Academic mania at LaGuardia High School

The author as a freshman at LaGuardia High School. Photo courtesy of Rachel Kalina

by rachel kalina

In the summer before my freshman year at LaGuardia High School in 2007, I did poorly on an entrance test and didn’t qualify for honors English. In my non-honors English class, we studied Shakespeare. I had seen quite a few Shakespeare plays at that point, and had even gone to a camp two years before in which I’d played servant number two (thank you very much) in a production of “The Merchant of Venice.” Nevertheless, due to my poor entrance test I was put into a class filled with kids who had barely heard of Shakespeare.

“But soft! What light through yonder window breaks?”

“What does that mean?” asked the teacher.

“The light’s so strong, it’s smashing the window,” said one of the students.

“Not exactly.”

The teacher broke down each line. We acted out the scenes in groups. My group put on a puppet show. I built a miniature set, complete with balcony. The acting majors in my group made sock puppets and performed. It was awesome.

The next year, I was on the honors track for good; honors English, then AP English Language, then AP English Literature. In “Brave New World,” there is a scene in which babies enter a room filled with books and flowers. The babies crawl towards the display, but as soon as they reach it, a piercing noise goes off and an electrified floor shocks them. The babies learn to associate books and nature with pain and to stay away from them. That’s how AP English made me feel. It made me want to run from literature; it was a trap, every beautiful book followed by an electric shock in the form of a deadening essay topic or test.

I also wanted to win. I wanted people to think I was smart. I wanted to go to an elite college. So I took as many AP classes as the school allowed. And it all made me angry. I was doing what a good student was supposed to do; I took AP US History and got a four out of five on the AP test. I took honors government. I took the US history SAT2, scored over 700 out of 800, and retained nothing. To this day, I don’t know the date of the revolutionary war.

So I wasn’t surprised to hear about the recent student protests at LaGuardia High School over the encroachment of AP classes and strict grade-based admissions.

Before honors and AP classes, I used to read all the assigned books in English ahead of time. Not on purpose, just because I loved reading. The honors track ended that. I remember a moment in AP English Literature when the teacher had to step out of the room. “Start discussing ‘Portrait of the Artist’ while I’m gone.” The door closed behind her.

Silence filled the room.

Finally, a girl spoke. She was one of those students who always came prepared. During class discussions, self-assured, fully articulated thoughts floated from her lips like pearls. “I haven’t read the book at all,” she said.

The second student to speak was a quiet girl, sad-looking in the vein of Sylvia Plath, who usually exhibited almost the same level of poetry in her class commentary as the great writer herself. “I just skim SparkNotes the night before discussion or before I post online in the class forum.”

Now a boy: “Me, too.”

More confessions followed from my brightest classmates on down, until we came to the consensus that no one sitting in that room had at any point read any portion of “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.”

And here’s the thing; two things actually. The first is that because of the time spent on SAT study, SAT2 study, revising college essays, doing extracurricular activities designed to enhance our college eligibility and finishing the homework for all those other AP classes, we simply didn’t have time to read the book. The second thing is that if we had wanted to learn, we wouldn’t have been taking AP classes; we would have taken classes that allowed us time to read books.

It’s encouraging that the current students of LaGuardia are pushing back against tougher academic courses and admissions standards. It means they want to learn and that they care about their art. Unlike my generation, instead of just subverting the system, they’re facing up to the administration and attempting to change the status quo. If they succeed, they’ll make room for real learning to happen, in classes like English as well as the arts.