A branch is to a tree, as a chair is to a  . . .

Me: “Oh! I know this one! As a child, I would have thought a) barn, or b) furniture store. But the answer is c) living room!

“No,” says my daughter, age 10. “It’s table.

My husband gives me the pity look. “ . . . Yeah, table. It’s table, Maya.”

“Oh,” I say, quietly. “I thought it was living room. I thought that would be right. I didn’t even think of table.”

“See,” my husband says to our children. “The test wasn’t made for your mom.”

He means, it wasn’t made for someone who grew up in a culture-of-poverty-slash-off-grid-rural life, existing within the paradigm of my father’s half-German-immigrant-limited-socioeconomic-resources worldview. He means the test wasn’t made for someone with my formative language register, my lack of mainstream awareness.

“But,” I say, wanting to give our children something they could feel good about, “our family would do very well on Family Feud. We know how to help each other,” I say. “We know how to work together.”

“No,” says my husband. “You’re not the demographic for that, either. You have no idea how to imagine America.”


My friend Ellie tells me later, It’s dining set. She was raised outside of Boston.


I look at a practice SAT question from the internet. It goes like this:

Directions: In the following question, a related pair of words or phrases is followed by five pairs of words or phrases. Choose the pair that best expresses a relationship similar to that in the original pair


hunger : thirst
etiquette : discipline
law : anarchy
love : treason
stimulant : sensitivity

I hold two degrees from reputable institutions of higher learning. Both of them are related to the English language and its usage. I do not initially see the clear answer to this practice question. I reason it out: medicine heals illness. Which of the other word pairs is about healing?

Hunger heals thirst?

When I was gone from the house for long periods of time—in the forest, along the river, or hauling hay from a neighbor’s field— and getting hungry, I had a few tactics: drink more water. Eat what’s edible in season: salmonberries, thimbleberries, blackberries, huckleberries. If nothing’s in season, chew a grass stem, drink the nectar from a clover. Do a bee dance. Pretend it’s not raining. Huddle in the barn and write a story in your head: We’re children who somehow lost their parents! (Our books from the library had taught us the rules of YA lit.) Outside, the staccato pings on the barn’s roof the same rhythm as flitting trout in the shallows. Walk in the rain and pretend you’re a fish. The air carrying the waft of cow manure off the field-fog. My hems mud soaked and frayed. I could strip off these clothes and hang them by the woodstove, heat water, drink more tea. We usually had eggs from the chickens and salmon from the river. If we didn’t, we would again soon. Walk in the rain and pretend you’re a fish. Go in the house and get dry clothes. What was I thirsty for? What hunger could possibly heal it?

Etiquette heals discipline?

I’d read of etiquette in books. I knew curtsy, please, thank you, cross your legs, fold your hands in your lap, don’t interrupt your father. Etiquette involved Don’t tell your classmates your father smokes pot. Involved Be quiet when he speaks. It involved a lot of being quiet. At my request—my begging, actually, because I’d heard of but never experienced church—my mother took me to mass once when I was five. It involved a lot of kneeling and very beautiful stained glass windows, and a man who droned and people in robes who sang. It involved leaving before the priest could ask my mother where she’d been for the last seven years. Discipline was making the bed. Was staying in the van while our parents re-covered billiards tables in taverns in strange towns. Was completing the chore list. Saturday mornings we had to do all of it before we could scamper into the woods, field, barn. Before we could go down to the river, the grasses bending like penitents, the religion of currents, the gray sky that smelled of rain. No manner of pleasing or thanking or curtsying got you out of chopping kindling or making bread. Don’t share the bread; we have only so much bread. What was the difference between discipline and etiquette? Both felt like something you did because someone expected it.

Law heals anarchy?


I’m fourteen.

I need a ride home from sportspracticeafterschoolclubASBFutureBusinessLeadersofAmerica. I want to go to college and I do all the things I think they’d recommend. Except for music, for which you must rent an un-affordable instrument, all the things happen after school. I need a ride home. My mother says I can’t pick you up; your father can’t pick you up. You’ll have to ask a friend. Asking a friend is not possible; no one lives where we live. Don’t ask the coach/advisor/teacher. They can’t know too much or they’ll get nosy. I decide it’s best to quit the sportafterschoolclubASBFBLA.

My father was more than once arrested and spent a night in jail for driving under the influence. My mother tells the story like this: My father was driving home from work. He had had maybe one beer (this is an understatement, and she also leaves out the fact of the one open in the middle console). Behind him, a cop pulled up too close, shining his lights in my father’s rearview mirror. Unable to see, my father swerved. Pulled over, he refused to take a breathalyzer (Who knows whose mouth has been on that thing? my mother says, how she says We don’t eat that garbage, referring to foodbankwhitebread foodbankVelveetacheese foodbankdonuts foodbankFranzcookies). They threw him in jail! Can you believe that? For shining their lights in his mirror! She slams the rolling pin against the dough. The bread dents and slowly reforms to its shape, with only a small incline in its yeasty surface. A little rolling pin to the dough doesn’t stop it. It knows how to bounce back.

