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I cried in front of my students twice last year.

They remember the second time, the morning after the senior all-nighter. We had just gotten off the bus and the sun was coming up. Most of the people I had spent almost every day with for nine months were walking away. So, yes, I cried.

The other time was in the middle of Hamlet. I asked students whether or not it was worthwhile to do a hard thing purely for challenge. You could read the SparkNotes for the play. Or watch a movie. You could browse a thirty-page Japanese manga version. You’d still get the most important parts of the story. Why get into the confusing stuff?

It felt great to assign the project. Great to watch students struggle with the text and wrestle with ideas. And I designed a really great test—a smart, badass, multiple-choice test—that would end it all and prove to them the effort was worth it.

I made it an online form. I knew this was probably not what Teacher’s Almanac would’ve advised, but we were halfway through the year and I trusted my students. There were probably a thousand ways to steal the test, including the easiest (click, save), but I didn’t care because I figured if nothing else, the irony of cheating at the end of a unit about the value of taking on challenges would clunk them over the heads.

As I walked around the room, I watched them click answers to questions that pressed their true understanding of the play. The answer choices were tricky but fair.

By the end of the day, there were two printed copies of the test in my box—with a note from a fellow teacher. He’d taken the copies from two kids in the media center. I asked around, and it didn’t take long to I figure out who had cheated, who had asked for copies and who had provided them. Students from several classes were involved.

That was a Wednesday. We were having a Christmas party at my church that day, singing carols and eating every possible texture and color of sugar. I felt like someone had punched me in the gut. How could I be so naïve? And why did I eat so many cookies?

When I went home that night I did what you are supposed to do when you are angry. You are supposed to write a letter to the people who angered you but never send it.

The next morning I did what you are not supposed to do when you are angry. I sat fuming through my conference period staring at the words I had written. I printed out the letter and inserted it into my lesson plan.

The kids came into class—a tiny morning class I adored. No one from this class had cheated.

But I couldn’t meet their eyes. Some of them wanted to chat with me because usually that’s how we start the day: a few minutes of idle talk before the bell. That they were so chipper only left me feeling colder. I said as little as possible until class started.

I began to read. I told them I had always rejected the assumed inherent antagonism between teachers and students. I believed we had a mutual purpose and were working together toward it. I believed we had the sort of trust that could exist when people deliberately think the best of one another.

I reminded them of the pages and pages of college essays I’d revised, the recommendation letters I’d written. I painted a picture of myself as Bob Cratchit on a cleanse diet—an emaciated figure chained to his desk.

All of this. For you, I said.

My pastor once said that giving into anger is like drinking poison and hoping the other person dies.

Something broke in my voice. My eyes moved across the page but my tongue was heavy. I tasted copper. The next sentence wasn’t anything poignant—“I trusted you not to do it. You had the opportunity, and you took it”—but I knew if I tried to make another sound it would come out as a big, ungraceful sob.

I passed out passages from the fourth soliloquy and said, “Your time has started.” The fourth soliloquy is the one where Hamlet wonders if humans are nothing more than beasts good for feeding and sleeping. Maybe, Hamlet thinks, humans have lost our ability to reason and to imagine and can no longer understand other people. Maybe we should all just tear one another to shreds.

I sat at my desk and casually wiped my nose, feeling the collapse of my self-importance. I could pretend my students woke every day wondering about me and the little worlds we had created within our cinder block walls, but it wouldn’t do much. No, they shouldn’t cheat, but it was ridiculous to demand they not cheat out of some allegiance to me. Who am I? I had forgotten my place—not as the center of anybody’s universe, but as a teacher. And as I sat there, blinking back tears, I wondered what exactly that meant.

-

Kolby Kerr lives and teaches high school English in Dallas.  He holds an MFA in Poetry from Seattle Pacific University and has appeared in Relief journal. 

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  1. October 29, 2012

    Kolby! This is a moving and challenging . . . an excellent, heartfelt reminder that we are servants not masters. A good word for me not to give my students more than they can handle. Thank you!

  2. lindseyjones #
    October 29, 2012

    Fantastic piece, and I so admire your honesty here. Yes, it sounds like we’ve shared those feelings of betrayal when a student cheats. It reminds us that they don’t think as much about us as we do about them and that, as you said, that’s how it should be.

  3. October 30, 2012

    This reminds me of the scene in Master and Commander where Dr. Maturin performs surgery on himself while looking in a mirror.

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