For so many high-potential high school students, this week represents an interesting, if excruciating privilege. This is traditionally AP Exams Week for this group of students. By the hundreds of thousands, these sophomores, juniors and seniors will sit for three hours at a time to take college-equivalent exams in well over thirty subjects. Theoretically, a student could come out of this week having achieved sophomore standing, with at least 24 credits of college taken care of before throwing their caps in the air at their high school graduation ceremony.
But it can also be a week of torture, disappointment, even bitterness for those whose classes, studying, and teachers did little to prepare them for these exams. Unlike my first foray into the land of AP exams my junior year — where I was among three students who scored “5s” on the AP American History exam — my senior year of AP classes didn’t come close to yielding the same results.
Over a two-day period in the second week of May ’87, I took AP English, AP Calculus, and AP Physics on consecutive days. AP English was Monday afternoon, and I was cruising through the exam until I hit the essay questions. My time management was so poor that I barely started the second of two essay questions before time ran out. AP Calculus was the next morning, and I felt much, much better about that. It was the easier of the exam’s two versions, Calc AB. I figured that I scored at least a 3 on it.
Then there was AP Physics A, B, and C Wednesday afternoon. All but our valedictorian took the easier versions. But for us, this was hardly easy. “J”, who had paid our valedictorian to tutor him in the weeks before the exam, just started laughing in the middle of it all, knowing that he was putting the nails in his own coffin. “You get a 1 for just signing your name,” he snickered. I was determined to get at least a 2, but that would’ve meant learning something useful from our teacher David Wolf other than how to hang students out to dry.
I knew as the proctor asked us to put our pencils down that I scored a 1 on the exam. It was confirmed a month later. I also scored a 3 on AP Calc, good enough for earning college credit at some schools — but not at Pitt — and a disappointing 2 on the AP English test. Our valedictorian scored a 5 on the AP Calc BC, AP Physics C, and AP Biology exams, and a 4 on the AP English exam. She guaranteed herself twenty-seven college credits, counting her 5 score from the AP American History exam the year before. Our valedictorian was a college sophomore a full month before we graduated from high school.
Admittedly, I spent most of my senior year distracted between 616 and school, the Mets, the NY football Giants and crush #2. It wouldn’t have been the greatest year even if I’d only taken regular Humanities courses. With three AP courses, it was too much to manage while still at home. If that were the only factor in all of this, senioritis and my constant struggle for time to study and being a surrogate father/older brother/errand boy would be the only thing to talk about here. But it wasn’t.
I struggled in all three of my AP classes my senior year, but none worse than in AP Physics. Even without studying, I managed Cs and C+s in AP English and AP Calculus during the first third of the school year before kicking my efforts up a couple of notches. Not so in AP Physics. David Wolf was having a bad year, and it seemed like it was his intent to make our year as miserable as possible. He taught the far more difficult AP Physics C version of this Physics course, involving mechanics, electricity and magnetism. It was the equivalent of second semester Physics right from the start, and most of us needed at least a semester of Calculus to keep up with the class. Our valedictorian was more than ready, and the only person able to solve Wolf’s multidimensional problems. After all, she had spent about 200 hours — pretty much every spare moment she had between work and family — during the summer of ’86 with our Physics and Calculus textbooks preparing for this class. Things like understanding wind drag and gravity, velocity and the physical properties of work, meters per second squared and foot-pounds, Joules and amps took me most of the year to grasp when our valedictorian was practically using third-semester Calculus to build the Great Pyramids by comparison.
At first I saw this as a new challenge that I could take on and will myself through. After the first two months of the year, it crossed my mind that struggling through this course wasn’t worth it. My knowledge of mechanics equations and the calculus involved to understand and calculate these relative motions of objects was limited to what I’d been learning in AP Calc, a complete mismatch. On our first big exam, only two out of seven of us passed. My grade was a 22, and it was still the fourth-best grade on the exam. I knew then that taking AP Physics was a mistake.
As if this wasn’t bad enough, Wolf berated us in class. We were “lazy,” “too smart for [our] own good,” and “didn’t deserve to be in this class.” On top of that, Wolf’s supervisor, Science Department Chair Estelle Abel, came into our class soon after this exam. In three-and-a-quarter years of MVHS, I’d never met the woman, never seen her in the hallways, and never heard a classmate speak of her. For about fifteen seconds, I found myself surprised by the fact that she was Black. Then she opened up her mouth. “I suspect that all of you realize that you’ve gotten in over your heads. I expect each of you to drop this course before you embarrass yourselves any further.” She directed some of her attention to me, saying, “and you should be ashamed of yourself!” Wow, I thought. I knew a 22 was way below my own standards, but there were at least three other students with lower scores than me. The order of the scores didn’t matter to me too much. But Wolf having his boss come into class and embarrass us into dropping just left me pissed.
This was the first time that we had a teacher who was more interested in humiliating us than in teaching us. We had plenty of teachers in the recent past who weren’t interested in being good and energetic teachers. This was different. Wolf had an ax to grind. Meltzer might have been the best teacher I ever had, someone who gave us a glimpse of what college would be like at its best. Wolf was the equivalent of a more typical college professor, a sink-or-swim teacher with no ability to help other students grasp his material, and no sympathies for students other than his best ones.
By the time I had finished the AP Physics exam seven months later, I realized that a lot of what I was doing was out of a combination of my own curiosity and need to compete with the best and brightest in my school. It wasn’t as if I had planned on majoring in Physics or Civil Engineering at Pitt. I could have easily taken AP Biology, or better still, taken AP European History or AP American Government. I had wasted $53 of my summer of ’86 earnings on a class that wouldn’t matter on my college or high school transcripts.
It did teach me a few important lessons about college and about education. That not all people who are teachers or professors really know how to teach, or want to know how to teach, or think about the relationship of courses in their teaching. That students at the postsecondary or near postsecondary level should and must take responsibility for their own learning, even if it means taking a course in which they might not do particularly well (that was me in third-semester Calculus my junior year). And that taking a class to prove to anyone other than yourself that you can master material that is of interest to you — and in which others have suggested you can’t master — is a horrible reason for taking a course.
For these reasons, it was good to have David Wolf and AP Physics my senior year — it helped prepare me for graduate school. It also makes me a better teacher every time I remind myself of what bad teaching looks like.