Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Sharyn McCrumb: When Kenny Got An A

When I was just out of college, and about ten years away from publishing my first novel, I taught school for a couple of years. I was a very young schoolteacher, trying to cope with a classroom full of mostly male roughnecks in a private boarding school that catered to inner city athletes, who were being groomed for college basketball teams. It was the kind of place that celebrated when one of the students made 800 --total-- on the SAT.

Because it was an underfunded private school in a small town, everyone on staff did more than just teach one subject. I taught English, French, and Spanish, seven periods a day, and I was the drama department, putting on skits and plays with whichever students felt like treading the boards. Most of the guys I taught were nice enough, but they considered academics an arbitrary and unnecessary obstacle to an athletic career.

These guys weren't geniuses by a long shot, but even by their standards Kenny was dumb. He was in my first year Spanish class, a sweet and cheerful dumpling of a fellow, not a tall, toned athlete like most of his classmates. I’m not sure how he ended up in this Augean stable of jocks, but there he was-- always amiable and laid back, just drifting through the months, in hopes of eventual graduation.

While he was certainly of normal intelligence, Kenny was hopeless at schoolwork, and not inclined to apply himself to do any better. The other boys teased him mercilessly about being a dolt, and Kenny always took their taunts in good humor, but I resented it on his behalf. His tormenters weren’t cracking the books, either, and I felt that their C-minuses hardly entitled them to belittle poor Kenny for his inevitable F’s.
So... on April Fool's Day that year... before Spanish class, I decided to score one for the underdog. That morning I snagged Kenny in the hall as classes were changing, and had a private chat with him."I'm giving a pop quiz in Spanish today," I said.
Kenny expressed no surprise or distress. He took his F's as they came, philosophically.
"It's going to be an April Fool's joke.”

Kenny nodded, politely uncomprehending, but willing to humor me.

“Kenny, you know how every time I give a quiz in Spanish class, everybody moans that they weren't given the information covered on the quiz cover?"
Kenny nodded. He never complained, but only because he had no hope of ever passing a quiz, notified or not.
"Well, this time they'll be right. The questions on today’s quiz will be on nothing we ever covered. Here's the deal, Kenny. Whatever you put down on this test will be the right answer, okay? Just back me up. Claim we covered the material and that you know all the answers. Whatever you put will be correct. Just don’t let on to the rest of the guys that it’s a prank.”

Kenny grinned and nodded, and we went on to class separately, ready to stick it to the bullies in Spanish I, where we had been doing a history unit, studying the conquistadores.

As soon as they were settled, I said, "Take out a sheet of paper. We're having a quiz."

A room full of groans. "On what? You didn't say there'd be a quiz."

Kenny sang out, "Yes, she did! Yes, she did!" His sheet of paper was at the ready, and he looked up at me like a greyhound in the slip.

"First question...what was the name of the horse of Hernando Cortez?"

"WHAT?" screamed 22 voices.
"I know! I know!" Kenny was scribbling furiously.

“Next question. What was Cortez’s favorite book?”

In the front row, Walter, another non-jock who enjoyed an A average with hardly any competition, narrowed his eyes. “Now I know that wasn’t in the textbook.”

Kenny nodded vigorously. “But she told us! I remember. I know what it was.” He scratched a few words on his paper, and looked up, eager for the next question.

The questions got increasingly bizarre, the protests got louder, and Kenny greeted each question with a triumphant nod, as he set down his answer with scholarly confidence."Oh, my god," one of the brighter guys said, "If Kenny knows the answer, it must still be on the chalkboard."

Automatically, all eyes went to the chalkboard, but it was completely blank. With a beatific smile, Kenny was still writing down the names of all the Spanish soldiers in Company C. Bill Cosby, Burt Reynolds, Terry Bradshaw…

Guys in his immediate vicinity were now leaning over Kenny‘s shoulder, trying to copy answers from his paper-- a novel experience for him. I pretended not to notice, so that he could savor the triumph of shooing them away from his work instead of being the shoo-ee.

Eventually-- I think it was the question about how many of Pizarro's soldiers were left-handed that did it-- Walter remembered what day it was, and realized that the quiz had to be an April Fool's joke. When he sang out “April Fool,” they all laughed, mostly out of relief, but at least Kenny had been given his moment of triumph. And to keep my part of the bargain, I voided the quiz-- except for Kenny’s. He got his only A of the year. Or maybe ever..

A year later, I got accepted to graduate school, and went off to the university. Except for an occasional stint as a writer in residence, I never taught again. I don't know what ever happened to Kenny, but even if he has forgotten me, I'd like to think he remembers the only quiz he ever aced, and how it felt to be-- if only for a moment-- the guy at the top of his class.

Now we live in an age in which knowledge stored in one's head isn't really the sign of intelligence it once was. Why should I memorize, say, the list of U.S. vice-presidents, when someone next to me can Google it on his Blackberry, and come up with the answer before I do. I wonder who the smart guys will be in the brave new world. -- Probably still not Kenny, but it would be nice to think he had a shot.

* * *

Sharyn McCrumb has just completed her first co-authored novel, Faster Pastor with NASCAR/ARCA driver Adam Edwards. She won a 2006 Library of Virginia Award and AWA Book of the Year for her novel St. Dale, which was featured at the National Festival of the Book. Named as a “Virginia Women of History” for 2008, she is known for her Appalachian Ballad novels, including the New-York Times best-sellers She Walks These Hills and The Ballad of Frankie Silver.

Her novels, studied in universities throughout the world, have been translated into ten languages, including German, Dutch, Japanese, and Italian. She has lectured on her work at Oxford University, at a writers workshop in Paris, at the University of Bonn-Germany, and at the Smithsonian Institution. She has presented programs in 40 states, and four foreign countries.
A film of her novel The Rosewood Casket is currently in production.