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.