by Joe Labriola
*A narrative account and reflection upon my trip to Kansas City, MO as a 2016 Advanced Placement Exam Reader. Interested educators and creative non-fiction fans alike enjoy!*
I’m not bothering with coffee because I’m not sure that coffee will bother with me. The rising bloom of blinding gold and simmering red over the woodsy hills outside the windows of Kansas City International Airport is more than enough rousing illumination to keep me chugging along. That is, after all, what myself and thousands of others have been doing for the past seven days at the 2016 AP Exam Reading – and via much caffeine.
When I first heard about this opportunity, my interest was roused, along with my caution. A week long, nearly all expensive paid trip to Kansas City? The plausibility of reading over a thousand AP English Language and Composition exams day after day after day etcetera?
I’m not a particularly prolific reader, despite all the reading I have to do as a college instructor. I like to take my time, to absorb, to appreciate, and to reflect upon what someone – for better or worse – spent time and energy to get in front of me. I knew going in that this would not be the case – that these readings would be long, grueling, and fast-paced. This certainly sounded like a unique experience though – and hopefully, adventure too.
With all these factors in mind (and the contractual promise of a sizable stipend for my week’s work) I applied, and was accepted, to join the yearly mass migration of educators to assess the college-level skills of America’s high schoolers.
The plane was a narrow, cramped affair: one aisle, a pair of seats on each side. The wide man in-front of me might have shaken on the tubular craft’s fasten seatbelts symbol if he had sneezed with too much commitment. Trying to calm my queasy nerves as the craft bobbed higher and higher I wondered, glancing around, who else might be headed to the AP reading? Like Lost the teacher’s spin-off edition, I imagined that some of the passengers were secretly teachers or professors – myself among them, waiting to reveal my true identity when we landed in a city of academics, drawn there by the common yet mysterious cause of advanced placement judgement.
It turned out that a spattering of passengers were in fact flying to KC for the great grading. But they were soon lost – mixed among the mire of others from all over the country who gathered around a handful of AP reading greeters near the baggage claim. Luggage in hand, I finally squeezed my way up to a lady with a folder who asked for my name, which I gave. In turn, another greeter gave me a green sticker, which was, as he told me, “Color-coded for your hotel,” adding, “You’ll be staying at the Westin.”
I followed the confused throng of now bag-stickered newcomers outside into the flat middle-country heat, pretty much sweating the second my skin met the dry light of the unobscured sun above. There seemed to be little order despite the well-intentioned efforts of the clipboard-waving and literally blue-collared young man trying to organize lines and coordinate the great shuttle buses that would turn out to be our mode of transport for the next week to and from our hotels and the Convention Center.
Part of the problem was that these buses just happened to have red, blue, and yellow logos painted on their otherwise black bodies, prompting many of the readers to assume that their colored luggage sticker dictated which logo-colored bus they should board. As the panting blue-collared fellow finally declared, however, all of the buses were going to all of the hotels, and so with that small yet relevant revelation, I jumped on-board the nearest one, plopped my backpack in my lap, and began to read in order to pass the ride from the airport to the city.
We were only on the road for about a minute when some small, subconscious awareness within me piped up, asking, What in the hell am I doing? Travel reading was for New York City subways and long landscapes that changed little after the first hour or so of hopeful observation. But this would merely be a twenty or so minute ride into downtown Kansas City – and a ride that I very likely might not ever make again. As such, I packed my book away and turned to gaze at the passing of America’s proverbial heartland.
I’m glad I did. The Missouri countryside and suburbs seemed familiar yet foreign and beautiful at the same time. Strip-malls, billboards, rolling hills and woodsy ranges were about what I had expected to find. Strangely, it was the sky that captured my attention. This somehow seemed broader, grander than what I was used to back home. The clouds rose white and crispy gold from their shadowy bottoms, almost as if baked into bloom by the swollen sun above. We quickly came parallel to the Missouri River, which flowed bright and dark brown all at the same time – like Oregon Trail, the game, brought to life. The city now dominated the skyline ahead, across a white bridge spanning the wide waters.
We rolled right into the city. There was little traffic and even fewer people, which seemed odd given the surprising abundance of tall, near-skyscrapers. Many of the older, stouter buildings were stacked from rusty red bricks of the late 19th century – a gold rush looking metropolis now a century or so beyond its original glory. We continued south from the Crossroads District, over a railway bridge, and down to Crown Center to an idle stop in front of the Westin.
