Dear State Board of Education (Can I call you “Eddie”?),
As we start a new school year, I just want to commend you for another successful state English exam. Every year I wonder: Will they do it again? Will they find the whitest palette of excerpts from novels, essays, and articles blended with multiple choice questions and writing prompts into the metric masterpiece we need to ensure our high schoolers are prepared to meet the demands of the world upon graduation? And every year, you deliver a three-hour Still Life with Whiteness, masterfully designed to gauge student readiness for a world in which students will apparently be primarily demanded to make pithy comments at Manhattan dinner parties.
It’s astonishing, really, how you do it. Considering the vast array of literary texts available, representing a multitude of cultural and socioeconomic perspectives, you manage to home in on the pieces most likely to make a New Yorker subscriber’s heart flutter or inspire a hedge fund manager to tell the story of the time he spilled Château d’Yquem on the author in question’s carpet. I mean, when I saw your first excerpt was O. Henry, I had a hunch that this year we were not (thank god) in for a twist. But then when you followed this with a piece entitled “A Dream of Mountaineering” (assumedly from the collection The Dreams of White People) and then—white frosting on the white cake—another dead white William (I mean, can you ever have too many?) writing about a character named “Flegg” (Flegg!!!) utilizing a perfectly Fleggian prose style, I shouted, Let’s go to the Whitney Gala, highly diverse high school student population of our state!
Now, of course, I know that the content of these pieces, which have ranged over the years from an early twentieth-century wealthy park gathering to a meditative piece on the psychology of surfing, is foreign to many of my Black and brown students who (in many cases) have had little opportunity to leave their block, where, as it should happen, there are neither surfers (contemplative or otherwise) nor upper-crust white ladies sussing out the social behavior of their peers—but that doesn’t mean, if these teens are lucky enough to survive the heavy physical and psychological toll of their environment and graduate, they will not then need to head immediately to the West Nineties where doorpersons do not tip hats toward those who cannot recite “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” upon entrance.
I may personally be tempted to teach some texts like The Hate U Give or a hilarious and poignant Phoebe Robinson essay on Black womanhood or Danez Smith’s scorchingly brilliant “Dear White America”—pieces that could help my students make sense of their lives, feel connected to their culture, and be empowered to make change through the expression of their own voices. But I know that my moral responsibility here is to inundate my students with the culturally disconnected white content and literary aesthetics they will need to pass both this test and the “test of life”—a.k.a., the Gramercy Park Co-Op application. Do you think the socialites of Upper Manhattan are going to want to hear about some BIPOC young adult author or spoken word poet that helped one of my students bear the experience of raising their younger siblings from the age of nine because their mom was working multiple jobs? Is it nearly impossible to get a reservation at 4 Charles between 6 and 9 p.m.?!
So keep on with your #examssowhite. I can’t wait to see what preposterously pale masterpieces you will have for my students next year. Can I suggest a white divorcée from the city finding solace in raising sheep on a farm upstate? Or how about a feud between a son and father in an L.L. Bean that is deeper than the purchase of one kayak? I’m sure you’ll think of something rich!