This past weekend was an interesting change of pace. I came up to Princeton University on Saturday to begin teaching a one-month summer intensive in AP American History as part of the Junior Statesmen program. My students are wonderful. Princeton’s still potentially as lily White and intimidating as it is opulent. But that’s hardly what I’ve thought about in my first few days up here.
Besides missing my wife and son, the thing that I’ve thought about the most are the days leading into my first day in the late Harold Meltzer’s AP American History class at Mount Vernon High School. The week of 16 June ’85 was an up and down one for me, and one that left me disgruntled with Humanities, with 616 and with Mount Vernon in general. It reflected the disillusionment that I had felt all year after defying my stepfather and letting my classmates and teachers know that I had converted to Christianity. Lots of things still weren’t going my way. I had few acquaintances, much less friends. I knew that despite my weirdness that some girls liked me, but I had no idea what to say to them.
My teachers sucked. Period. One was a chain-smoking chemistry teacher (teachers could smoke in front of us back then) who was horrible in conveying anything other than tartar buildup. Another knew as much about trigonometry as I did about quantum physics and romance (at least in ’85). Our English teacher lounged on the couch in the classroom most of the year, while our so-called World History teacher spent most of the year annoying us with stupid comments and stupid tests on Baroque music and architecture. Our Italian teacher was fired two months before our New York State Regents exam (he apparently now owns the largest car dealership in the state of New York). He was replaced by a Spanish teacher, who made us realize that most of us hadn’t learned much Italian over the previous four years.
So the week of endless tests and Regents exams came at the worst time for me. The cupboards and fridge were as bare as they had been since the days before my mother had gone on welfare. There was only enough milk for my younger siblings, and besides cornbread and cabbage, we were SOL. That Monday we had our exams in World History and English. Tuesday was the Trig Regents, which I started preparing for at the end of February because our teacher didn’t know the difference between sine, cosine and tangent. All of those went pretty well.
Then we ran out of food Tuesday night. I woke up the next morning with water, milk, ice and freeze-dried meat as my choices for breakfast and 50 cents in my pocket. I chose water and only water for the morning. And Wednesday was the busiest day of all. There were two Regents exams, one that morning in Italian, the other in Chemistry. I went to school feeling like I could overcome my hunger and do decently on the test. After all, I had been taking Italian since seventh grade, and I already knew I had scored an eight out of ten on the oral part of this exam. But deep down, I knew I just didn’t have the energy to get through the exam. I had a headache from the lack of food, which grew worse as I started to forget the difference between Italian in past, present, future and present perfect tense. I finished the exam and found myself just hoping for a 70 (anything below a 65 was an F, and the exam counted for a third of my total grade for the course).
I went to lunch and walked over to Chester Heights (Eastchester) to a deli and bought the only thing I could think of to eat: one Sara Lee Brownie. It cost 45 cents, and it was probably the best investment I had made up to this point in my life. I walked back to MVHS, slowly ate the brownie to make it last, and had just enough time to drink some more water before we sat down to take the Chemistry Regents.
When I opened up the exam booklet I started laughing. Our idiot Chemistry teacher had told us the month before to “not worry” about organic chemistry as part of the Regents exam even though he had never covered it in class. Listen to him had me averaging a C in his class all year, with my highest exam grade an 86. So I bought a Chemistry Regents test prep book the weekend after his pronouncement, and did nothing but study organic chemistry for this exam. It turned out that the first ten questions on the exam were organic chemistry ones. With my brownie digesting, I was ready to kick some butt.
It turned out that I had failed the Italian Regents, with a total score of 45–I only earned a 37 out of 90 on the written exam. On the Chemistry Regents, I had the third highest score in the school–a 95 out of 100, as about a third of the questions were in organic chemistry. I was bummed, ecstatic and pissed at my teachers and with myself, all at the same time.
Luckily on the Friday we found out our scores was also the same day we were to meet our AP American History teacher. I’ve already described my late friend and mentor in a previous post. But it’s worth mentioning again how he broke down my protective wall to talk to me about things I’d never discuss with my classmates or my mother or Jimme. One of those issues was hunger. Not just my constant need for food even when there was food at 616. My hunger, my drive for something better in life. Meltzer noticed it, and gradually got me to exhibit that side of myself in class. For years after AP, he would tell me over and over again how he never worried about me. I guess it was because I didn’t take the world around me at face value. I wasn’t intimidated by my classmates, but I wasn’t going to allow myself to engage in worrying about grades and pleasing teachers the ways in which they did.
Meltzer picked up on this, and laughed about it all the time. He said that I had that one-of-a-kind look of a student who wasn’t just hungry for good grades, but hungry for knowledge, hungry for something to make sense of a senseless world. I guess that this is all true. I just hope that the students I have, as privileged as many of them are, are equally hungry to learn about themselves, their classmates, what they hope their hopes are, as they are about earning a 5 on the AP exam next year.