After a night in jail, my father, nervous but undeterred, cuts back on drinking, grows more marijuana under the bright light in the closet. He keeps railing against the establishment.

He never completed his court requirements after the last time he was caught. Complete the sentence: He drives now without a license.

Complete the sentence: My father, made of anarchy, was never healed by law.

I know this, law heals anarchy, is the answer they want; I know too it isn’t true.


My high school —I changed high schools three times; I mean here my last one, the one I attended the latter half of junior and the end of senior year— did not have “advanced” or “college placement” courses; there were only 17 of us in my grade. So I learned whatever the majority of my peers needed to learn. I was often academically bored, and serving as an unofficial TA, helping classmates meet standards, though there were plenty of cultural things they understood, that I did not—things cable television taught them, or participating in normative American traditions taught them. For instance, my peers knew they’d attend college, or community college, or go straight to working in the forest, cutting down trees with their fathers. And they seemed to know the steps to achieving these outcomes. I remember asking my math teacher what skills we hadn’t covered that might be on the SAT. His brow furrowed and his neck turned red. I asked if I could skip the next test and just read ahead, because next week, I’d be taking the SAT. I wanted to be sure I was at least aware of the functions, even if I didn’t know how to do them. If I knew the formulas, maybe I’d perform okay. He let me skip class and sit in the cafeteria in order to read ahead in the textbook. He said he was sorry he didn’t have time to teach me himself. He said Good luck. He said Don’t worry about the verbal; you’re going to do great.

I had to save a long time at my Sunday and two-evenings-a-week job as a courtesy clerk at the small, local market, to afford the SAT. After taxes, my $4.90/hour shrunk to about 3/hour, so my paychecks for the 10 hours of work I managed after school, studying, and extracurriculars—some because I enjoyed them; some to get into college—totaled about $63 for two weeks’ wages, before deductions for the groceries I brought home. Sometimes my mother called and said Maya, can you bring home milk (- 4.99), Maya, can you just pick up some green peppers (- 2.50), Maya, just some flour (- 3.29). My paychecks were often less than $50. It was 1996, and I was determinedly saving for college, but I also had bills: running shoes, sports bra, work shirt, college applications, senior pictures, prom dress, SAT. I was able to catch a ride to take the test (an hour away) with a kind boy who had a crush on me. I didn’t study or complete a prep class—I didn’t know people did that. I took the test only once. My score: 640 verbal, 630 math. Good enough to get into college. I crossed my fingers and applied to one university—the most realistic of the ones I wanted to attend.


I call in my ten-year-old daughter to check my work. I show her the original question.

She scans, then says: “medicine fixes illness. One of these fixes the other. What’s anarchy?”

“Chaos,” I say. “Or lawlessness.”

“Okay,” she says, quickly, “That’s the answer.”

How can she be so sure?

I repeat this anecdote to my husband.

“You must have done something right when you were pregnant with her,” he says. “She doesn’t get that from me.”

“I ate a lot of things from the garden and went to the library,” I say, laughing. “Just like when I was growing up.”


Between haying, babysitting, hoarding my $5/year birthday money from my grandmother in Iowa, and the job at the grocery store, I managed to save $2000 for college. I applied for scholarships and the FAFSA and I was lucky in that my parents made so little money that I qualified for the lowest-interest loans. That first year, I didn’t take the loans. I was terrified of debt, terrified it would bring me back.


SAT/ Verbal/ Analogy

Directions: In the following question, a related pair of words or phrases is followed by five pairs of words or phrases. Choose the pair that best expresses a relationship similar to that in the original pair.


daughter : certainty
mud : hem
Maya’s Dad : DUI
darn : sock
casual debt : middle class


It takes very little research to uncover the ways that the SAT—and other tests like it— privilege specific socioeconomic groups, races, and genders.

America is systemically set up for white people, even rural white people, to overcome many obstacles. So the SAT, despite being a cultural literacy to which I did not have access, was a cultural literacy for which I could nevertheless determine the route to success, even with a library open only a few days a week (and to which I didn’t even have to ride my bicycle—my mother was a huge fan of libraries; not all rural youth have this advantage). And, despite my limited resources, I was allowed to pursue something like independent study—my teacher sent me to the empty cafeteria with my textbook and trusted that’s what I’d be doing, unsupervised, though it was technically his neck on the line for leaving me unsupervised.

I’m curious: how many people, raised in working class rural America, understand enough about the process to succeed on SATs, obtain a BA, and then go on to earn an advanced degree? And what are these people’s scores like?


