Sometimes the kids don’t like a teacher.
Sometimes a teacher doesn’t like the kids.
That could be. . . awkward.
At 4 o’clock that afternoon, Mrs. Hodges, Mrs. Graedon, assistant principal John Thompson, Brad’s father and mother, my father, Brad and I assembled in the conference room adjoining Mrs. Hodges office. When everyone had arrived, we all sat down around a long table. My father insisted that no one take notes of what was said.
I knew this was going to be difficult. I was still a shy, 13-year-old kid with little self-confidence. I was going to be confronting the principal and Mrs. Graedon. Brad’s father was there, and my father, but I knew that ultimately, what happened, good or bad, was going to be on my shoulders. The only reason I was able to retain any degree of self-composure was that if I wasn’t able to stand up to Mrs. Graedon, Brad was going to be hurt. I had to keep that from happening. I had to protect his reputation. If he was in trouble, it was because of me. That thought kept running through my mind. I knew I had to be stronger than I ever had been able to be, and I was scared. I didn’t know if I had it in me to fight this battle. My father, in his wheelchair sitting by my side, was a source of strength. I was going to need every bit of it.
Mrs. Hodges started speaking. “I have heard from these two boys that Mrs. Graedon said they cheated on a math test that was given today. I have spoken with Mrs. Graedon and she claims she did not say that, that she merely held the boys over because she wanted to find out how they were able to finish so much faster than the rest of the class. Brad, Danny, which of you would like to speak?”
We looked at each other. Brad was normally a much more assertive, more confident person than I was, much more comfortable speaking to adults, but he was also looking more intimidated in this situation than I was. I was upset with Mrs. Graedon and the unfairness of what was happening, and I knew a lot rode on what happened here, so I knew I had to speak, whether I was comfortable or not.
“Mrs. Hodges, Brad and I studied for the past week and on the weekend. We both knew the math cold. We both were able to do the test quickly because we had studied. There wasn’t a single problem on the test we didn’t know exactly how to do. Mr. Decker even helped us study, and saw how well Brad knew the material. Mrs. Graedon told us to stop working before we were through, and when everyone else was gone, said we’d cheated. She was sure we were cheating, that’s why she stopped us. Why wouldn’t she let us finish the test otherwise? Stopping us meant we couldn’t finish. It might mean we’d fail the test if many of our answers were wrong. The only reason she could have possibly have had for stopping us was she thought we were cheating. She said we were cheating to our faces after we were alone with her, but her stopping us proves she thought we were cheating. So she stopped us for cheating, and if she was sure that’s what we were doing, why is it hard to believe she said it? Both Brad and I heard her say it, and we’re telling the truth.”
Mrs. Graedon quickly jumped in. “No, Danny, you know I didn’t say that. I just said I wanted to know how you were able to work so fast.”
Brad was listening to this, and he seemed less intimidated now. When Mrs. Graedon said that, when he heard her lie, his mouth actually fell open. “Mrs. Graedon, you not only said we cheated, you also said I wasn’t smart enough to be able to do the test, and that I was dumb at math. Did you grade my test? How many did I get right?”
Everyone looked at Mrs. Graedon. Her face got a little redder. She didn’t answer, and the silence in the room stretched out. My father broke into this silence by quietly asking, “How did they do? It would be interesting to know that.”
Mrs. Hodges looked at Mrs. Graedon expectantly, raising her eyebrows.
Mrs. Graedon grumpily admitted, “They both got every answer correct.” Then, looking up, she said, “And that backs up the possibility that they might have cheated, not that I said they did, mind you. But a teacher has to consider that when things look even a little bit suspicious. I was just doing what any responsible teacher would do.”
Mr. Decker spoke at that point. “Well, I don’t agree with that. I actually think getting every problem right shows they weren’t cheating. When I was in a fraternity at college, we had files of old tests given over the years in a lot of classes taught there. Frat brothers would study these. I remember distinctly being told that, if we ever got a test that hadn’t been changed, one that was the exact one we’d actually studied from, a test a professor had recycled, that we had to be sure we didn’t get every problem right. To look less suspicious, we needed to miss a problem here and there, just a few, but some. The fact the boys didn’t miss a single problem either means they were too dumb to cheat well, or they knew the work, knew how to get the right answers, and playing any sort of game wasn’t even in their minds. When I worked with Brad last night, it was obvious. He knew his stuff. I’m positive he didn’t cheat. He didn’t have to.”
Mrs. Graedon again immediately said, “And I didn’t say they did cheat.”
My father spoke again. “So what mark are they going to get on the test? I have to assume, if they did everything right, and you stopped them from finishing, both of them have to get A’s. Is that right?”
Mrs. Graedon didn’t look happy, but with seven faces looking intently at her, she had to speak. “Yes, they’ll both get A’s.”
“And that’s half their grade?” pressured my father.
“Yes.” Mrs. Graedon wasn’t happy, and in fact looked frustrated. She wasn’t very good at disguising her emotions.
There was silence in the room. Mrs. Hodges looked around, and finally said, “Well, is that all we have then? The boys will get A’s for the test. There may be a misunderstanding about calling the boys cheaters, but that’s behind us and there’s no way to know for sure what was said. Can we just all agree this was unfortunate and hope things go smoothly from now on?”
Everyone looked at everyone else. It appeared to me that everyone might take Mrs. Hodges’ suggestion. I could only see that as a disaster waiting to happen. If Mrs. Graedon was unhappy enough earlier in the year, when I merely pointed out an error she made on the board, to hold a grudge against me all year and try to sabotage my grade, just how vindictive would she be now, and what would she do? She certainly had some ammunition, and had already threatened to tell the school we were gay. The problem was, it wasn’t just me she could hurt now, it was Brad, too. And Mrs. Graedon was not one to hold back.
