Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Teaching, Cheating, Lies & Redemption


Teaching, Cheating, Lies & Redemption

School is tough. Ask any kid and he or she will tell you. Homework, extra credit, trying your luck at being the teacher’s pet project, it’s all excruciatingly painful to a child, and mind you childhood sticks like glue until you’re in your early twenties.

My father thought I would never amount to anything. He had no sense of humor and seemed angry every time I laughed or told a story about something I had seen or read. He was into business, wore blinders and raced through life like a true thoroughbred. He missed everything, my ballgames, school events, scholastic awards, and some holiday events. Yep, he was in a big hurry, and sadly; he missed it all.

My grandfather, on the other hand, was there for everything. He taught me how to listen, to share and give. He hated anyone who lied, even a trivial white lie was off limits, and he insisted I tell him a truth no matter how much it hurt. The funny thing was I seldom had to feel that pain because I told him the truth. Mind you, I may have skipped sharing some actualities with my parents who didn’t seem to care either way, but with Gramps, he had a way with words that reduced me to cinders after the little white ones came out, and I got caught. It was easier to tell the truth. He still yelled at me, even created a form of punishment that really hurt, like not taking me to an event or listening to me read out loud. Stuff I loved and he knew it. That was punishment for a mind constantly on the move. When all was said and done, Gramps would give me a hug. His hugs were the real deal along with a silent forgiveness I couldn’t get anywhere else.

When I was sent off to military school, my father wanted me out of the way, but Gramps looked at it differently. He told me going off wasn’t punishment as my father said it was, but rather a gift that would mold my nutty personality and allow me to find myself. I don’t know how he knew so much, but he had an interesting answer for everything, and his comments made sense to me.

I acted in plays, soared playing football, basketball and baseball and enjoyed everything I was supposed to hate. If fact, I enjoyed some things so much my last year, I needed extra credit to maintain my presence on the Presidents Honor Role. That was another moment my dad missed. Mom and dad were off traveling somewhere when I received the honor of first making the honor roll. It crushed me at first. Not one living soul was there to see me get the certificate, but when I talked to Gramps, he all but cried from the pride he enjoyed, so I felt proud of having made him happy.

One of my darkest moments came near the end of the year. We had this credo, “thou shall not lie, cheat or steal.” We all knew about the creed, and few gave it much thought, as we all trusted each other. My professor, the man who taught English and Journalism to greedy young minds, told me I had slipped lately and needed extra credit to bring my grade back to the top. I was among a few other classmates, who had also tumbled carelessly into the educational abyss. The professor suggested a few assignments, several unique book reports, an unusual term paper that would take us over the charts, and a few other ideas that easily formed a brain path.
We all had eight days. What we chose was totally up to us and thus would decide if we were honorable enough to warrant an improved grade. I searched the library for book titles. Nothing jumped off the shelf. I thought about the term paper and came up with multiple ideas but nothing with a spark. I needed a spark.

I woke from a sound sleep with a brilliant idea. It was like a lightning bolt struck a single nerve ending and fed my mind with untold glory. I went to work right then in the middle of the night and for the next six days I wrote around the clock. What I was writing became a passion that went beyond industrious. It would change my life. I decided the number twenty worked well, so I set out to write twenty book reports. I added a unique twist – the reports would be based on books I created in my head. They would all be original, fresh titles, different genres and classic storylines. I would build unforgettable characters everyone would like to model their life after, and make each one an irresistible page-turner. Each report would have a breakdown of the author, who he or she was and where they lived and so on. I created a list of other titles each author had written, and established a solid description for the main characters down to hair and eye color. Talk about a witty sensational idea. I was beyond myself.

On the seventh day, I turned in my work, all carefully bound and placed into a windowpane folder. I felt like my chest would burst when I handed it to my professor and saw the look on his face.
“Book reports?” He asked.
“Yes,” I beamed.
“It’s pretty thick Mr. Hillman, how many reports did you do?”
“Twenty,” I boasted and then tossed a look at my classmates as if to say ‘what did you do?’
“I’m very proud of you William. I can’t wait to read them.”

Well, this is where the reality check happens. Where that old creed slips in like an out-of-control cement truck and flattens you and your ego. I never gave it a thought you know the cheating and lying words. The whole idea just skipped entering my mind. Perhaps I deliberately avoided thinking about it. Two days later the professor called me into his office and handed me my grade paper. He had given me an A+. I was giddy with joy.
“I have a few questions.”
“Yes sir.”
“Who are all these authors? For that matter, where did you find these books?”
Have you ever felt your stomach flip, turn upside down and threaten to revolt? I knew I couldn’t lie to him, so I fudged and skirted the question.
“Obscure is a good word. Did you enjoy them?”
“Yes, each and every one. It must’ve taken you hours to read all those books and be so thorough in your reporting. I’m simply amazed. Where did you find these books?”
He had me. There was no way out. Why didn’t I think of this before I went through all the trouble? Heck, it would’ve been easier reading a good book and then report on it.
“Well, actually, sir, they don’t. I made the books up.”
“Was that part of my teaching lessons? Wasn’t I clear on the assignment?”
“Yes you were. I couldn’t find the right book, so I created some new ones.”
“So basically you cheated and then lied about it?”
“Well I wouldn’t go that far.”
“Really, how would you describe writing twenty book reports on books that don’t exist by writers who have never taken a breath, and publishers who sound so interesting I want to pick up the phone and call them? Oh, and by the way, I tried to do just that.”
“Oh.” I couldn’t find another word. I just stood there and then the embarrassment set in. My grandfather would be so disappointed in me. I had spoiled everything.
To top off the moment, my professor reached out and took the paper from my hand and replaced it with another. The second one had a big fat F- in bright red. I hadn’t cried in years but sure felt like bawling my eyes out right there. I didn’t. I was busy thinking of what I’d say to Gramps. He was so proud of me. This would surely crush that opinion.
“What are you planning to do with your life, Mr. Hillman?”
“I want to write and accomplish some other things along the way.”
“Are you good at keeping promises?”
“Yes sir I am.”
“If I offer you redemption will you promise me something?”
“As long as it’s something within my power to do, yes I will.”
“I want you to promise me you’ll be a writer.”
“That’s one of my goals and one I plan to accomplish, yes sir.”
He took the failed graded paper from my hand and replaced it with a thick book, something about the history of Russia’s past leaders. It was one subject that was anything but dazzling but thankfully I had read the book a while back. He wanted a new book report the following day. I stayed up all night, reading and writing and when I gave him a freshly written report all I got back was a smile. It was as though he had talked to my grandfather who had the same smile. When I returned home, I told Gramps what I had done. He wrapped his frail arm around my shoulders and told me I was going to make a great writer. He blinked away tears, kissed my cheek and told me he loved me. Teachers teach. Some of them are very good at what they do and when a stranger touches your heart it’s the greatest gift in the world. Taking a shortcut isn’t the answer and in my case, it turned out to be a very long way around doing something, the right thing.

Poster May 2, 2012 (c) 2012 by William Byron Hillman
My latest novel: Veronique and Murray http://tinyurl.com/8xrmmu7 (a mystery filled romance)