AP US History, Class of 1987, Harold Meltzer, Humanities, Mount Vernon High School, Mount Vernon New York, Teaching and Learning
In honor of all the students I’ve taught who are in the midst of AP exams the next two weeks — especially the ones who are due to take the AP US History or APUSH exam Friday — the following is my APUSH story. It’s about the weeks and days from early April to May 13 of ’86. Unlike my other mediocre and bittersweet stories of AP crash-and-burn, this one’s about academic triumph. But, it’s from a kid-like perspective, so buckle up.
In the weeks before the APUSH exam, Meltzer practically locked us in his classroom, sweeping through nearly a century of American history. We covered Reconstruction, industrialization and Woodrow Wilson, both World Wars, FDR and the Great Depression as if we were in a time machine with a warp drive engine. The last week before the exam was critical for everyone in the class, except for me of course. God had created a mind and imagination such as mine for this moment, where analysis was as important as knowledge for this kind of exam. After school that week was one of Meltzer ordering pizza and buying sodas for us so that we could grasp how to tackle the AP exam using his methods. I stayed because I loved Meltzer’s stories and because of five days of free food.
Watching my classmates sweat it out while asking Meltzer every conceivable question on American history, especially the parts he didn’t cover, was the most entertaining part of the week. They grilled him to the point where Meltzer had walked them through the exam point-by-point. All while telling us “Not to worry, kiddos! You’re all gonna do just fine!” Our soon-to-be-valedictorian and one other classmate were probably the most anxious and most diligent in their inquisition of Meltzer. They had all but outlined our textbook Morison and Commager page by page to get answers to issues and events they didn’t understand. We covered the women’s suffrage movement, immigration, the Great Depression and the New Deal, the League of Nations, the Cold War and McCarthyism, and so many other events that I was tired just listening to them ask. All this time with Meltzer and they still didn’t fully comprehend Meltzer’s master plan for preparing us for the exam.
Even in my calmness, I knew that this was the most significant exam I’d take going into college, one certainly more reflective of my skills than New York State Regents exams or the SAT. Of all things, my only concern was making sure I had a good breakfast before taking the exam. The weekend before, I scored over a hundred dollars off my father Jimme, and after distributing the spoils to Darren and my mother, I still had fifty left. The night before the exam, I went to the store and deli and bought all my little morning snacks, yogurt included. I slept well that night, dreaming about the exam and how well I thought I’d do.
Tapes prepared and Walkman somewhat in working order, I walked to school the next morning fully charged and as well-fed as my boney butt could be. It was the thirteenth of May, a brisk and overcast Tuesday that felt more like early November. I made sure not to go into MVHS’ library, our exam room for the morning, until about a minute before we were going to start. If I learned anything from being around my classmates, it was to be as calm and cool as a cup of ice. They still generally ran around acting all nervous and stressed out before a major test, turning colors and breaking out in hives, which sometimes drove me nuts. Why couldn’t they just chill? So my solution was to avoid their stress for as long as I could before coming into the room.
Once I sat down, I didn’t even remember what the proctor or Meltzer had said. Once they said “Go,” I hit the multiple choice section and just blew through it. The only problem I had during the exam was understanding what the word “pluralism” meant. And when I saw the term “cultural pluralism,” I felt slightly more baffled. What I did in response was read the questions and answers to form context, which seemed to me to be around American society having groups of people from different races and parts of the world living in the same country. About fifteen or twenty of my one hundred bubble questions was on pluralism or cultural pluralism.
Then we began the essay portion of the exam. Two essays to write and we had forty-five minutes to write each one. The first one was also on the topic of pluralism. “This must be the word of the day,” I thought. It dawned on me that there might’ve been a relationship between these pluralism questions and the century anniversary of the Statue of Liberty’s opening on Liberty Island. I don’t know, I think that this may have been my document-based essay question. The other essay, by comparison, was a piece of cake. By the time we finished they exam, I was tired but pretty happy with my performance. It was basketball season, and I felt like I’d been knocking down jumpers left and right in going after these questions, like Isiah Thomas or Bernard King wouldn’t know by how much until sometime in July.
I looked at my classmates. They all seemed tired and bent out of shape by the exam. Some looked a little frustrated and angry. I was a bit surprised. I knew that most of them had done well, and I assumed that valedictorian and salutatorian had done at least as well as me. Yet they weren’t at all happy. Their moods varied from relieved to downright surly after the exam was over. Meltzer was happy for us all.
My AP score arrived in the mail just after the fourth of July. I scored my coveted 5, meaning that I had earned six college credits before choosing my school. I expected this score, but what I didn’t expect was how perfectly I performed. The College Board’s breakdown showed that I’d gotten ninety-four out of one hundred multiple choice questions correct and that two of my three essays had received the highest possible score — I scored a 4 on one of the free-response essays. I wasn’t just happy. It was like winning the lottery. I was in another world the rest of the day.
What makes this story interesting is that I took the approach that as long as I stayed calm, away from my classmates and well fed, everything would work the way I wanted them to. All too often, we make big moments even bigger in our heads and hearts than necessary, causing ourselves more stress, and, ironically, guaranteeing ourselves poor or mediocre performances. I don’t want to hear the all-too-often-used-phrase, “I work well under pressure.” We think we do, but twenty years of teaching and even more as a student have proven to me otherwise. So, please folks, eat a good meal, take a chill pill and a deep breath before sitting down and cutting open your test booklets over the next week or so. Sixteen’s too young to have ulcers.