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.
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.
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.