A seldom reported distractor item on tests is the huge disturbance caused by wildly inappropriate artwork. What was a high schooler hoping to pass the Spring 2001 California High School Exit Exam to make of the illustration stuck below “The Courage That My Mother Had,” a poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay, showing a stocky, middle-aged African woman? Edna St. Vincent Millay, the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize in poetry, a woman who was arrested marching for Sacco and Vanzetti, a woman whom Thomas Hardy declared one of the two great things in the U. S. (the other being the skyscraper), was described by a student in the audience when she gave a reading at Yale: Her bright hair shining, she stood before us like a daffodil.
Nancy Milford, author of an acclaimed biography, describes that hair as “fire” and her skin as “ale as milk.” Far from stocky, Edna was small in stature, often described as ethereal. Ralph McGill, recalling that “she wore the first shimmering gold-metal cloth dress I’d ever seen,” called Edna “one of the most fey and beautiful persons I’d ever met.”
The illustration accompanying the Millay poem on the tests prepared by ETS is the opposite of fey. It is the portrait of a dark, prim, stolid, middle-aged woman who, frowning in her suit, might be a church deacon, an undertaker, a high school principal facing an inquisition from the board.
As every English teacher knows, poetry is universal and the speaker in a poem is not necessarily the poet herself. The the ETS testocrats forestall this interpretation by inserting this bald statement in the directions for reading Millay’s poem: The following poem is about the poet’s inheritance. What’s the reader to think? That Edna was adopted? Come to think of it, the African-American women in the illustration looks like she could be the head of an orphanage.
Some will say I quibble. After all, probably not one high schooler in ten will know that Millay was a daffodil, not an oak tree. But consider what happend to More Stories Julian Tells when the testocrats got hold of it. Most third graders in the land know that the acclaimed Julian series features an African-American family. So what were seven- and eight-year-olds to make of the Illinois reading test, with its excerpt from More Sotires Julian Tells showing Julian as an Anglo kid?
Which phrase from the poem creates a tone of sadness and regret?
a) “Rock from New England quarried”
b) “Oh, if instead she’d left to me”
c) “The golden brooch my mother wore”
d) “That courage like a rock”