Bad High School English

Recently, a student from where I went to high school interviewed me for the school paper.  It was all very nice.  I was glad to do it. I remembered my days of high school journalism, when the greatest pleasure of all was the off-campus pass to “write stories.”

Then he asked how my time at the high school influenced my writing.  How the English department affected me.

This shocked me down memory lane.

I froze.  Should I tell the truth?

I did not have the greatest high school English department experience.  Back then, the high school was grades 10 through 12.  My 7-9 grade English teachers were stellar.  High school was something else.

I was in the gifted program, which normally had a cluster class consisting of back-to-back Advanced English and Humanities.  This conflicted with choir, which I suddenly had a bug to take. The counselor said I could do Advanced English and skip the Humanities (social studies), but it would be with a different teacher.  Advanced English sounded good.  It was called Advanced, how bad could it be?  I went with that.

It would scar me for life.

Well, maybe it’s not that dramatic.  But let me say this: the teacher had given up.  Plain and simple.  He was *thisclose* to retirement and he was faced with a class of castoffs and he just wanted to get through the year without anyone dying.  People SMOKED in the back of class and the teacher did not notice, except to remark on “that pleasant scent.”  A kid brought in some bone-cutting instrument, stolen from his surgeon father, and traced drawings into the desks.

Our textbook was the same one I’d had in 6th grade.  Sixth grade!  When I’d tested so high on the standardized tests, they’d given me a high school textbook and put me in a 3 person reading group.

We read the textbook and wrote summaries of the stories.  It was deadening.

And I still couldn’t get an A.  I probably didn’t do a good job with the summaries. I just did not care.

At the end of this miserable year, some of my friends who were in the English/Humanities classes told me they were planning to take the 12th grade AP English test at the invitation of their English teacher.  I could come to the after school prep to see if I could do it, too.

This other English teacher was none too optimistic about my chances, but he wasn’t paying for the test, so I got to sit in on the prep.

I passed the test with a 4 out of 5.  I used Antigone for my essay question, because we’d studied it in 9th grade English.

Junior year: I went back to my regularly programmed classes, this time the gifted English paired with AP US History (taught by the football coach, who read us the textbook aloud as his teaching method.)  I don’t remember much of junior year English, except that people tried to make the teacher get off subject and talk about other stuff, which he was generally happy to do.  We also watched THE PAPER CHASE to talk about symbolism.  I wrote a story using symbolism, which I got a C on because the TA felt it lacked symbolism; the teacher changed it to an A because it was well-written.  And I got a National Council of Teachers of English writing award that year.

The following year, my last, I went over my regular counselor, who thought I wasn’t particularly talented (she doubted I’d get into any of the colleges I got into) and asked the head counselor why I couldn’t take English at the local community college. After all, I said, if the point of taking AP English is to pass the AP English test which I’d already passed, then why should I have to take it? He agreed and off I went to the community college, taking two night classes, one per semester.

Then I applied for the California State Summer School for the Arts for creative writing, which I attended right before I left for college, and which is the high school program that really inspired me to write. (Apparently James Franco was also there that year in visual arts. And I didn’t see him. Probably because he was a freshman.) You also get college credit for going.

These extra college credits ultimately allowed me to finish college in just 3.5 years, which was so unheard of at my private college that they didn’t have a winter graduation.

After all this experience in high school, I was afraid of English classes. I avoided them as much as possible during college, choosing instead to major in art. I was also afraid that everyone else at my college had had much better prep and I would just die.

So my entire high school English experience flashed through my head while I was talking to this young reporter. Should I gloss it over, say it was all great?

Maybe it was good for me. Maybe it taught me how to rise above my environment and beat the odds. Or maybe, if I’d had more good teachers, I would have been more focused earlier on. I don’t know.

The school did, and still has, good English teachers. Enthusiastic teachers who plan curriculum and come up with interesting projects and reading. It’s just that I didn’t get put into any of their classes.

And I decided, as I sat frozen on the phone with the high school student. I’d tell the reporter how it was. Remembering my high school English classes had angered me more over the years, especially as I gained experience. It bothered me during high school. It bothered me to remember during college. It bothered me after college, when I was working as a substitute teacher and found out how far enthusiasm can carry kids. It bothers me now that I’m a parent. I don’t think any kid should have to suffer through a class calling itself Advanced but was really nothing but babysitting. To get this unequal education.

I was not going to pretend that my high school English classes were so fantastic they inspired me to become a writer. It’s more like in spite of the experience, I became a writer.

Published by Margaret Dilloway

Middle grade and women's fiction novelist. FIVE THINGS ABOUT AVA ANDREWS, (Balzer + Bray 2020); SUMMER OF A THOUSAND PIES. MOMOTARO: Xander and the Lost Island of Monsters (Disney Hyperion); TALE OF THE WARRIOR GEISHA and SISTERS OF HEART AND SNOW, out now from Putnam Books. HOW TO BE AN AMERICAN HOUSEWIFE was a finalist for the John Gardner fiction award. THE CARE AND HANDLING OF ROSES WITH THORNS is the 2013 Literary Tastes Best Women's Fiction Pick for the American Library Association. Mother of three children, wife to one, slave to a cat, and caretaker of the best overgrown teddy bear on Earth, Gatsby the Goldendoodle.

13 thoughts on “Bad High School English

  1. Aloha Margaret:
    Thank you for sharing your English class memories with your readers. I am so glad you did pursue writing. I really love your writing style. BTW, the mention of Antigone brought back memories for me, of high school English.

