Madame Defarge of AP English — #AtoZChallenge2023

M is for Madame Defarge of AP English. Thirteenth of 26 posts in the April 2023 Blogging From #AtoZChallenge. Theme: Endwell: My High School Years — adding my story to the family history mix. Please join me on the journey.

By senior year at Maine-Endwell, my progressive political outlook began to assert itself inside the classroom – a change that manifested itself most directly in my AP English class.

The purpose of Advance Placement (AP) classes was to earn college credits while still in high school, and I looked forward to the challenge. Yet problems with the conservative instructor (we’ll call him Mr. AP) emerged from the first day of class.

To begin with, he addressed us as Mr. So-and-so or Miss So-and-so (the term Ms. was not yet in use) – which struck us students as a bit snobby. “Does he even know our first names?” we wondered.

Sexism in the classroom

Then, early in the semester, he made the following pronouncement: “If I had my way, this class would be all male students, but since we are a public school, female students have to be admitted.”

What?? Talk about being dismissed right from the start! Yet we female students were apparently stuck with him – which meant working double-duty to overcome his sexist attitude. Nor was that the worst of his pedagogical crimes.

Madame Defarge illustration. Sketch by Harry Furniss (1910).  Image scanned by Philip V. Allingham and located on the Victorian Web

Mr. AP’s primary job was to prepare us for the rigorous AP English exam at the end of the semester – selecting from an approved list of novels  that we could use to muster our exam arguments.

In the years before diverse authors like Amy Tan, Toni Morrison, Gabriel García Márquez and Edwidge Danticat made the list, most authors on the AP English roster were white men – and many reflected our teacher’s backward attitudes.

Women and people of color marginalized

Among the works Mr. AP particularly loved were Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, about an imperialist boat captain named Marlowe plying the Congo River (a book that marginalized women and people of color) and pretty much anything by Friedrich Nietzsche (who was looked to by the Nazis as the philosopher of the Third Reich).

In short, the class was torture – and these works were enough to make my blood boil. For one thing, Marlowe couldn’t even get a boat captain job until his aunt intervened to get him hired – so where did Conrad get off dismissing women? And Conrad’s racist depiction of African laborers was arrogant and insensitive.

And don’t even get me started on Nietzsche! Mr. AP would drone on about Nietzsche’s life and his friendship with the antisemitic composer Richard Wagner — lectures that could be summed up in two words: “Who cares?” Meanwhile, Nietzsche’s philosophy was as dense as a brick — and none of his books were even on the AP list!

Exam prep my way

So, what was a young female student to do? My decision was to challenge Mr. AP in class, but go my own way for exam prep. To get college credit, you had to score at least 3 out of 5 on the College Board AP Exam. The general advice was to select one book and know it cold – so I looked over the list and chose a book that Mr. AP was not teaching.

I spent weeks prepping on my own for the AP English exam, all the while expecting that I would probably score a 3 – not the top grade, but good enough for college credit. Meanwhile, Mr. AP’s two favorite male students were widely expected to score 5’s. Exam Day came, I did my best – then waited for the test score to come in the mail.

“The Storming of the Bastille,” by Jean-Pierre Houël, at the National Library of France.

Successfully storming the AP Bastille

I’ll never forget the day I arrived home and my mom handed me the College Board envelope. I opened it and – unbelievable – I had scored a 5! I cheered, I laughed, I cried – I’d been vindicated!

Not only that, but the only other student to score a 5 was also female. She was one of my coffeehouse colleagues from the Eugene McCarthy in ’68 campaign. Meanwhile, Mr. AP’s male protegees each scored a 3.

At the end of senior year, when Mr. AP signed my 1968 yearbook, he wrote in red ink that I was the “Madame Defarge of AP English” – likening me to the French revolutionary knitter from the Dickens novel A Tale of Two Cities.

I embraced the moniker as a well-deserved compliment, and a grudging admission by Mr. AP that I had successfully stormed his Bastille and come away victorious — ending up with six college credits, and no thanks to him.

Up next, N is for Norm in his 40s: My dad becomes a Catholic. Please stop back! Meanwhile, please visit the intrepid bloggers who are walking the walk over at Sepia Saturday 668.

© 2023 Molly Charboneau. All rights reserved.

19 thoughts on “Madame Defarge of AP English — #AtoZChallenge2023”

  1. So I am curious what was the book you studied and knew “cold” – (I have never heard the term “know it cold” before.)

  2. Facing the challenge of an arrogant imperious teacher is a life lesson in itself. I understand how Mr. AP motivated you to persevere and find your own way. Sometimes it is the obstacles in life that steer us to find an unexpected path.

    In regard to Madame Defarge the knitter, it is curious that this needlework craft is shared by many harp players I have known. The reason is that an orchestral harpist has such little music to play and very, very long time until they actually get to play that while they patiently wait, they knit. It’s a way to keep alert and keep their fingers busy while they sit in rehearsals.

    1. Thanks, Mike — I was just glad this obstacle didn’t block my path! Also, interesting about the harp players knitting! That would make a great blog post if photos exist 🙂

  3. Loved hearing about your assertive behavior as such a young woman…it sure took me a long time to be able to say what I thought or even know about women’s rights. This was also a school without AP classes, but I’ve been glad to hear about various grandchildren sailing through them, so much so that one began college as a sophomore!

    1. Great to hear about your grandkids, Barb. With today’s college costs, AP classes and exams are a great way to avoid at least some of the debt burden.

  4. We didn’t have AP classes in my high school. And, there was a teacher’s strike in my senior year, which disrupted things a bit. , so even if they had, I would have had to do a lot more on my own. Thinking of that teacher, I think Mr AP actually did you a favor of sorts. Would you have gotten the 5 without the push he gave you to prove him wrong. Maybe. But he didn’t hurt. Good for you!Just thinking of what happened to us and other women in those days and how we now seem to be going back to those days. It’s frustrating.

    1. Our school was quiet labor-wise, but you’re right, that AP challenge got me going — and had the added benefit of teaching me that I could learn on my own if pressed. I also agree about what we went through as women back then, and share your frustration with the Mr. APs of the world who are trying to push us back there.

  5. Well done ~ always a challenge to defend one’s point of view against the ‘system’ ~ We are still fighting against sexism, ageisms and other isms ~ wonder when we will ‘get it right.’ ~

    Wishing you good health, laughter and love in your days,
    A ShutterBug Explores,
    aka (A Creative Harbor)

  6. We didn’t have AP classes in my high school. I don’t even know if they had them anywhere 1960-1964. However when I got to college I took a test to try and skip English 101. I had to read the book “Heart of Darkness” and I guess my review of it didn’t pass muster because I had to take English 101. Ugh. Hate that racist book.
    Congrats on your 5!

    1. Sorry you had to be subjected to “Heart of Darkness.” I found a free copy at a book giveaway and glanced through it when preparing this post. It was just as awful as I remember.

  7. Such a colourful memory of a teacher who would now be dismissed for such anti diversity beliefs. . I disagree with him in his name for you – but it made a good story – and congratulations on your success. I thought at first you must have gone traditional and focussed on Dickens “Tale of Two Cities”.

    1. Thanks, Scotsue! I also wondered how he kept teaching (and eventually became a school administrator!) with his biased views. And funny thing about Madame Defarge — young women knitters have now embraced her with
      T-shirts and such as a symbol of feminist defiance 🙂 I’ve half a mind to buy one!

    1. Thanks, Pauline! I got a bit more in college, when I wrote a paper critiquing sexism in Conrad’s works (unfinished business from that AP English class).

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