The harm I’ve done; the lesson I’ve learned

I knew that Martin had cheated.

I was teaching EFL in Bulgaria – my first year of teaching – and most of my students were spellbound by my American-ness. After seven months, I was beginning to think that I had mastered the art of teaching or, better yet, that I was simply a natural teacher.

What was so hard after all? Discipline was a breeze: most of my students wanted to be in my classroom. Motivation was a snap: everything I assigned fascinated them just because it was from me. Of course, a few students refused to believe in my American magic, but I had fallen under my own spell and thought of these few as difficult, recalcitrant, even bad.

In fact, cheating was one of the only problems I had encountered in my short time in the classroom. Today I know that I had no idea how to teach writing. I didn’t model, scaffold or even help with revision. As a result, for their first assignment nearly all of my students had turned in essays copied from some famous work or another.

I really believed that these children of a failed Communist state valued accuracy and impressiveness over creative thought. I had no idea that I had played a role in the outcome, so it was hard to tell who was more befuddled by the Fs I gave back on that first assignment – me at what I perceived as my students’ betrayal, or them at my unrealistic expectations.

A few months’ experience had made me a slightly better teacher. I had learned to articulate my expectations more clearly and my ever-attentive students had worked to meet me well more than halfway. It didn’t hurt that the students generally liked me and, mostly, wanted to please me. I rarely received plagiarized papers anymore. Until Martin’s.

He was unconcerned as he swaggered up to my desk after class. He gave his friends suggestive looks as if I were going to proposition him or ask him on a date. I shooed them out of the room, and he planted himself in front of me with an impressive “I don’t care about anything you do” stance: shoulders slumped, hands jammed in his pockets, chin jutted sideways. He assumed an air of infinite boredom. I realize now that he must have been waiting for praise on his essay.

The essay was about his grandfather and his wartime exploits. It was nearly perfect and absolutely fascinating, so I assumed that it was someone else’s grandfather’s exploits. I hadn’t even bothered to finish reading it. After all, Martin’s work in English had been far from perfect to date – when he did it, that was. Frustratingly, I thought that he and I had recently made a connection, and I was angry that he had copied this essay now that we were on the verge of understanding one another. It didn’t matter: he was one of the “bad” kids who didn’t hang on my every word.

Martin was clearly smart, and he had no natural respect for me. He didn’t care if I was from the US or Mars, and I found his apparent lack of motivation more frustrating than anything else I had encountered. I had no idea how to encourage him. Sometimes I felt that his attitude, his unwillingness to do his work, was calling my bluff: I was just masquerading as a teacher. His lack of respect for me fed my growing fear that maybe this teaching thing wasn’t as easy as I had imagined.

I accused him of cheating. Martin was silent for a long moment before he ripped his essay out of my hands.  He raged back to his seat.  He grabbed his bag and shouted his way to the door. Through the noise and garbled grammar, I discovered that Martin had spent hours on the essay. His grandfather was, perhaps, the most important person in his life. He had taught Martin everything. Martin had wanted me to know his grandfather and had worked and worked to show him to me.

I cried after he left. Nothing I could say or do made any difference (and in my youthful chagrin I changed his grade to an A, as if that were the important thing). Martin had long known what I had just realized: I didn’t see him as a whole person but rather as just another kid in my English class, just another one of the bad boys, just another, but not unique. My accusation confirmed his opinion. If I had read the whole thing, if I had listened to the note of honesty that rang through the essay, if I had paused for even a moment, I might have seen Martin, the real Martin, who had tentatively entrusted me with a bit of himself in that essay.  But I hadn’t.

In my whole career, I may never want to go back and fix something as badly as I want to go back and fix that day. But since that awful confrontation, I have tried, in Martin’s honor, to remember every day that I teach whole people, people with lives outside of my classroom and outside of the school. I teach people with problems at home, secrets to keep, and dreams they desperately need to share. I teach people who have amazing grandfathers. Martin may never know that I know this, but I always will. It has shaped my career. It has changed my life.

And I really really hope that it has not shaped his.