“I was thrown out of college for cheating on the metaphysics exam; I looked into the soul of the boy sitting next to me.” -Woody Allen
On the drive up to the State Tennis tournament and with graduation just weeks away, we were listing the names of the kids we knew in common to find out where they will head off next year. As we were talking, I learned about a boy who I had known since my son’s middle school years. They played sports together and the young man was a very serious student, musician and class president He was a high achiever like his family who had emigrated from somewhere in Asia.
Apparently he was caught glancing down at his homework during a physics exam a few months before. The repercussions included not just being thrown off student government, but being required to write a letter to the Ivy League schools that had already accepted him to report this infraction. It turns my stomach to consider the cruelty and heartlessness that the teacher and the school administration could justify to connive a punishment with such long-lasting shame and embarrassment for an act that occurs with more regularity than we might like to admit.
In fact in a class across the hall, it is quite likely that students would be encouraged to use their notes to answer test questions. The rules about teaching and proof of learning are malleable in any school setting. Kids who are driven to succeed may lose sight of the goal of their education. This is not a crime, it is a wake up call that deserves detention, not a life sentence which is what the school felt they had a right to dole out.
Henry David Thoreau wrote: “Do not be too moral. You may cheat yourself out of much life so. Aim above morality. Be not simply good; be good for something.” This is what I wish I had been able to say to the teacher and the principal at the moment of the infraction and punishment. One incident should not be held up as an example, when the boy has worked his entire life to excel and achieve. This kind of morality stinks in the holier than thou kind of way and teaches nothing about what it means to learn or to teach.
Enforced humiliation that changes lives in ways that cannot even be quantified is not within the rights of our public education system. Education exists to build our citizenry, to demonstrate the principles of fairness, not as a function of threat and destruction. I hope this boy sees his way to the truth of this. I hope too that the people responsible for this disproportionate consequence feel the shame of what they did.