CHAPTER 6

The Desperate Preacher's Daughter

Selected from Part 2: Trying Parents

Since the seniors' last day at SHS preceded, by tradition, that of the underclassmen by about a week, I had a plan in place that allowed me to have my senior chemistry students take their final exam for the term ahead of their junior counterparts. After fumbling my way through this accommodation in my first year at the school, I became perfectly adept at dealing with it in subsequent years.  Indeed, from my second year at SHS onward, I could dispense with my eager-to-graduate seniors each May without breaking stride. Too bad that some of my senior chemistry students over the years were not as prepared to take their final exam heading into graduation as I was prepared to give it.

Darlene was a nice kid, a likable kid, and one of just a few seniors I still had on my roll sheets near the end of that particular school year. Unlike the great majority of the kids with whom she would be graduating that year, Darlene was a senior only in regard to credits, not age. She was that occasional kid who graduates in twelve years, instead of thirteen, counting kindergarten. As her high school graduation neared, Darlene was eager to go to college, perhaps a little too eager as things turned out.

Graduating early is impressive, to be sure, but given Darlene's zest for living, I was not surprised. She seemed always to be looking ahead, eager to see what might be awaiting her beyond the next horizon of her young life.  For example, I recall that Darlene excitedly looked toward going to Southeast Asia during the spring break of her senior year. However, her enthusiasm for life in general did not carry over to her study of chemistry. Based on what I saw of her as a chemistry student, I am justified in describing Darlene as having been average in that capacity. Darlene struck me as being more interested in taking chemistry because I was the instructor than for a bona fide interest in the subject. As strange as it may sound to someone who has never taught, it wasn't entirely uncommon for a kid to take my chemistry class more due to the course's instructor than to the course's content. In my experience, such kids typically had to work hard to earn a C (or really sweat for a B), but they didn't care because they took the course more for the experience than a grade. I would expect that most such kids didn't have technical careers in mind, but they got good general preparation for college in taking my course, nonetheless. Naturally, I was very honored to have such kids as my students.

Going into the third trimester, I expected that Darlene would probably earn a C for the term. Mine was a reasonable prognostication, based upon her track record in my class. To be sure, I was usually pretty good at predicting my students' grades, once I had gotten to know the kids. Nonetheless, in Darlene's case, I must admit that I'm glad I didn't bet any money on the third trimester grade that I had predicted for her.

I can understand (and even remember) that graduation from high school is an exciting event in a kid's life. That being the case, a soon-to-graduate teenager might allow himself or herself to dreamily begin living in the future, failing to tend to his or her duties at hand. Unfortunately for Darlene, she fit the description of such a dreamer only too well.

Darlene thought, I'm sure, that she had the earning of at least a passing grade in my class under control. After all, don't many teenagers tend to lull themselves into a false sense of fortune, refusing to acknowledge evidence indicating trouble's brewing? And, as the trimester wore on, there was mounting evidence suggesting that this girl's grade in my class was heading toward stormy seas.  In fact, it's probable that I had made some comment or another to her to the effect that she had better be careful about her grade, but I can't recall with certainty that I did. Either way, my experience over the years was that such warnings fell on deaf ears, even if the evidence was obvious. I could be much the same way as a kid, so I made a point of avoiding hounding a kid about his or her responsibilities. Because my class was an elective, it could have been that Darlene didn't care if she made a D or even failed. Well, care or not, she ended up failing. Darlene went into the final exam needing to score at least a D on it in order to pass the course. It wasn't even close; she failed the exam miserably. The exam played the role of torpedo. Darlene's sinking grade played the role of listing ship. Down went the ship. Nevertheless, the girl graduated right on schedule because her grade in my class was immaterial relative to the event. So, off Darlene went into her future, and I never expected to have any dealings with her as a student again. This was another one of my wrong predictions regarding this young lady.

The first few days of summer break are nothing short of delicious, to my way of thinking.  The relief and satisfaction of having survived yet another school year, coupled with the thought of the next eighty or so days without kids, parents and administrators, always created a feeling of euphoria in my soul. Therefore, I was stunned to the point of being dumbfounded when Darlene's mother called me at my home, days after the school year had concluded, to vehemently complain that her daughter failed my class.

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The Parsons were some piece of work, as the saying goes. Indeed, not only were they among the very, very few parents to ever call me at my home, they were the only parents to call me during my summer break, or any break for that matter. When I stated above that Mrs. Parson called to vehemently complain, I was being kind. Mrs. Parson behaved like a shrieking lunatic on the phone. She was so hysterical that I really couldn't communicate with her. After repeatedly trying to get her to calm down, but with no desired effect, I finally suggested that she put her husband on the phone, if he were present.

