I was really looking forward to my junior year of high school. After the disaster of sophomore year, I was determined to take much less challenging classes. I was also really excited because I’d be an upperclasswoman, which meant I could start taking electives instead of just required courses. Towards that end, I signed up for American history (not AP, as much as my boneheaded guidance counselor tried to persuade me!), Latin I, world literature, and either psychology or Africana studies (or both?), alongside Course III (trig) and Spanish III (my fifth year of Spanish). I don’t remember what I chose for science.
Sadly, my mother wouldn’t let me continue with art, despite my love for it. I’ve never pretended to be anywhere near the quality of a serious professional artist who draws and paints every single day, but that doesn’t mean I’m a talentless hack who can only draw stick figures or fling globs of paint at a canvas. My love of art and desire to create was badly hurt for many years on account of this. I’ve discovered my artistic calling and passion are for geometric and abstract art, and very colourful animals like tropical fish, tree frogs, and parrots.
Alas, my family made a disastrous mistake of a move back to Pennsylvania, a mistake which was obvious even before it happened. Those eleven months were among the darkest nights of my soul. I was enrolled in the same rural, smalltown high school my father attended, where I felt so profoundly unchallenged. Irina’s experience at her first high school in Dream Deferred is very strongly based on my year at that school, and her friend Rhonwen is based on one of the few people who was kind and welcoming to me.
I might as well have skipped eleventh grade or graduated early, since the academic standards were so far below what I was used to. Albany High wasn’t exactly Eton, but at least it had age-appropriate standards. I don’t think my new guidance counselor, or the school in general, knew what to do with me, since I came from such a radically different system.
Instead of reading classic world lit and Hamlet in English, I was forced into freaking research paper and public speaking classes (each running half the year). These kids were juniors and had never done research papers before! I’d been doing them since eighth grade! Why couldn’t they let me take an English class with seniors?
And instead of any history class, I had to take civics with sophomores. This teacher was an infamous nut, and apparently got even worse in the years afterwards. I kid you not, he had a unit on the political spectrum, and there was a test where we were supposed to assign one of the six classifications to people based on descriptions like “20-year-old waitress who smokes pot” and “Someone who says ‘You can’t trust a Russian as far as you can throw him.'”
I got to take Spanish IV with seniors, and another junior who started in a different school system. But it moved at a snail’s pace, and these kids were just learning things I’d already known since sophomore year. One time I politely asked the teacher if a verb tense shouldn’t be romparon (they broke), since it was in the preterite. She agreed, but said she didn’t want to confuse them with grammar they hadn’t learnt yet.
We never even read Don Quixote or any other classics of Spanish literature!
There was no Latin, so I had to take French I. At that time, I had a negative view of the French language on account of the Vichy French, and also considered it snobby and outdated. The only other languages they offered were German and Japanese, through distance learning by computer. Almost all of the other kids in my French class were ninth graders, and they didn’t exactly warm to this strange liberal Yankee in their midst.
The only classes that didn’t make me feel stupid, bored, and unchallenged were astronomy (taught by someone who got his Ph.D. at the end of the year) and psychology (which only ran for half the year). I was surrounded by hicks and hayseeds content to live in the same small rural town their entire lives, with only a few fellow cosmopolitan-minded nonconformists I knew of. They weren’t used to dealing with people from outside their little bubble, and that scared and threatened them.
Some of the boys in my “English” classes were particularly annoyed by how often I covered Russian history and culture, and even made audible noises of disgust and frustration when I started writing the Cyrillic alphabet on the blackboard. These same boys later gave a very homophobic, gay-bashing speech I’m shocked was permitted.
As much as I clashed with the school’s culture, I nevertheless decided to stay to finish the year after my parents and little brother moved to Massachusetts in April 1997. I figured I’d been screwed out of enough, and didn’t want the trauma of uprooting near the end of a school year. I even went through the motions of registering for senior year classes, including an integrated science seminar which consisted of lots of research papers.
My final high school was like night and day. I took AP English, Spanish V (which did include Don Quixote), Italian I (which I took to like lightning), physics, trig (the first math class I loved and excelled in since elementary school), U.S. history, and some kind of English-related elective that ran for the second half of the year.
I attended community college after graduating high school, and then transferred to UMass–Amherst. Though I wish I’d gone to UMass all four years, I had many excellent classes and professors in community college, and it saved a lot of money. No one should ever be made to feel ashamed of attending community college.
However, had I been set up for high academic achievement from a very young age like the A.T. kids and gradually transitioned into advanced courses instead of thrown in without a lifeboat, I think I would’ve applied myself a lot more rigourously and taken more than just two APs. Perhaps I could’ve attended a school like Smith, Vassar, Bryn Mawr, Barnard, or the University of Michigan. UMass was a default school which had a transfer compact with the community college.
After I make aliyah, I plan to attend graduate school at the University of Haifa’s International School (i.e., English-Language instruction), either Holocaust Studies or Jewish Studies, and damned if I don’t take it much more seriously than any of my previous academic experiences. Unlike the A.T. kids, I never had anything handed to me on a silver platter.