When old Mrs. Thompson, my grade five teacher got angry, she blew a gasket. Her face turned reddish-purple, her eyes bulged behind thick glasses, her lower lip quivered. Usually her rage targeted someone else, but one unhappy day, I was the victim.
In the silence of her classroom, the other students and I were completing some exercises on long division. It was a concept I had struggled with from the outset, so I worked slowly. Being shy, I didn’t like to draw attention to myself or to my shortcomings in any aspect of my studies. My brother Brian had tried to help me at home, but long division was still one of the great mysteries of the universe.
On this particular occasion, Mrs. Thompson said, “Put your pencil down, and pass your scribbler to the person seated behind you. Today, the exercise will be marked.” Cheryl, the cute brunette right in front of me, dutifully placed her workbook on my desk, as soon as the instruction was given. Meanwhile, I struggled to complete one last question, somehow feeling that it would make all the difference in the world.
“Keith!” My name exploded inside our classroom, and flew out into the atmosphere. It was so loud and jarring, I couldn’t lift my head up to respond. Suddenly, my brain was on fire, and the muscles in my neck seized up.
My classmates, no doubt, had turned their attention toward me. You poor sucker, they must have been thinking; you’re really going to get it.
I still couldn’t respond. I stared at Cheryl’s rigid back. Where was Mrs. Thompson? Beside me? Hovering over me like a demented witch on a broomstick?
She spoke again, her voice loud and menacing. “Bring your workbook to the front immediately.”
Somehow, I raised my head. She was standing behind her big teacher’s desk, reaching for her red marking pen. Everyone remained silent. I slowly stood up, picked up my work and began the journey along rows of classmates. My eyes were riveted on my book. I passed by blurry grade fivers on either side— unidentifiable strangers, witnesses at my execution.
When I was within striking distance, Mrs. Thompson grabbed the exercise book from my hands. Slowly, deliberately making a great show of it, she slashed a huge red “X” through my entire double page of work. She thrust the scribbler at me and I returned to my desk, the other kids seeming to bob up and down on my salty sea of guilt. The trip to the front, the silent red “X”, the lonely walk back— they all added up to “cheater”. And no one likes a cheater.
Many years later, standing in front of my own students, I thought of old Mrs. Thompson whenever I gave the direction, “Pass your work to the person behind you, please.” Some of my kids did so promptly; others were slow and sloppy about it, some even finishing up an answer or two. Lucky for them—Mrs. Thompson wasn’t watching.