I had to do something. I didn’t want to because I didn’t know how everyone would react. But it seemed a real possibility that if I didn’t do something, things could be much worse than if I did.
I stood up. I was too nervous and fidgety to remain seated. I didn’t want to begin, but knew I had to. You’re doing this for Brad, I kept telling myself. And in fact I was; I doubted I’d be saying anything if I were the only one involved.
“Mrs. Hodges,” I said, “could I ask a question? You said since Mrs. Graedon says she didn’t call us cheats, that that ends the matter. I want to know, what if she did? What if she said we cheated? If she calls a student a cheater and he didn’t cheat, what happens?” I remained standing, looking at her.
Mrs. Hodges glanced at Mr. Thompson, looked back at me and asked, “Why do you want to know?” Which of course made it harder. “I didn’t cheat,” I stated. “Brad didn’t cheat. A teacher said we did. It will get all over the school that she called us cheaters. I know what the penalty is if a student cheats, it’s in the student handbook. I don’t know what the penalty is if a teacher accuses a student of cheating when in fact he didn’t. I want to know.”
Mrs. Hodges looked a little pissed and was about to reply when Mr. Decker broke in first. “I think that’s a fair question, and I too would like an answer. I would hope we can keep lawyers out of this, I would like to think the school would want that, too, but it doesn’t seem fair if there are double standards. If a student accuses a teacher of something that isn’t true, he’ll get suspended, or worse. Does it work both ways?”
There was a glance between Mrs. Hodges and Mr. Thompson again. This time Mr. Thompson replied. “This is a hypothetical case because there is no proof of what Mrs. Graedon did or didn’t say and we’ll never know for sure, but, as a general rule, a teacher making unfounded remarks deleterious to a student or his character will be punished commensurate with the offense. In this case, were the charge true, a suspension or worse would be warranted.”
I had remained standing. I gulped, and plowed forward. This was awful, and I was having trouble breathing, but I went on nevertheless. “There’s more to it. Not only did Mrs. Graedon call us cheats, she called us even worse. Mrs. Graedon has been after me all year. She’s graded me down on homework and tests for minor things she lets other students get away with. I have the papers to prove it. Mrs. Decker told me that was wrong, that a teacher isn’t supposed to do that. Today she made us stop taking the test in front of the whole class, implying to them we were cheating. Why else would she make us stop? That’ll be all over the school. When everyone had left, she said we cheated. When we said we were going to go talk to you about this, she got angry and said something even worse. She called us fags. Then she said if we went to talk to you, she’d spread that all over the school.”
The room was so quiet it could have been empty. Everyone’s face showed shock. Then Mrs. Graedon jumped up. “He’s lying. He’s been an awful brat in class all year, he’s insulted me, and now he’s lying in front of all you. He should be kicked out of school. I don’t have to listen to this. I’ve been teaching here for 22 years. I want him out of here today. Out! Permanently.”
Mrs. Hodges looked at her, then back to me. I’d stopped fidgeting and was looking at her. “Those are very serious charges, Danny. Brad, did she say that?”
Brad looked her in the eye and said, “Yes, she did.” Brad’s father looked at him, then at Mrs. Graedon with a look of hostility that made me glad it wasn’t focused on me. She looked back at him defiantly.
Mrs. Hodges was on the hot seat. You could see she wasn’t sure what to do. Mr. Thompson was looking at the wall, obviously appreciating the fact the meeting was not his responsibility. Finally, Mrs. Hodges said what I’d expected her to say. “Boys, that’s a very serious charge. If it can’t be proved, there might even be actions taken against you, serious actions. And, without any proof, we have to take the word of a long term teacher against the unsubstantiated claims of two students, one of whom is barely getting a D in the course. I’m very sorry, but that’s my decision.”
Mr. Decker and my father and Mrs. Graedon all started to talk, but Mrs. Graedon’s piercing voice broke through. “I’m going to sue him for slander. I never said that. He’s slandering me. He accused me in front of witnesses. I’m getting a lawyer.”
No one responded. My father looked shaken. We didn’t have the money to battle a lawsuit. Mr. Decker looked confused. He didn’t know what to say, or how everything had gotten so out of hand so quickly. While everyone was quiet, I reached into my pocket and pulled it out with something in my hand. I walked over to Mrs. Hodges and laid it in front of her.
“This is a tape recorder I brought to school today. Sometimes I use it instead of taking notes. Today, I just happened to have it with me. I turned it on when the tests were being passed out. You told me what her punishment would be if she called us cheats and lied to you. You can listen to her say those things, and the other worse thing. Also, her threat to spread the last thing around the school. Please don’t let her do that.” And then I pressed the play button. I’d already rewound the tape to where I wanted it to start. There was an audible hiss in the room, follow by what was unmistakably Mrs. Graedon’s shrill voice, tinny sounding through the small speaker but clear and easily understood, saying “Brad, Danny, stop right now and bring me your papers.” The tape played through to a silent audience.
When it finished with the sound of Mrs. Graedon saying she’d ruin us, there was a gasp from the people in the room. After a second, my father jumped in, and he wasn’t speaking softly this time. There was a hard edge to his voice and a resolve I hadn’t heard from him before. “Mrs. Hodges, if she’s allowed to make her allegations against these boys known in the school, if that comes out, you’ll have such a big lawsuit on your hands you’ll wish you never considered education as a profession. I will also sue you personally.”
Everyone was looking at Mrs. Hodges. Everyone but me. I was looking at Mrs. Graedon. Her face had turned white. She was sitting in her chair, and her shoulders had slumped. Looking at her, I couldn’t help myself. “Mrs. Hodges,” I said, not nervous at all at this point, “Why don’t you ask Mrs. Graedon if she has any more lies to tell us?”
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