The check-in line snaked through the otherwise comfortably large hotel lobby, bending around a hallway corner and continuing down the crimson-carpeted corridor almost to the emergency exit at the end. Apparently this was not typical protocol, as a pair of graders waiting on line mentioned that last year hadn’t been anything like this.
After about forty minutes of stop and go, I reached the glorious help desk and gave my information.
“It looks like you’re already checked in,” the concierge said, much to my surprise.
“That’s funny,” I said, confused as to what in the hell the man behind the counter meant, or what explanation he expected me to give him. “I don’t remember checking in until just now.”
“Oh, I think it’s actually your roommate, Robert.”
“Ah, I see. That makes more sense.”
I had no idea that I even had a roommate until this moment, though I had assumed that the algorithms behind the scenes were likely to pair me with someone. Apparently this someone was Robert.
With my room cards in hand, I headed up to meet my chamber companion for the next week. Robert wasn’t there, but evidence of him was: a navy blue baseball hat on the desk, some worn white sneakers under the chair, and so on. I unpacked and then took a moment to slide back the blackout curtains shielding the windowed wall of our room from the nearly 100 degree heat outside. I saw this:
As I stood there gazing upon the picturesque skyline, I realized that I had no idea what came next. The itinerary on the website had merely said for us to meet our greeter at the airport and check into our hotel rooms. Orientation didn’t begin until the next morning, but I figured it might not be a bad idea to check out the Kansas City Convention Center where I would be spending much of the following week grading.
The shuttle buses were prompt, one leaving every 15 minutes or so. I explored the Convention Center for a while, gaining both my ‘credentials badge’ and some useful tourist brochures and maps in the process. I did some further exploring within the sprawling complex back at the hotel (which was attached to a three story mall), but before long it was time to shower and go to bed – though not without finally meeting my so far elusive roommate, Robert.
I had spoken with a handful of AP readers while waiting in various lines, the bus, and in the lobby bar so far. They had all seemed congenial enough, but nothing like Bob (as he told me to call him), who sat next to his bed sipping from a freshly poured glass ofTalisker 10 Years Old. “Have a glass,” he kindly offered as we exchanged pleasantries, to which I gladly responded, “Thanks, Bob. Don’t mind if I do!”
Turned out Bob was a seasoned AP reading vet. “My first reading was in ’79,” he told me. “It’s grown a great deal since then.”
I was pleasantly surprised to find myself paired with such a genuinely kind and experienced roommate. I had worried that I might be lotteried in with a party animal, or weirdo, or a weirdo party animal – as some had been, at least according to their accounts. More shocking was the realization that I was the young gun who was innately determined to go to bed and wake up as late as practically possible.
Fortunately for me, I awoke the next morning to the scent – and sight – of freshly brewed coffee on my night stand. “Coffee’s ready,” Bob said, rolling up his sleeves, already dressed and ready to go. “You probably want to catch the bus by 7:15 if you want time for breakfast.”
Bob, as if through some natural paternal instinct, had not only gotten up in time to make sure I wouldn’t be late, but provided me with the caffeinated fuel to get going every dawn. I did have my alarm set, but why bother when I could opt for such consistent and comfortable personal wake up service? When he asked toward the end of our trip how in the world I got up in time back home, I answered that this was one of my girlfriend’s many jobs – and so thank goodness he was here.
The first morning of the AP reading is very much a confused herd shifting about en vague route to their designated grading areas. There had been a subdued sort of freak out among the English Language readers (the exam I was grading) the day before due to our question (and table) numbers having yet to be assigned on the white poster boards near the check-in tables like the others exams (statistics, biology, and so on). Initially, I didn’t understand the concern. The board had our question assignments now (number two for me), though as I came to learn through my own experience, the ‘freak out’ was perhaps more of a psychological than practical reaction, as we would become married to our questions for the next seven days.
The orientation herd gathered in one of the Convention Center’s football stadium sized arenas with its concrete floor and metal-beamed arched ceiling. After a brief greeting by the AP Big-Whig we were shepherded toward our designated question sites. The arena was subdivided by tall steel poles with blue blanket-curtains draped between them, creating a sort of semi-permeable barrier between each section. Question two’s camp was pitched in the far back right where I found my assigned table as well as grading coworkers for the next week.
Most of my fellow table readers were veterans of varying years of service, but even then I was among a pair of other newbys out of the eight of us total. The first half of day one is mainly about ‘calibration’ – essentially you’re given the grading rubric (scaled from 0-9, zero being an unrelated response to the question prompt and nine being “especially sophisticated” even if not perfect) and practice responses to assess and discuss where and why they fall wherever they do within said rubric.