    I have been reading your blog for a bit now. I thought I would comment before I lost my nerve again. I loved your book!! I was so sad when it ended because it was like a good friend going away. I hope you have another book in the works. Sorry to see that you have left Hawaii.

  2. Margaret, did I ever tell you my AP English story? It was 11th Grade AP English with Mrs. Williams. Part of the curriculum was a series of short in-class response essays similar to those we would get on the AP test. I did well on them, but by all means not my best developed pieces. The big essay 2nd quarter was a thematic analysis of Tony Morrison’s Beloved. I spent weeks on it, crafting it into something BEAUTIFUL. I started by painstakingly writing the rough draft in pencil, using colored pencils to organize thoughts and color code them. Then all SEVEN of my typed drafts were worked over in the same way, making sure I did justice to Ms. Morrison’s multi-layered, multi-faceted narrative style. I also threw in a couple of our SAT Prep words (yes, only the AP class got SAT Prep as part of the curriculum.) like plethora and cacophony, and one choice phrase that still is seared in my memory “a kaleidoscope of narrative voices that when reflected off of each other form into a fractured yet wholly brillant array.” So I turned in the final draft, proud of my work. Then went on a three week vacation.

    I came back from vacation and everyone else got their essays back the week before. Then I got mine the first day I returned back to school. There was NOTHING on it except for a few underlined words including plethora and cacophony and the infamous phrase. At the end it said “Lisa, please see me.” So immediately after class I went up to her and said “I understand you wanted to see me, Mrs. Williams?” and she said “I have been a high school English teacher for 30 years. I know what high school writing looks like. This doesn’t look like high school writing.” and I simply said “I am sorry? Are you saying that someone else wrote this paper?” and she replied “I didn’t say that, I said it doesn’t look like high school writing.” and then she pulled out my in class essays and said “The writing styles are very different and you don’t seem to use the same kind of vocabulary in these other essays.” Fuming, I said “I wrote every single word of this essay. And if you would like proof, I have the entire folder with all 7 drafts AND the SAT Vocabulary book that you assigned that I LEARNED plethora and cacophony from. I’d be happy to show you.” So I walked off campus the block to my house (no note–skipped AP calculus.) walked straight back into her class room (during “advanced english”) and plopped the folder down on her desk. Took out the pencil written draft with plethora and the erased and reworded kaleidoscope phrase and said “There. does this prove that it is high school writing?” and get this! She had the audacity to say, after looking through it for a few minutes “Well, I guess I have no other choice than to give you an A. And would I be able to keep this as an example for future years?” I said “Absolutely not. and furthermore I will no longer be a member of the AP English program.” Went to my counselor, got transferred into the “advanced class” where all they had to do was read the text book and write summaries!!!

    Irony would have it that I became an English teacher.

    1. Nope, hadn’t heard this one, but I still remember the other one about the letter you wrote to yourself!

      Hmm did your work as an English teacher make you more or less sympathetic to this woman? (I mean, of course asking you for the essay to use later was inexcusable, but any of the rest of it?)

      I’m going to try to work “kaleidoscope” and “cacophony” into everyday conversation as much as possible.

  3. Margaret, you have amazing recall for detail! Wow. Looking back, my high school experience required very little writing. It was a lot of reading, and a lot of testing on what was read (recall). We had no television growing up so I read a lot…I think that’s where my love of the written word grew. It certainly could not have come from High School. Thanks for forcing me to think back and remember…


    P.S. I did not realize yesterday that when you visited my blog you were a published author. Thank you for making the time. I am returning books to the library today, eager to see if I can ‘check you out.’ (Literally.) 🙂

  4. I’m glad you didn’t tell the reporter that you liked your English classes just fine, I think it’s important that we stand up and tell the world about injustices-it was an injustice that you were forced to endure a year of a “nothing” class, with a teacher who had checked out. I’m sure that the administration heard about it, but felt they couldn’t do anything. That’s a shame.

  5. Who was your 10th grade English teacher? I still feel scarred by the “average” English class I took in 7th grade. I had just switched over from Catholic to public schools and hadn’t been tested yet, and the advanced English class was full. I still blame my lack of knowledge of Greek gods to that year since everyone in advanced English learned it while all we did was read “Treasure Island” over the period of like, three months.

    I had the same teacher for AP US History. I had forgotten his method of teaching was reading the book to us. He always seemed like he was barely just ahead of us in what we knew about the subject – probably only one more night of reading! School systems like to combine history and coaching now which is terrible.

  6. Only there to teach history one year maybe but there to teach football for several years. The teacher was Mr. Olivero.

  7. Thanks for sharing your story and I’m glad you told the interviewer how it really was for you. I live in the area where you went to high school and I’m trying to get my kids into a private high school.

  8. Hi Margaret,

    I saw your book in the library and since I want to become an Asian American author myself checked out your website and now your blog.

    This particular entry hit home for me, a college student in my last year. I too have bitter memories of horrific teachers who did not care, and I wonder how much my life would have changed had I been lucky enough to have better teachers in my life. At the same time I am especially grateful for having had (on the whole) terrific English teachers in my high school years, who conducted class like they were book clubs and respected our individual opinions. Sometimes I feel especially nostalgic and wish I could go back to those great classes. I’m glad you chose to tell it like it is- bad experiences like that need to be acknowledged more often to show that everyone goes through them.

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