another story from AP English

February 24, 2014

It’s a wonder I ever became an English major, what with the terrible time I had in AP English in high school.  But I think part of the reason I had a terrible time was I loved the literature.  This is the class where I discovered Sylvia Plath and Tom Stoppard.  But the teacher…  I argued with her.  A lot.

So, in comments on the previous post I already told the story about this awful textbook we had that divided stories into “real” literature and popular literature, or “crap,” pretty much just like that (the book earned my eternal ire by placing Connell’s “The Most Dangerous Game,” one of my favorite short stories at the time, in the “crap” category).  So one day as part of a group presentation I did a fake commercial with a blender where I announced “This is your brain on popular literature,” blended an apple, and said, “Any questions?”  The entire class cheered.  The teacher did not.  (I wonder, if I tried to bring a blender to high school now, would I be suspended because of zero tolerance policies?)

This was also the class where I pointed out that you can sing every Emily Dickinson song to the tune of “Yellow Rose of Texas.” (There are sing alongs on YouTube. Proceed at your own risk.)  Now, first off, you can’t sing every poem to that tune, and second, that just means it’s a popular meter and there was no reason for Dickinson not to use a popular meter.  In my defense, I would not have pointed this out to the class if I didn’t think everybody didn’t already know it.  Turns out, nobody else knew it, and I was subsequently blamed for ruining Dickinson for everyone.  (My response:  “If that’s all it takes to ruin Dickinson for you, you don’t deserve her!”)

It would have ended there, except test day came along.  The test, the big AP test that had kids puking in the bushes beforehand.  As part of the AP English test, we were given a poem cold, that day, that we had to do a close reading on and write an essay about in the space of forty minutes or so.  We cracked open our test books:  Yes, it was an Emily Dickinson poem.  And there were two dozen high school kids humming that song under their breaths.  If looks could kill, I’d have been a steaming pile of goo that day.

I, however, thought it was the funniest damn thing that had happened all year.  I could not stop laughing. And I got a 5 out of 5 on the test.

18 Responses to “another story from AP English”

  1. Carol Says:

    Way back in 1965, an elderly nun assigned our 9th grade class to select a poem and read it to music. I forget my choices; a classmate read R. Frost’s “While stopping by the woods on a snowy evening” to an instrumental of Chuck Berry’s “No Particular Place to Go”. It was oddly appropriate, and I still mentally add a guitar break between lines when I hear/read that poem.

  2. You can sing them to the “Gilligan’s Island” theme, too. (It amazes me slightly more that the metric schemes of “The Yellow Rose of Texas” and “Gilligan’s Island” are the same than it does that you can sing most Dickinson poems to them.)

    I myself pointed this out to a 21-year-old in one of my classes last semester (I’m 32 and going back for a graduate degree) and I think he wanted to strangle me with his shoelaces. IMHO, it doesn’t ruin Dickinson so much as it gives us another dimension with which to enjoy her, but I know a lot of people disagree.

  3. Carol, that’s amazing!!

  4. I believe I had the same textbook, and despised it for the same reason.

  5. Jo Anne Says:

    But you had at least one wonderful teacher of high school English!


  6. carriev Says:

    Of course! *That* teacher was *great* because she was all, “Yes, of course you should write more.”

    Matt, this book was just dreadful. It did things like pair James Joyce’s “The Dead” with Truman Capote’s “A Christmas Memory” and follow up with questions like, “Explain why ‘The Dead’ is good literature and ‘A Christmas Memory’ is sentimentalist drivel, even though both stories are about family.”

    Update: I’m pretty sure the book was “Perrine’s Literature: Structure Sound and Sense.” According to the table of contents it’s been updated over the last 20 years to include more women and authors of color, it looks like. But it still leads off with Connell in a chapter called “Evaluating Literature.” Because genre sucks, don’t you know!

  7. carriev Says:

    (And, I think it wouldn’t have bothered me so much if it weren’t for the fact that “The Most Dangerous Game” had been in every single literature textbook I had from about the sixth grade on. Because it’s an engaging story that’s easy to talk about with younger readers. But I was like, “If this story is such crap you should not have been putting it in every other literature textbook up to this point!”)

  8. Doruk Says:

    When I was in highschool, we had to read a minimum number of pages of books and write reports. I always raced with another student about who was going to read more, and we always were pretty close. However, teachers always preferred her stuff because she read ‘serious’ literature whereas I read Stephen King 😛

  9. Sounds a lot like my film classes, especially when I went to U-Arts in Philly. One instructor in particular spent every session praising David Lynch — including placing blame for his less successful works on everyone apart from Lynch himself — while dismissing just about anything more mainstream as crap, especially if Steven Spielberg was involved.

    As I recall, I spent a lot of that class inwardly seething.

  10. sav Says:

    Whenever someone tries to be dismissive of genre fiction I remind them that one of the most celebrated American novels of all time is about a boat full of stock characters on a mission to kill a sea monster, which was widely ridiculed as a children’s story when it was first published.

  11. Jim Van Pelt Says:

    Your text sounds like Perrine’s Sound and Sense. It’s the text I use. He can be priggy about “qualified readers” and the rest of the world which doesn’t make the fine distinctions he does. We have a lot of fun in class noticing how his opinions leak in. I kind of like that book, though, because he does have a point of view. Most texts are so dry a robot could have penned them. At least in Perrine you have something to argue about, and the book has become fatter and fatter over the years. LOTS of good reading in it between Perrine’s essays.

  12. Textbooks like that always make me want to launch into the “Understanding Poetry, by Dr. J. Evans Pritchard” monologue from Dead Poets Society.

  13. sav Says:

    Don’t forget “Amazing Grace”, by the way. Or “House of the Rising Sun”. Or “America the Beautiful”. Or the theme song to Pokemon.

    Yes, I am a music geek.

  14. carriev Says:

    Jim: Yes, I think that’s exactly what it is. Alas, we were not allowed to argue, so I got a bit twitchy. We must have been using 5th or 6th edition, and I see it’s up to 9th now, so I bet it’s changed quite a bit.

  15. Jim Van Pelt Says:

    All that changes are some of the reading selections. The essays are all the same. This is a classic text-book strategy. A school can’t order replacement texts because they’ve moved to the new edition, so you have order complete class sets. Very cynical of them, I think. Perrine himself died in 1995.

  16. Howard Brazee Says:

    It would be funny to talk with that teacher today and learn what hindsight would tell her about her successful author teacher.

  17. Tim Schmidt Says:

    We read Joseph Conrad. I got through “Lord Jim” with great difficulty. “Heart of Darkness” was guaranteed to put me to sleep in 1 or 2 pages, 3 at the most.


  18. Lis Riba Says:

    The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (at least, the first couple stanzas) also works to the Gilligan’s Isle theme.

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