"But if it be a sin to covet honour,It's heavy, the air, with honeysuckle, sweet peas, and wet earth. Lightning keeps smacking the mountains, followed by the growls of thunder. Looking west out my living room window, I can see the crepe myrtle sagging under the weight of the fat drops, but through the rain, the sun, a washed tangerine, sets over the west hills. Everything glimmers gold. Along the canyon edge, each car is a slither-slide as it passes.
I am the most offending man alive." Shakespeare, Henry V
It's May 9th, and it is raining at my house. I'm not sure it is raining very many other places around here right now, but here it pours. I can't remember another May with rain. It's beautiful.
Tomorrow morning, my AP English Language students settle in at 7:45 in the gym. They turn off their phones, place them in envelopes, and hand them to the proctor. All along far edge of the gym, they line their backpacks and purses. The proctor gives each of them two sharpened pencils and a pen, as well as a sealed-shut exam labeled with their names and individual AP numbers. When the proctor says go, they've got an hour to complete 54 questions on five passages, assessing their rhetorical analysis skills, vocabulary, understanding of syntax, and advanced reading comprehension. After the hour is up, they get a 15 minute break. I tell them to jump around, do cartwheels, shoot some hoops, do anything they can to get the blood out of their butts after sitting for an hour and reading and bubbling, because, as soon as they sit down again, the hard haul begins.
The proctor and her assistants hand out two packets: one includes the essay questions and one the lined paper in which they're to write their essays. When the proctor says go this time, they have 15 minutes to read the seven sources for the synthesis essay. When the proctor says go the second time, they get to start writing. They start with the synthesis essay, an argument essay in which they have to respond to an abstract question in concrete form, including at least three of the seven sources in their argument. They have 40 minutes in which to write this essay. The second essay is the rhetorical analysis essay. Here, in another 40 minutes, they read a complex argument and explain how the author moves his audience towards his rhetorical purpose. And finally, the argument essay comes along, and students receive a philosophical position which they need to defend, challenge, or qualify in some way, all in 40 minutes. They have 120 minutes plus 15 minutes of reading time for three challenging essays.
And this year, my students are going to eat that test up, smile, and run up the rally stand steps as if they were Rocky making his way, two steps at a time, up the steps of the Philly Museum of Art.
They sky has changed as I've written. It no longer glows orange but a hot neon lavender. Even the trees look recolored; only the crepe myrtle stays black in silhouette and weighted.
I'm a jumble of feelings for my students. I'm so proud of their bravery and humor going into this test: today we sang Journey's "Don't Stop Believing" at the top of our lungs. Yet, I'm scared for them. My students' pass rate is never as high as I hope it will be, though it has risen every year I've taught the course. But this year, this year I think it is really going to happen. We've worked so hard. My students have written more, read more difficult texts, analyzed more, and challenged themselves more than they could have expected when they entered my classroom in August. One girl said to me last week, "You're killing me, Wenger." I asked her if it was worth it. "Absolutely. I'd do it again in a heartbeat."
Why does this test matter?
Most of my students live on incomes that qualify them for free-lunch waivers; for them, the test costs $15. For everyone else, the AP exam costs $90. Either way, if a student passes with a 3 out of 5 for most schools and a 4 out of 5 for elite universities, the student receives college credit for English Composition. In other words, if they pass this test they take in high school, they've paid either $15 or $90 for a credits that might cost them thousands in college.
Now, more than ever, my students are fighting for those credits.
And so, with windows wide open to let the thunder in, I have attempted to calm my nerves. First, I wandered outside to plant more summer squash, a sturdy open-pollinated variety, Dark Star zucchini. I had already walked the dog, so I played fetch with him in the rain. My heart was all zingy still, so I came inside and set out to mix up a Manhattan, my go-to drink, but ended up instead with a twist, replacing the sweet vermouth with homemade nocino (spiced green walnut liqueur). The drink has done its magic, letting my little tension springs free in my head.
There isn't anything I can do to help my students anymore. Tomorrow, they have to go into battle alone. I'm hoping that the thunder, rattling my house and ears and brain like war calls, is on their side.