While I love these two pictures, they’re completely misleading. I guess it’s only fair I disabuse you right away: this post isn’t about using decoys to catch would-be philanderers. Nope, nothing nearly that juicy, I’m afraid, but it might be about something just as important.
For the last four years, I’ve been part of a group called WriterCoach Connection. We go into middle schools and high schools and tutor kids one-on-one. They bring us outlines or drafts of their work, or maybe just the kernels of ideas, and we help them find their voice, figure out what they want to say, and do it in a comprehensible way.
It’s fun and I love it.
Then last Friday something happened to me that’s never happened before. The woman who coordinates the program for Berkeley High approached me in the hallway minutes before our session started.
She handed me a folded piece of paper and asked “Do you want to take a shot at this?”
I opened the paper. It was an e-mail from the teacher. In it she asked if a writer coach would be willing to sit and work with Zach R., a student who she’s certain is cheating.
She had read a draft of his paper and was convinced he didn’t write it himself. She had even gone on-line and found papers on the subject – an analysis of characters from the novel “Things Fall Apart” – and concluded that Zach had downloaded excerpts from several papers and tweaked them just enough so that he couldn’t be pinned to the wall for out-and-out plagiarism. She asked that the coach, in their session with Zach, ask him to rewrite some of his ideas on the spot, to compare the writing to the draft he had brought in from home.
I said I’d take a crack at it.
As noncommunicative 15 year old boys go, Zach was surprisingly pleasant. When I asked him to summarize the book for me, he was able to do so. Maybe with lots of “hellas” and “I guesses” and so on, but it seemed to me he had actually read the material.
When I coaxed him into writing a few new sentences, however, things did fall apart. The spelling and grammar on the draft were flawless, and the analysis sophisticated. Sitting next to me, though, he could only write unclear half sentences with words like “compassion” spelled “kumpashin.”
That’s the one that jumped out at me the most.
I looked at this young man slouched at his desk, with a sweet smile and a face covered in small pimples. An average student here, I thought, maybe even slightly above average. I say that because the poor teacher, a woman in her late twenties or early thirties, had to waste the first five minutes of class just getting these kids to settle down and shut up. Half of them were absent or tardy anyway. The low point of those first five minutes came when one of the students, his hoodie pulled tight around his head, laughed at one of the coaches.
Before our sessions begin, we coaches stand in front of the class, introduce ourselves and call out the names of the students we’ll be working with. One of the coaches, a man in his mid-fifties, perhaps, with bugged eyes and dark, greasy hair – he looked like an eccentric inventor – said he’d be working with Devon. Immediately Hoodie Boy burst out laughing. The message was clear: ha ha, Devon you’re stuck with bug eyed loser! Everyone in the room heard the laugh and understood exactly what it meant. The teacher rushed over to Hoodie Boy, leaned down and whispered to him, I’m sure something about having “kumpashin” for this man who was volunteering his time.
Hoodie Boy appeared unmoved.
Was I that bad at his age? I don’t think so. I think I at least had the decency to make fun of people behind their backs. Anyway, it was all pretty demoralizing. These well meaning teachers have to waste all sorts of time and energy trying to herd unruly and ungrateful cats. How any real learning gets done is beyond me. At least that’s how I felt that moment in that cramped, stuffy classroom.
But Zach wasn’t like Hoodie Boy. By the time our 45 minutes was up, we had developed a bit of a rapport. As I stood to leave, Zach asked me my name again and put out his hand to shake mine. I don’t think he figured out what I had been trying to do, and he certainly didn’t think I had any suspicions about his work. And, in fact, I had done the best I could to draw him out. I praised what was strong about “his” ideas, and encouraged him to expand on them for the next draft. We got down to brass tacks and located a few spots where he could add some sentences.
After I left the room, his teacher caught up with me in the hall. Her theory is that Zach’s mother is the one writing his papers, and is clever enough to cover her tracks by not copying papers word for word. I told her I thought this would become completely apparent when he turned in his next draft and his new sentences would be nowhere near the level of his others, but she pointed out that he would get to write the next draft at home. Ah, good point. I don’t know whether she just thought of it at that moment or not, but she brightened up and told me she’d have them write an essay in class on the subject, where Zach would have to compose his words alone.
I joked and said “Can you blame mom? This is her precious angel, her little baby. She only wants what’s best.” We smiled, I wished the teacher good luck, and left.
As I walked out of the building, past kids shuffling slowly between classes, I wondered what notions were forming in Zach’s adolescent brain: that if you can get through life with shortcuts, then go for it? That it’s not cheating if you don’t get caught? That none of this work matters anyway unless your dream in life is to come back to this dreary place and teach English to kids who don’t want to be taught? That it’s all about getting away with shit?
I thought of the grownup arguments I would love to make in response: even if you never get caught, Zach, the person you’re hurting is you. You’re gonna walk out of this place with a high school diploma and you won’t even be able to spell the word compassion. You’re cheating yourself. Sooner or later it will catch up with you – in college, at a job, on a first date. What’s the point? You obviously read the book. Why not expend a little extra effort and actually come up with an idea and figure out how to convey it? Have you never felt the pride that comes from doing your own work? It’s something no one can take away from you. Don’t you want to feel good about yourself, not for tricking a teacher or tutor, but for rising to the occasion? This is your life on the line. You’re a sweet kid with a decent brain. Don’t sell yourself short, and don’t sell out.
I have a pretty good memory and I remember what it’s like to be that age. Let’s say his teacher catches him. Let’s say she says all the things I would’ve said. As a teenager, if all you ever got was a high handed lecture about self worth, you were golden! That was a freebie. Not grounded? No slap on the face? No suspension of allowance? Ha! You win. Let those preachy grownups blather on all they want.
Congratulations, you got away with it…