There was certainly some interesting discussions about this grading process – some of us being from university and seemingly many more from high school. I overheard more than once (in fact, I believe they declared it themselves during orientation) that the AP reading was the best professional development experience in the industry. As such, I was eager to learn about others’ pedagogues, lesson plans, and further tricks and tips of the trade.
While I definitely exchanged some useful assessment guidelines with my tablemates, our job was to conform to the rubric given, which we did and were thankful to have come about essay 200 out of at least a thousand.
Overall they did a great job breaking up the monotony of grading for 8 hours a day, given the rigid nature of the whole process. My daily schedule more or less went as such:
- Bob wake up coffee 6:30am
- Breakfast 7am-8am;
- Grading 8am-10:15am
- Mini-break 10:15am-10:30am
- Grading 10:30am-12:15pm
- Lunch 12:15pm-1:15pm
- Dinner 5:00pm-6:00pm
- Complementary Bob Scotch 6:15pm
- Professional development lectures, events, readings, etc./party-time/exploring 6:30pm-11:30pm
There were also briefer ‘stretch’ breaks scattered throughout the week, at least until the last day when we, according to the Big-Whig who came to our blue-curtained corner to declare to us, “fell behind schedule,” which seemed strange, given the fact that I had doubled my daily grading output from the first day to the final one, as had many others whom I’d spoken with. Then again, we were merely among many hundreds grading many thousands of exams.
The table leaders and question leader for their parts did all they could to keep us encouraged and going. Our question leader was particularly lauding, at least until it was time to, as she would declare when returned from breaks, go “back on your heads.”
It wasn’t until the third day or so that she finally revealed what this strange phrase really meant. Each question leader had a bell or whistle or squeaky duck to alert their readers’ attention, to call for us to put on our black headsets to listen to their orders, instructions, guidance, etc. – which we were glad to do amidst the prospect of diving back into yet another hour or two of uninterrupted, factoryesque grading. “I realize I haven’t explained what this really means,” she said, referring to her return-to-work phrase – and oh, how her explanation became an apt summary of the AP reading experience. The joke went (more or less) like this:
There’s this man, a very bad man. He lives his whole life by cheating and swindling and stealing from others, causing them to suffer and fail and end up dwelling in abject misery while he prospers. One day he gets hit by a bus while crossing the street on his way to work and dies. He wakes up in hell where he meets the devil.
The devil tells him that he has three choices, or doors rather, to spend all of eternity behind. He must choose one – a fair offer given all of this bad man’s various misdeeds throughout life. He sighs, resigned to his fate. He knows how rotten he’s been and that he now must pay his dues and so he asks to see what’s behind the first door. The devil opens it to reveal an endless room full of people doing headstands on wooden planks. “That doesn’t look took too comfortable,” the man says after observing their discomfort for a brief moment. “Let’s see door two.”
The devil shows him the next room, another endless chamber full of people doing headstands again, but this time on concrete slabs instead. They indeed seem unhappy, groaning and sweating just like the last sorry bunch. “Ouch, poor fools. That doesn’t seem much better! Let’s try number three.”
The final door reveals a sea of people standing upright, which pleases the bad man, except for the fact that they’re all nearly waist deep in excrement. Yet despite this fact they seem to be having a great time, chatting and laughing and frolicking as much as their circumstances will allow. The bad man comes to a relatively quick decision. “Well, it’s not ideal, but I think I’m gonna have to go with the third door here.”
The devil, without hesitation, nods and declares, “Alright then, in you go.”
The bad man enters to join his forever brethren as the door closes behind him. He’s hardly introduced himself to his neighbors when he hears a knock on the door, which opens once more to reveal the devil. “Alright, break’s over,” the devil says, grinning. “Back on your heads.”
I spent the first couple of nights trying to acclimate to my surroundings, mostly enjoying the hotel gym and pool as captured in stunning detail here:
There was also a ‘mixer’ the first evening back at the Convention Center. The first face that greeted me upon entering was none other than Bob. “Have a free drink card,” he said, smiling. “Here, take another; I have plenty.”
I also met some very interesting folk at the hotel bar – other readers from all over the country: California, Texas, Iowa, Michigan, and Montana to name a few. It wasn’t until the third night or so that I set out by myself, having previously been wary of the lack of pedestrians on any given night. In New York there’s a natural inclination to avoid strolling down empty city streets, especially when they feel as if they should be packed with people out to party.
But as I soon learned Kansas City was a different sort of place, in many ways a lonely place. Not the residents (the few I ran into and talked with at least), but the buildings – many of which were foreclosed or for rent or in mid-construction. Granted, we spent most our time in the south side of the city, but even then there were afternoons when I wondered if a zombie apocalypse had struck the nation, unbeknownst to us amidst our timeless marathon grading sessions.