My friend Laura deflects when I ask her to talk about the SAT prep course she took in high school. She tells me instead to write about my childhood. But I’m stubborn (one of the qualities that helped me “succeed”), so I ask her son—a student reference librarian at Reed College, who scored a perfect 1600 on the SAT—to help me figure out how to research the narrative experiences of those who grew up in rural poverty, did not study for the SAT, and somehow went on to achieve graduate degrees. He says, smiling benevolently, “you mean you?”

I tell him I mean that demographic, and is it easiest to find this information through a database, or should I just do a Twitter poll?

He says, “Yeah; you’ll want to create an algorithm and do a search.”

I know what an algorithm is, but I have no idea how to make one, so I watch YouTube videos on “algorithm basics” for about nine minutes and feel like I can make a solid “algorithm flow chart” of what I want, but I’m not sure how to transfer that into code and then apply it to Twitter.

“An algorithm is just a set of directions,” says my ten-year-old, walking through the room. “That’s what my library teacher tells us.” She pauses to watch her lava lamp. “So just write a series of directions.”

“Yeah,” says the seven-year-old. “An algorithm is easy. Anyone can write one.”

Here’s a set of directions: Find me some stories of people with those criteria.

But neither the genius twenty-year-old nor the genius ten-year-old (nor the genius seven-year-old) give me any instructions on how to code an algorithm and apply it to research, so I decide instead to listen to Laura.


When students register with the College Board to take the SAT, they complete a questionnaire of 43 items that include things like race/ethnicity, parental education, combined family income, high school courses taken, grades, extracurricular interests, intended major. When I was registering for the SAT, we would have completed this questionnaire on paper. I don’t remember what I wrote then, but I can imagine it went something like this:

Combined family income: $25,000
Intended major: Education.
Parental education: Mother: BA [obtained when I was in elementary school]; Father: No HS Diploma.


My father dropped out of school during his sophomore year, shortly after his father re-married. His mother was dead of cancer and his stepmother, Ursula, didn’t like her stepson. This is how the story is told: a small crime happened in the neighborhood, and Ursula volunteered my father as the suspect. I don’t know if he committed the crime or not; I know that he was blamed. This incident was a self-fulfilling prophecy: my father ran away from home, dropped out of school, and joined up with some “bad” kids. They scavenged things to pawn or to eat; they pilfered turkeys from poultry farms, stole scrap metal to sell for profit. My father was good at geometry and math in general; he was able to calculate how to do well on the streets and how to avoid the law, until he wasn’t. He ended up in a boys’ detention center for juvenile delinquents. Like something out of a novel, they beat the boys and locked them in dark holes for solitary confinement for up to three days at a time, without food or human contact. My father says they lowered water down to him. When the accreditation agency came to review the program, the boys were given strict instructions on what to say; my father estimated the chances he’d be beaten for telling the truth versus the chances he’d be released. When his turn came, my father decided to report the actual events of his incarceration: that he was mistreated, that he was threatened, coached, coerced, and poorly fed. The visitors got him out; the program was put on probation and, my father speculates, soon thereafter closed.

My father hedged his bets, but he also understood probability and the formulaic likelihood that he’d be disbelieved and later beaten—he understood telling the truth was his best mathematical shot.


Here is an example of an SAT Math question:

My daughter looks at this problem and immediately says it’s C.

I look at this problem and agree, it’s C, but also imagine how Roberto had trouble selling insurance in America.

And what are these policies he’s selling for 50 and 100K? And what’s his take of the 3 million? And does Roberto have a family? Why does he sell insurance?

When I was taking the SAT, I would have wondered: Who in the world buys those policies, anyway? Who has enough money to purchase insurance?

I sit and imagine the many ways to complete a life.


Directions: Look at the word boxes below. Decide which word box best fits your childhood. Then, choose a set of sentences that work for your word box.

OR come up with a set of sentences for your childhood. Then, redact the words and create a word box for your childhood. Finally, write a word to complete each sentence below.

IF these directions don’t work, invent your own. Complete a set of sentences that work with them.

barn                 teach                rain                  grass stem       nectar
salmon            write                 wood stove      fish                   galvanized cabasa

sink                 swim                 stick of gum    milk                   fish
tub                  water heater     path                 adult                  doghouse

  1. In adult life, do you think Maya will ____ or ________?
  2. We used to bathe in the ______ , warming our water on the
  3. We caught a fresh _______ for dinner.
  4. Walk in the _____ and pretend you’re a ______.
  5. If you’re hungry, chew a _____, drink ______.
  6. The staccato pings on the ____ roof.



Rumpus original art by Zach Swisher

Maya Jewell Zeller is a writer, editor, educator, and mother. "Complete the Sentence" is from Maya's memoir-in-progress, “Raised by Ferns,” which is currently seeking a publisher. Find Maya on Twitter at @MayaJZeller or on the web at More from this author →