Rescued From My File Cabinet

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As a brief reprieve from culling books from our bookshelves, I decided to tackle the file cabinets which do double duty as the supports for my desktop. This is a task that makes the book sorting seem like child’s play. I’m only halfway through a single drawer but the discoveries just keep on coming. Alongside folders of financial statements and material for next year’s income tax returns, none of which merits a second look, there are folders that require more than a glance at the tab; there’s no way to avoid the lure of removing the contents and succumbing to the pleasures or agonies of a close reading – tributes to retiring colleagues, eulogies,  the speeches my wife and I delivered at our daughter’s wedding, talks at conferences and mini-sermons for my Jewish group which I have no recollection of writing or presenting.

In addition, there are essays/articles that I abandoned before completion and some that I did finish but never shared. It’s those pieces that have returned me to my original reason for starting the blog – finding an audience for the writing that has existed only as word documents on my computer. Most of the first few months of postings consisted of things I had written earlier, but which never found an appropriate outlet. When that stash was exhausted, I turned to writing new material each week. It was usually less polished than the older work but when they worked, the pieces had a freshness and immediacy that compensated for their first-draft quality. This newly unearthed writing is from a time when I was still deeply immersed in the vibrant life of the classrooms where I was either teaching or observing.

What I wanted to share with you today in somewhat abbreviated and revised form brings me back to a class of seniors at Jones High School in Houston. I’ve told this story often in conversation, but never shared it in writing. It is an embarrassing tale of the consequences of failing to trust your students and being too quick to judge them.

August Wilson was always one of the regulars on the reading list for my Senior English class. Most often we were reading his Pulitzer Prize-winning play Fences about the relationship between an angry, embittered ex-baseball player, now garbageman, and his wife and children. The play never failed to provoke powerful discussions about family, race and personal aspirations.

So, I was delighted to find a recorded interview with Wilson, conducted by Bill Moyers. I was particularly struck by Wilson’s story from his own high school years which continues to haunt me. He recalls writing a paper about one of his great heroes, Napoleon, for his freshman English class. When it came time to return the papers, the teacher called Wilson to his desk and said, “Great paper. It’s an A if you can prove you wrote it, an F if you can’t.” Infuriated by this display of distrust, Wilson tore up the paper, deposited it in the wastebasket and left the classroom and the building. The next morning he shot hoops right under the principal’s window, hoping he would come down to find out why Wilson wasn’t in class, at which point, the unjustly accused student could make his case. No one ever came down and Wilson never returned to that school or any other.

When I first heard this story, my own hands were still clean. It was easy to portray Wilson’s teacher as a villain, but now I have walked in those same villainous shoes myself. Here is my tale.

Maria didn’t show up at Jones High School until her senior year.  She had been out sick for almost the entire previous year and decided that a fresh start at a new school might serve her well. She was still frail and sickly, and her attendance record was riddled with stretches of missed days. When she was absent, I missed seeing her innocent eyes fixed on me through her thick rimless granny glasses. Her speech had the lovely lilt of her native Spanish. Her family had come from Nicaragua when she was 11 or 12, too late for unaccented speech, but otherwise her spoken English was solid. I knew from her journals and from casual conversations after class that her home life was turbulent and that she often sought refuge at the home of her boyfriend Sammy.

In spite of all the lost time, Maria devoured the sizeable reading list I assigned to her and her “gifted” classmates and supplemented it with a good deal of independent reading of her own choosing which I encouraged my students to do. They were expected to document this reading with written reactions and reflections that they shared with me. It was here that the newness of her second language tended to show its fault lines.

One of the books Maria chose to read on her own was Pride and Prejudice. Very few of her classmates would have chosen to tackle Jane Austen unassigned. They hated “old-fashioned” language; the snappy contemporary voice of Young Adult narrators was more their style. To verify her reading of the book, Maria wrote something that hovered somewhere between a book report and an analytic paper. In addition to addressing the basic plot and sketching in the key characters, she analyzed the book’s structure and discussed the social values of the period as they were reflected in the novel.

The language of the paper was so seamless and the thinking so complex that I smelled a rat. The work was on a different level from anything Maria had produced before. There was something about the style, the phrasing and the issues addressed that had the ring of Cliffs Notes (Note: they were the Spark Notes of that generation.) I had been burned once or twice by students who had lifted material from them virtually unchanged, so I was always vigilant for signs of these sneak attacks.

I can deal with below par performance by students if there’s evidence of some effort, but lying and cheating are unpardonable sins, just as they always were for my children at home. They are a betrayal of trust that undermines the integrity of the relationship between student and teacher, parent and child. So, it was understandable, if not forgivable, that I exploded at what appeared to be Maria’s misdeed. I wrote a long angry comment on her paper like the wronged lover in a steamy TV drama and felt righteous for having done so.

I returned the paper to Maria at the beginning of the next class period. All through the hour I cast glances in Maria’s direction to gauge what reaction, if any, I had evoked. I couldn’t get a clear read, but she approached me after class to ask if she could meet with me the next day before class. Of course, I said, anticipating a confession, an apology, a statement of remorse after which I could guide her back into more sanctioned academic paths.

Maria sat beside me at the table she normally occupied during class. Her eyes were swimming in a lake of pre-tears that made them look larger than ever behind her Granny glasses.

“Dr. Hoffman, I was very hurt and confused by what you wrote on my paper. You said I copied it from Cliff’s Notes. I had to go ask someone what Cliff’s Notes was. I’ve never seen one.” She went on to explain that she had loved Pride and Prejudice so much that she had decided to push herself to respond as she never had before. She had spent many hours in her safe haven at her boyfriend Sammy’s composing that paper, thinking of how pleased I would be. And then the note.

I was drowning in shame. I wanted to throw myself at her feet and beg forgiveness. How could I have lost my perspective to such an extent that I would question the integrity of this sweet, innocent vulnerable soul who had not yet been corrupted by her adopted culture to have tapped into its available tools of dishonesty?

As a parent or teacher, the only remedy I know for wronging a child is to apologize, to admit my error. Kids are unaccustomed to this kind of behavior from adults who too often fear that this act threatens to undermine their authority. On the contrary, my experience is that it often opens the door to a deeper relationship with the recipient of this unexpected gift. And, indeed, Maria was quick to accept my apology, as eager to ease my pain as I was to erase hers.

I have often wondered at my failure to simply call Maria in to question her about how this paper came to be, rather than beginning by leveling accusations. That straightforward inquiry would have elicited the whole story, one that would have had me praising Maria for the gigantic leap she had been motivated to make. As teachers we often prod our students for signs of remorse or contrition following some knuckle-headed misfiring of the adolescent brain, but the fact is that we, as arbiters of moral and upright behavior, are rarely more than one step from the abyss ourselves.

P.S. When Maria and Sammy were married the following year, I was invited to attend this glorious and unique Nicaraguan event. Could there be a better sign of absolution?

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Marv Hoffman

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