I’ve been thinking about something I touched on briefly last week, namely my avoidance of assigned reading in high school. To be honest, it didn’t start there. I can remember getting caught not reading Huck Finn in eighth grade English.
I used to think it was either about choice or pride. Pride because I liked that I could pass, even excel in, honors English classes without reading the assigned books. Choice because the books always seemed to be written by misogynistic, depressing assholes. Hemmingway, Conrad, Steinbeck, Fitzgerald. Even The Big S had to be Hamlet and The Scottish Play. How about one of the comedies? Or some Jane Austen? Harper Lee? I’m actually glad we didn’t cover Much Ado or Pride and Prejudice or To Kill a Mockingbird because they remain three of my favorites and I likely would have skipped them had they been assigned.
The real problems didn’t have anything to do with choice or pride, though. They were really about reading speed, patterns, and testing. I figured out how to thwrat all three in Mr. L’s English class in eighth grade.
Going in to junior high, they must have given us an English placement test, though I can’t remember taking it. I don’t even remember if we had scantron tests in 1981, but I’m sure it was that kind. The kind I really suck at. And I must have totally tanked this one, because they put me in a remedial English class in seventh grade. Where I, of course, corrected the teacher’s grammar and she made me grade the spelling tests – without a key because my spelling was better than hers.
They also put me in a class called ‘reading.’ I think the purpose was to teach us to love reading, which was crazy for me, as it had always been my favorite pastime. Still, it was cool to get to read for pleasure in school without worrying about being caught. And the teacher read aloud to us with a very dramatic voice. It was my first exposure to horror – she had a superbly creepy voice and I think she may have gotten in trouble for scaring the shit out of some of the class, but I loved it. I think it was Poe, maybe The Telltale Heart? It’s crazy that I loved it because I had only given up my nightlight the year before. Her reading carosel also introduced me to Agatha Christie, an obsession that would last into college. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd remains my fave, in case you were wondering.
So, the powers-that-be must have figured out that I needed a different English track because I landed in honors English for the eighth grade. That’s where I met Mark Twain. See, I love Mark Twain, so I was enthralled by Huck Finn. We were supposed to read a certain number of pages or chapters every night, but I quickly fell behind. I loved the story, I just couldn’t keep up with the expected pace. And one day I got caught.
My teacher, Mr. L, used some unconventional techniques. When I couldn’t answer a question about the previous night’s reading, he told me to go next door and ask the ninth grade class. And not to come back until I had the answer. When I just stood there, frozen with fear, he marched me out the door and shoved me into their classroom, closing the door behind me. My memory shorts out after that, probably due to the blinding fear of being stared down by 30-odd ninth graders. I’m sure the teacher was used to Mr. L’s antics and took pity on me because I know I eventually ended up back in my own class.
I’m sure the purpose of my punishment was to have the whole class keep up with the reading from that point on. But fear only makes me freeze up, it doesn’t help me read faster. I knew I couldn’t keep up and that I sure as hell didn’t want to get caught again, so I devised two strategies to guard against exposure. The first was specific to my eighth grade teacher. A friend and I discovered that, if we asked questions about weight lifting, Mr. L would spend the whole period talking about that and we’d never get to the lesson. That had to be used sparingly, though. The other tactic, which served me well until I hit the 300-student lectures of college, was to pick an early question I could answer and raise my hand. That way, the teacher assumes you’ve done the reading and moves on.
As I began to join the class discussions, I found I could actually participate, making predictions of what happened in the book based on the other students’ answers. Kind of like I can predict what a spanish word will be even though I can’t understand the words in an actual Spanish conversation. It’s about the pattern.
So I got all the way through AP English by ignoring assigned readings and participating in the discussion alone. Until the second semester of my senior year. My choir went to a competition in California the week my class discussed The Grapes of Wrath. I tried to read it. I tried so hard. But five pages on a turtle crossing the road broke my brain. I did manage to make it through the movie, but that didn’t help me pass the multiple choice test. I think that was the first F I ever received. Fortunately for me, I had learned enough about patterns by that time to make it through the written part. I knew the main character’s initials were JC and I knew enough about the plot to make comparisons to Jesus. That got me 100% on the essay. My teacher never said anything about it, but I wonder if she found the paradox odd.
I took the AP English exam that year, but didn’t do very well. I don’t know if that was because of the multiple choice section, the fact that I hadn’t had discussion on enough of the covered books, or that the exam was on the morning of opening day of the musical in which I had the first line. I spent much of the test freaked out because I couldn’t remember what my line was. I managed to get a three (out of five possible). Unfortunately, that got me out of a literature class in college, but not freshman composition. I think that’s asinine.
I took the English placement exam as an incoming college freshman and tanked that, too. I don’t do well under pressure and couldn’t think of anything to write that fit the topic we were given. So, I took freshman comp (as a sophomore). We were asked to write an essay on a topic of our choosing during the first class. The second class, the teacher (a TA, not a professor) read mine aloud to the class and said, “I hope that, by the end of the semester, you can all write like this.” I could fucking write like that before I met you, lady, so what the hell am I doing paying for this class? It was like seventh grade English all over again, except this time I was shelling out money for the class. Why should placement exams take precedence over actual demonstrated ability? It’s not like I was ever going to end up in some dark room with a gun to my head, forced to write proficiently about the person living or dead I most want to emulate or I’ll never see my family again.
I’ll close this rambling treatise on English essay experiences with some advice to college-bound people with, or who suspect they have, autism. First, consider a small college or university. I know the anonymity of a big school is alluring for those of us who yearn to blend into the crowd, but it can be exceedingly difficult to connect with the class material in a huge lecture hall with hundreds of students. Second, talk to the office of disability services before you take any placement tests. Tell them what you struggle with and see what kind of accommodations they can make for you. I would have had a much better experience with placement tests if I had been given the topic beforehand or allowed to modify the question so it made more sense to me or even just had more time. I just didn’t know to ask.