He was.

It just wasn't my lucky day.

Mr. Parson was worse than his wife. Indeed, at one point I thought he might suffer a stroke. That point was when I called his daughter's claims against me nonsense. He reacted to my description of his kid's claims as if I had called his mother a vile name. Finally, I gave up. I simply had to get off the phone with these people. So, I offered that maybe we should talk later, after the family had calmed down, but Mr. Parson would have none of it. He was able, nonetheless, to contain his apoplexy such that he could intelligibly inform me that I hadn't heard the last of this matter because he was immediately going to call my principal, Larry.

I'm sure I must have thought something like, "What a start to my summer."

In the interest of honesty, I will admit that I would have preferred to use a much stronger label than "nonsense" to describe Darlene's accusations, and I likely did fleetingly consider doing so. The devil in me would have had me call her claims something like unadulterated bullshit. I would feel tempted to use such language in dealing with people like Mr. and Mrs. Parson because I knew that it would really zing them. However, I was always glad that I had resisted such a temptation in these situations, choosing instead to remain civil, because the fun of the short-term zing was likely not in my best interest in the long-term.

Not too long after I had finished with the Parsons, maybe thirty minutes or so, Larry called me. He, of course, told me why he was calling, and I, of course, told him that I had been expecting his call. At his request, I gave Larry the skinny on why Darlene had failed chemistry. He could see that the facts were on my side, and he had no argument with me.  I got the impression, however, that Larry was a bit concerned about the Parsons' wrath. I say this because even though he could find no fault with my role in the kid's failure, agreeing that Darlene had hung herself, Larry suggested that I might want to "think more with my heart" on this one. In other words, he was suggesting that instead of playing this affair strictly by the book, that I instead consider cutting this kid some kind of break whereby she could at least salvage a D on her transcript. I told him that I would have to sleep on things and get back to him the next day. Kindly, Larry said he would contact the Parsons about my taking the matter under advisement and that he would serve as go-between in the future, as the situation dictated. That's how our conversation concluded.

This situation, I should mention, was curious on another score. Judging from the content of the Parsons' rant, I concluded that Darlene had told her parents several lies about me that were intended to absolve her of any blame for her failure. According to the Parsons, I had been derelict in my duties because I offered Darlene no help in preparing for the final. That was a lie. I gave her and all seniors a special, seniors' edition study guide and offered a special help session to help her (or any senior) with it. She sought no help from me. Darlene also claimed that I didn't allow her enough time for the exam. This was another lie. The exam was doable in a class period's length (seventy minutes) by design. No other senior had difficulty finishing the exam in the allotted time, this year or any year! In other words, Darlene was the only senior over all my years at SHS who did not finish the third trimester's (or second semester's) final exam within the allotted time. Furthermore, and quite contrary to my custom, I even allowed Darlene to come after school to finish the exam. I did this in spite of its giving her a distinct advantage over others who finished the exam in the seventy minutes.  The advantage was that she could contemplate the exam's details, since she had seen it, over the span of time (eighth period) between turning in her incomplete exam and coming after school to finish it. In fact, she could have even gotten some coaching during eighth period concerning problems on the final that were troublesome for her. I went against my better judgment in this instance because I knew she was in dire straights.  Ethically, I went way out on a limb for this kid in letting her return at a later time to finish her exam.

Darlene also complained that her test notes were inadequate. I can't call this a lie because maybe her test notes were shoddy. If so, it was her fault because she was responsible for putting together the sheet of notes she wanted to use on the exam, not I. What the girl should have done was what I continually preached to my students through a school year: work the study guides that I designed to serve as practice for tests (with or without my assistance at help sessions) and use these completed guides as your sheet of notes for taking the tests. This advice applied to the course's final exams, too.  Indeed, a correctly worked study guide served to very nicely "hold a student's hand" as he or she tested in my class. My suspicion is that Darlene didn't even look at the study guide for the final exam.  I know that she didn't work through the guide with any input from me. Whether she flatly ignored the study guide or treated it much too casually, the result was the same: disaster.

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Before continuing, I want to point out that I was certainly angry over this intrusion into my life. However, I was feeling frustrated at least as much as I was feeling angry. I knew perfectly well that Darlene had failed due to her poor performance over a period of weeks, culminating in a miserable performance on the exam. She knew this, too. So why would she now be trying to excuse her failure by fabricating fault against me? I could only surmise that my former student must have been desperate, desperate to get or keep her parents off her back about the failing grade. Mixed in with my other emotions, I felt sorrow for Darlene because I really liked this girl, as a student and as a person. Darlene was a good kid, but she had stepped way out of bounds regarding this matter.

