Tuesday, January 27, 2004

Honesty

So, I found myself standing in front of my first period seventh graders today making the statement, "I want you to know that in my entire life, I have never cheated on any tests or copied someone else's homework."

True? I'm pretty sure. I definitely haven't cheated on any tests, and if I ever copied anyone else's homework, it was a long time ago and I can't recall it today. I suspect I would remember it if I had copied, since I'm sure I would have felt a niggling guilty feeling for a while afterwards. I can't say I'm this honest in all parts of life - I've told my share of lies - though even the idea of shoplifting makes me a little crazy, and I'm more honest than most people I know. When I have lied, I've felt bad, that's for sure.

Cheating and dishonesty are among the highest sins you can commit in my classroom. Today's statement came after I caught two students with identical homeworks. They'd had to measure various things at home - soup cans, their thumbs, their shoes, etc. - and they had identical length thumbs, identical length forks, identical length arms - let's just say it was easy to spot the copying. I have to admit that I ridiculed them a bit in class for this fact: "You have the exact same length thumbs??? And arms???" I don't know if it was the best way to handle the situation, but cheating of any kind - no matter how small - really raises my blood pressure.

I took them aside after class to speak to them more about it. One boy steadfastly refused to say anything except, "I didn't copy anyone's homework." After he repeated that grimly for a while, I realized he was trying to turn in the other boy without actually turning him in... Then when I looked him in the eye and asked him if he had allowed someone to copy from his paper, he was able to say yes. The key was to phrase it so he was not tattling on his friend. After that, I looked the second boy in the eye and asked him if he'd copied. He knew he was caught, so he nodded.

I talked to the boy who allowed the copying about letting other people get away with not doing their work and profiting from your hard work... I told him how much that had bothered me when I was in middle school, even though I had been pressured by friends... I threw in some honesty & character stuff. He looked like he was on the verge of crying, so I made a comment on his weekly progress report but gave him credit for doing the assignment (and a warning that if he allows people to copy his homework again, he too will receive a zero). The other boy got a comment AND a zero.

In college, I was on an Alternative Spring Break trip my junior year, studying & volunteering on Children's Issues. Everyone on the trip wanted to change the world, help kids, etc. Some had impressive records of community service, activism, and leadership, one girl in particular. On the last day of the trip, she was driving our group back home from L.A. We stopped in a mom-and-pop convenience store a few hours out of San Francisco for snacks. I wandered into an aisle just as she was putting several snacks into her bag. She looked at me and signalled, "Shhh..."

I could not believe it. I had mistakenly assumed that commitment to social change meant high moral ideals! She showed me otherwise. Somehow, she did not connect this small moment of dishonesty and theft to the more disturbing forms of dishonesty and theft against which she was working and fighting. I was horrified.

But, I didn't say anything. Perhaps I should have confronted her about it. I knew that would ruin the rest of the trip and lose me a lot of friends. I didn't know what to do, and I didn't have much time to think about it; only a few minutes later we were back in the car and headed home. I have always resented the way she drew me into her dishonesty with that "Shhhh...."

The next year, she was honored by the university as a public service scholar. She may well go on to hold public office, run a non-profit organization, practice law... she might be someone's teacher.

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