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    John Warner is the author of Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer's Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.

Title

An Act of Academic Self-Preservation

A suppressed memory returns

June 11, 2018
 
 

Last Friday, a suppressed memory popped into my head.

On the AP Literature exam in 1988, on an essay in which I was to compare and contrast two texts, I invented one of my sources.

It was a spontaneous decision, done in the moment during the test. I told no one before – because I hadn’t considered such a thing – or after – because I think I realized I’d taken a risk that could lead to trouble, and if I got away with it, I wasn’t going to brag, lest my victory be taken away.

We had been prepared to come with at least two novels which we could use to answer the essay prompt. My memory is there was a recommended list, but we also were not necessarily required to stick to the list. I’d chosen Catcher in the Rye as one of mine. I’d liked the book okay, and it seemed like something it would be easy to write about.

But when the time came, during the test itself, rather than calling forth the adventures of Holden Caulfield, I instead described elements from a book whose title I can’t recall, but was an amalgam of a number of other novels, most significantly A Separate Peace and Bridge to Terabithia. A young person was dead, and others were left behind to deal with the grief and guilt, the kind and amount depending on their degrees of culpability.

I couldn’t say why I did it in the moment. The essay came after what seemed like (and maybe was) hours of multiple choice questions, so maybe my sense of what was and wasn’t appropriate had been warped. That I’d endeavored to put it out of my mind so thoroughly suggests I knew I’d done something potentially dumb. Getting a score of 4 or 5 and securing college credit was a near certainty if I’d played by the rules. Making up a book out of whole cloth seemed like the kind of thing the could lead to a 1, making all that work a waste of time. 

This was a big deal back then. Now, given the costs of college, it's an even bigger deal.

I don’t remember any relief when I received my score (5), because I have no memory of receiving my score. It failed to make an impact relative to whatever else was going on. Perhaps I’d so successfully suppressed the memory, I’d already forgotten my transgression.

In hindsight, it probably wasn’t all that big a risk. I’d been trained in how to discuss sources in order to impress the graders, and I’m sure I did exactly that, just with a book I’d invented. As long as a grader wasn’t a stickler about the canon, I was going to be okay. Perhaps with the internet, now a grader may have a chance to do a search for the title, out of curiosity, if not suspicion, but I’m also going to guess that the production quotas that tend to rule in these situations mean even that would be frowned upon. Someone could probably slip a similar hoax by a grader today.

In my defense, knowing what I know today about the purpose and function of the AP exam, I could make an argument that I would’ve deserved the same score regardless. The very design of that part of the exam was to test if I knew how to write about literature in the ways were expected to demonstrate. What I was writing was largely irrelevant to that criteria, and of course the proof is in the pudding of my score of 5.

This was not the only time I defied a guideline to make school or schooling a little more interesting to me. In a Spanish class, when we were required to write a report on a Spanish-speaking painter in Spanish, with the instructor’s permission – he was the father of one of my closest friends – I wrote about an invented artist, borrowing elements from various figures, while adding one detail I remember: he worked with a talking mynah bird on his shoulder whose opinion he would solicit and heed as to the quality of the work.

The primary objective of the assignment was to test our command of written Spanish. The subject matter of reporting on an artist was secondary, and I think my teacher figured my invented figure would demonstrate whether or not I’d done any reading of the history and styles of different artists. In fact, I think I probably did more work than I would have otherwise, in order to make sure my invention was convincing.

In hindsight, I read these acts as cries for help, a kind of academic self-medication. I was bored, not because I’d mastered the required material – I got more than my share of non-A grades – but because the things I was asked to do were generally uninspiring. Perhaps nothing was more uninspiring than preparing for an AP exam.

Maybe the AP English Literature exam changed over the intervening 30 years, but if it has, my hunch is it might be for the worse.

I ended up duplicating the credit anyway by taking an introductory literature course in college, curious to see how different it would be. Not so much, it turns out.

I survived my schooling curiosity intact, thanks to my own impulses towards self-preservation mixed with the occasional understanding teacher, but it could’ve gone the other way.

As I think about where education can and must go, this is what my mind and spirit seem to latch on to.

And questions, always questions.

Why should I ask students to do this? What is gained from the experience? How does this look through their eyes?

More questions than answers.

 

 

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