True to my word, I slept on things. Having done so, I decided to push the limits of the ethics envelope once again on this girl's behalf. I will explain.

A couple of weeks before graduation, I had to miss a day's work, so I had a substitute teacher come in for me. To keep life simple for all parties, I had devised an exercise each period's kids could do for bonus points that day. They could even work on it collaboratively. The exercise, however, had to be turned in to the sub at each period's end. Upon my return, I would look over the kids' individual efforts and award bonus points to each kid based upon his or her efforts.  Darlene, true to her third trimester form, had turned in nothing and, accordingly, received no bonus points for the day.  I would use her lack of diligence as my ticket out of this mess.

My plan was to resurrect the bonus-points opportunity exclusively for Darlene's benefit. In other words, I would allow her another crack at collecting these points and using them to the benefit of her grade. The plan would serve a utilitarian purpose, to be sure, but there were ethical repercussions. For one thing, I was giving a chance to Darlene that I could not give to others who also might have wanted such a chance to improve their grade after the fact of its issuance. For another thing, Darlene's F was so bad, there weren't enough bonus points in the exercise, even if she were to perform perfectly on it (a real stretch of the imagination) to rescue her mark in my class. I'm admitting that I had decided to manufacture, as in fabricate, a passing grade of D for Darlene! All she would have to do was make even a feeble attempt at the exercise the second time around. Since she didn't know how low her F in my class was, Darlene would never be the wiser, even if she would know in her heart that her work on the bonus points opportunity redux was minimally point productive. Not only was I going out on a limb, I was hanging by a leaf. I had never done, or even been willing to do, such a thing before, and I didn't want to think about ever doing it again. The only way that I could generate any justification in my mind for what I intended to do was by telling myself that Darlene "should have" gotten at least a D in my class and that she was, at heart, really a good kid. I used quotes in the previous sentence because Darlene did get the grade that she should have gotten, i.e., F. The aforementioned "should have" grade was purely theoretical and to serve the purpose of conscience balm. I knew that what I was doing was rewriting history. It was tantamount to my walking into the records room and changing the grade on Darlene's transcript with no data to justify the change. Clearly, I was wearing down, and teaching in the public schools is wearing. The years of pressure from students, parents and administrators were taking their toll on me.  At the time of the Parson incident, I must have been in my tenth or eleventh year of teaching at SHS.  It was becoming easier to just "give ‘em what they want and be rid of 'em" than to uncompromisingly stand for what was right. My changing attitude caused me concern about my state of fitness, at least ethically speaking, for the job.

I told Larry of my plan to offer the exercise as a chance for Darlene to pass. I said nothing of my intent to give the kid a passing grade for the trimester if she made even the feeblest of efforts on the assignment.

Pursuant to my plan, I delivered a chemistry book, along with the exercise Darlene was to do, to SHS counseling. Also, I gave her a time limit of three days to have the book and exercise in the counseling office for my receipt. I went back three days later. The book was at the counseling secretary's desk as I had instructed. Tucked in between the book's pages I could see the sheet of paper containing the assignment's problems. There was not one among the problems that had even been attempted. The only thing that had been written on the assignment sheet was a note to me. It read: "I'm so sorry, Mr. Gaudio."  It was unsigned. The handwriting definitely looked to be that of a feminine hand. I suspect the writing was Darlene's. I would like to think that the short note was her way of apologizing for the trouble she had caused me. 

The F stood. Even so, I would always know that I had thrown my ethics under the bus. I had not aborted the plan. The plan was, instead, rendered obsolete by Darlene's lack of initiative.

I have never heard from Mr. and Mrs. Parson again. Even as I write this, years later, I still sneer when I think of the Parsons' unwillingness to look me up and apologize, especially when it would have been so easy to do. Because I pledged to keep parents' and kids' identities concealed throughout this work, suffice it to say that Mr. Parson's position as associate minister at a local church would have made it easy for both him and his wife to approach me with an apology. Quite to the contrary, this minister who blew up in my ear over the phone, accusing me of being the culprit behind his kid's failure, without ever offering to listen to what I had to say, to this day has insisted on pretending no such episode ever occurred.

I guess if one can pretend to be a credible minister, said one can pretend anything.

Oh, the wailing and gnashing of teeth.

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