A few final words on the AP Reading experience.
Of Student Writing:
Teachers everywhere like to share horror stories about students. It’s a way of dealing with anxiety over the difference between our ambitions for them (and for ourselves) and their actual comprehension and performance.
The AP Reading was no different. Probably a quarter of the talk at meals was about the silly things written in student essays, and I’ve recorded some of that here in the blog. When I got home, a professor asked if I thought, having read all those essays, that students were getting worse.
I can’t say. There were essays that looked to be written by the functionally illiterate; there were essays drowning in the inanity fostered by coaching, not teaching, and the mostly artificial limits of testing. But there were many, many essays that showed true understanding of notoriously difficult books and plays. Many others were written with verbal sensitivity, and some even had writerly grace.
Now and then someone would read aloud a portion of one of these essays, and the room of readers would groan in admiration. One student wrote an essay on The Sound and the Fury as a novel warning the South to relinquish its obsession with the past. The student quoted Faulkner in the essay, saying, “Clocks, or ‘mausoleums of all human hope and desire,’ are the subject of Quentin’s hate and perpetual speculation…. Clocks tick the South’s past grandeur away into the recesses of dusty memory.”
Another chose to write about Ulysses, saying, “History is alive…. Joyce testifies that there is nothing new not only in this book but in the world; humans are rememberers, forgetters, recyclers, resemantifiers.” And some damned kid wrote a response to the fishing scene in Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun, which turned the falling pine needles into a symbol of the eternal that connected father, son, the earth, and all time; they read it in the big meeting on the last morning, and I sat blinking back tears.
There’s something magical about a river town, even when it’s selling itself, and even when signs on the wharf warn you not to eat anything you might pull out of the river, not to let the water touch your mucous membranes, not to look at the river threateningly, and not to think about it too hard if you’re already feeling fragile.
On Saturday night I needed to get some other work done before I left for home the next morning, and I felt smugly valorous for doing it while everyone else was cutting loose to celebrate the end of the Reading. I had a couple of Maker’s Marks in my room and decided to treat myself to a carryout steak and maybe some shrimp. Someone had said Joe’s Crab Shack was popular and good, and it was close, so I strolled down the wharf with the setting sun on my back, feeling warm with accomplishment. I stopped to look at the sign that listed those who’d been here and thought there might be room for my name at the bottom. It’s not a long name.
At a curve in the path with no one else was in sight, a man rose up to ask if I spoke Spanish. I said, A little. He ripped out some long sentences, and I said, Slower, please. The second time I got that his mom lived across the bridge, far across town, and there were difficulties. He needed money for the bus and for the difficulties, etc. Between the bourbon and the accomplishment, I was feeling egalitarian and said although I had only two dollars in cash, he was welcome to one. I stupidly pulled out my wallet to show him. This amused him greatly. We talked, and he told me my Spanish was perfect. No, no, I demurred but launched into an explanation of being stationed in Panama a long time ago and, interesting thing, I had been un hombre rana, a frog man, un buceador….
He interrupted to ask if I liked to fish. I was still forming my reply, along the line of, “I prefer to swim underwater like fishes rather than catch them,” when he pointed at the river and said something funny that depended on a colloquialism I didn’t know. Somebody was a cabrón—who, I couldn’t say. He roared with laughter and walked away waving my dollar bill in the air like a hanky.
Joe’s was swarming with people, and the hostess told me to order my food at the bar. Every stool was taken, and people stood behind them, waiting to order. I stood there too, a long time, next to two bullet-headed young guys with construction tans and chipped teeth. “You gotta put your money in plain view,” one told me when he saw me straining to catch the bartender’s eye. He had a twenty and a five on the bar in front of him.
They’d been drinking Joe’s Ya-Yas, pint glasses full of vodka, peach schnapps, coconut rum, cranberry juice, pineapple juice, and grenadine. They asked for theirs with no ice. The drinks looked like watery Pepto-Bismol and left rings on the glass at each reduction like dirty river foam. The first one told me he kept the straw from each drink, so he knew how many he’d had. There were five straws upright in an empty glass, and he waved at the bartender, who came right away. I took the chance to order my steak.
He was a foreman on the Interstate 64 project going on noisily outside the restaurant, and he told me all the kinds of jackhammers he had up there. Many I had never heard of. He was due back on the job in a few hours, he said. But first, he and his buddy were going up to the Irish Festival on the waterfront and have some beers, and he guessed he’d probably do something dumb, like tell a girl she was pretty in front of her boyfriend. They invited me to come along when they found out I was in town for the College Board Reading, which they’d heard about.
While the first guy went to the toilet, his buddy told me how the stereotypes of Louisville and of Kentucky had it all wrong, from Dan’l Boone and the coonskin cap crap to bourbon, which was fine and good, but he liked a good Ya-Ya instead. He didn’t know anybody who drank bourbon. Louisville was, simply, a great place to live. Real estate was affordable, and he ran down the advantages of the different neighborhoods for me. He told me the size of his house, and where he lived, and how much he paid for it, and why he hadn’t been fit for the service even though he was an Army brat. He was about to reveal something he wanted to say about his girlfriend, when his buddy came back. They pounded two more Ya-Yas like it was morning orange juice and stood to leave.
“So think about it,” the second said. I thought he wanted me to reconsider going to the Irish Fest with them. “Louisville really is a great place to live,” he said, “and if you’re thinking about buying a place here—even a second house, for a getaway—you should just do it.”
Of the Difference Between the Atmosphere at Hinterland and at the AP Reading:
The day I got back, Mrs. Churm and I took the boys to the Inner Station library. In the kids’ section I saw a Ph.D. candidate I know. He has a little girl Starbuck’s age, and I see him often, either in the library or in the English department. He never knows who I am, and when I force the hello, he always stares at me. He will reluctantly say hi but refuses to engage in conversation. Upstairs I met another young woman from the program, all in black with black cat-eyed glasses and black-dyed hair, who wouldn’t even make eye contact. When we got home, a professor who dresses like the grad student crept past our house in the sunglasses she wears even at night so she doesn’t have to acknowledge other forms of life.
The department hallways are full of them, faculty and grad student alike, the shuffling, the angry, the depressed, the morose, the morbidly jealous, the suspicious, the spiteful, the insecure—and for what? The hard labor of being intellectuals, which they willingly sentenced themselves to? They are not, after all, mucking out horse stalls for a living, or cleaning squid or chipping concrete or going gray in cubicles somewhere. They’re not homeless. What is wrong with these people?
“They’d bitch if they were bein’ hung with a new rope,” my friend Frenchy says.
After mingling with 1,000 interested, engaged, lively, helpful readers and teachers, I can’t help but feel there’s more life in a drop of Ohio River water than in most of Hinterland University.