But it was safe, once I realized that there were few people to cause life here to beunsafe. The question then became what to do with the little time left for entertainment and frolicking? There were plenty of AP organized events, but the workday left us exhausted both mentally and physically, hardly wanting to remain at the Convention Center when there was a whole city to explore.
There’s a great deal of small talk at the reading, especially in the buffet dining hall. It’s a great way to meet some fascinating and like-minded intellectuals, but also a crapshoot that might place you at a table surrounded by bleak-staring statistics readers, who always seem to be smirking even when they’re not asking their scripted conversation starters. One must wonder if we’d all have to suffer through so many mundane and awkward exchanges had the food been better, and thus mouths fuller. But such is buffet style on a mass scale.
Luckily at one dinner another fellow English Language reader, and writer, who by crapshoot’s chance had sat down at my own randomly selected table, saved the day by asking if anyone wanted to go see Shakespeare’s First Folio. Not so shockingly, the statistics folk remained unphased, but I gladly volunteered to join.
This might have been the best decision of the trip, as I found not only a fellow literature nerd, but a talented poet and friend. By the next night we were conducting our own little poetry writing club in the hotel lobby, exchanging ideas, works, and even press information. This accounted me as one of the lucky ones.
By the last day I still noticed many readers sitting silent (and perhaps a little sullen) during mealtimes. In retrospect this is one of the few places of oversight where it felt as if the AP reading program had failed. With such little time to find friends and organize adventures, a bit more effort could go a long way in bringing together those who share common interests. A bit more advertising and organization of the opening night mixer, for example, could have helped these groups find each other more easily and quickly. Or maybe simply an online forum to start our own interests outreach efforts?
I don’t mean to sound critical, but this is an especially valid critique of the reading week when one recalls the fact of how little time there was to ‘go out on the town’. Granted we were there for a job, but an hour of leisure extra a day or even a ‘break day’ in the middle could go a long way to retaining readers – if that’s something that the program is truly interested in doing. Most whom I spoke with plan to return next year – newbys and veterans alike. But the fatigue was palpable, and given the vast number of new readers I myself spoke with, I could easily see why so many end up not returning for one reason or several.
I might not have gotten to see and do everything I wanted to in KC, but I did get most of my traveler’s goals in. For that, I count the whole experience as a success (despite the fact that by day five I was starting to see Reagan’s name (see question #2) within the swirling marble patterns of the restroom floor). As a self-proclaimed ‘fraudetarian’ I took this work-cation as an opportunity to indulge in what I had heard was a distinct brand of Kansas City barbecue. I saw one of a kind art and heard live jazz. And I learned a thing or two about the world, realizations that I might otherwise not have gained had I hunkered down back home within my regular routine for another week instead. Some of these facts:
- The phrase “shittin’ in high cotton” is a Texas-based colloquialism used to describe someone who is “doing well” in one or more aspects of their life.
- If you see something on a menu along the lines of “burnt-ends”, try it.
- What constitutes as “traffic” is far from a universally consistent concept.
- Pizza can be done well in other parts of the country, but it still just doesn’t taste like home.
- People in public snapchat stupid shit everywhere.
- Don’t order the marlin if you’re a thousand miles from the nearest ocean.
- Californians and New Yorkers (myself being raised within the latter fold) sound pretty much about the same; everyone else either sounds ‘Mid-western’ or at least speaks with some variation of what I’ll generalize as a ‘Mid-land’ accent.
- Everyone compared to me walks painfully slow. This again may be another NY phenomenon. But regardless I could swear there were people who left the grading arena before me and didn’t sit down with their meals in the dining hall until I was wiping away my last bite.
As far as the actual grading process, it was truly a mental slog – though the relief when we dropped our pencils on that last day also brought an exhilarating sense of pride and accomplishment. And it seemed based on our output that we would be asked by the powers-that-be to return for next year’s grading.
But would we choose to come back even if we were offered to? As utterly exhausted as I am, even now about to board my flight back home, even as I was all week up until the end of the reading, the answer seemed obvious.
“Well, at least I know the city well enough now to see everything I want to next time,” I mentioned to one of my fellow readers, who to my surprise chuckled.
“You’ll have to come back here on your own then,” he said, yawning. “Next year’s in Tampa.”
Thanks for reading my account of this incredible event. Please feel free to ask any questions regarding further specifics about in the comments below! And again, you can also view the rest of my photos here!