A Confession - I Failed High School English

"It doesn't matter what you think the definition is. It matters what it says on your syllabus," she said, "It matters what it says in your student handbook." She was smug, way too smug, at least I thought so at the time.

I'm often struck that I didn't do as well in High School as I probably should have, that I didn't care much about my grades. I got B's through all four years because I had so much talent. That's not bluster. I sat in class every day, read next to nothing that was assigned, did next to no homework and got A's on virtually every test I took. In contrast to other members or the "if only he applied himself" clan, I really did like learning, so I coasted through all of it without much inconvenience.

Here's my bit of shame. My sophomore year, I failed out of honors English. I got an F, one of only two I've ever gotten between kindergarten and college graduation. I will grant that I underperformed. I tried to coast through that class just as I had through every other class I had ever taken. The first semester I was lucky to have a teacher that rarely assigned homework and put a premium on written understanding and class participation, both strong points of mine. The following semester I landed a teacher who was precisely the opposite. The grading scale was skewed towards busywork, minutia and extensive take-home projects that barely interested me. By the end of the term I was anticipating a low C on my report card. I was in danger of being dropped from the honors program.

We were assigned a final project, a massive (by high school standards), literary analysis. I remember very clearly the moment that I realized that I would fail the class entirely unless I really kicked ass on this paper. So, for once, I read the entire work in detail rather than just skimming it. I took extensive notes. I researched legitimate academic analysis. I turned it in on time. Altogether, I think I put together a second-to-none English paper, at least as much as one can when one is fifteen.

I got an "F".

I don't mean that the teacher found it lacking, that she had some major beef with the substance of the paper. I mean that she gave me zero out of a hundred possible points.

"Mrs. Lehrer," I asked after class, "I don't understand why I got this grade."

"Simple," she said, "You got a zero for plagiarism."

This hit me pretty hard. While I confess that I was a piss-poor student, I did take being smart very seriously and was offended at the suggestion that the work might not be my own. It's one thing to be lazy, which I was. It's quite another to be dishonest, which I certainly was not.

"Beg pardon?"

"You did not turn in a works cited page. That's considered plagiarism."

"But, the definition of plagiarism is stealing, taking someone else's writing and saying that it's yours. I didn't do that. I wrote this." I was still trying to understand that she was gutting me on a technicality.

"It doesn't matter what you think the definition is. It matters what it says on your syllabus," she said, "It matters what it says in your student handbook." Like I said, smug.

The truth was that I had a works cited page. A very detailed one that I'm sure I had turned in. I explained to her that the entire paper, with the citations, was all one computer file that would have printed all at one time and that I was sure it was all there when I stapled it and turned it in to her. She was unmoved. I offered to run to the library and re-print the missing page right then but she would not accept it. I pointed out that I had made dozens of citations in the text of the paper and that I would not have done that without a works cited page to refer to but she didn't care. I'd come to the well without a rope or a bucket.

I appealed to the school administration and my mother met with that teacher's superior but nothing came of it. While the head of the English department thought I was brilliant, I was correctly known to be the kid that turned everything in late, that had a knack for gaming tests and that never did a lick of homework. Moreover, I was absolutely unrepentant in these regards. Despite all my pleas, when that teacher brought her fist down and said, "It matters what it says in your student handbook." no one came forward to be my advocate.

The "Fail" stayed on my record. I was booted out of honors English and had to take "Intermediate Grammar & Literature," the standard sophomore class, as a Junior. Then I had to take two English classes the second semester of my senior year rather than having early release. Ultimately, it didn't affect the arc of my life overmuch. The rest of my grades were still strong enough to garner me a state scholarship to the university I'd always planned on attending and the replacement class, "International Literature," was much more interesting than the class that I had failed. Despite this, it still sticks with me that, the one time I did everything just right, I got fucked over.

Maybe that's why I hate by-the-book types so much.


John Myste said...

In all my years of elementary school, never have I heard such a negatively inspirational story!

Funny, the word verification graphic for this comment is: "rethunck."

It is purely coincidence. It is curious funny, not ha ha funny, though I do detect trace amounts of ha ha as well.

Tom Harper said...

That teacher sounds like she's beyond anal, in every possible meaning.

There actually is a silver lining in your story: You were allowed to take two English classes simultaneously. When I was in high school, you could only take one English class per year. And you needed 4 years of English to graduate; so if you failed English one year, you were looking at five years of high school.

Snoozepossum said...

I don't think someone should be allowed to tack a charge like that on someone unless it conforms to the recognized definition. Plagiarism according to Merriam Webster is defined as "the act of using another person's words or ideas without giving credit to that person". If you cited work in the body of the paper, you didn't misrepresent yourself as such. If anything, she could've docked you massive points for failing to complete the assignment (ie, turn in a separate citation page), but recording you as a thief and a liar was just being petty.

I had a couple of teachers/professors like that - my senior English teacher used to get affronted at my "uppityness" for reading books that she though were outside my sphere per my age, gender, locale, and economic bracket. She flunked me on my term paper because I cited books that were from the local college library and in my personal collection, and said that it was impossible for me to understand them (or even own them), therefore I had obviously just copied the entire paper. I wound up getting transferred to another class over it, and being required to do another term paper.

I'd be tempted to write your dingbat off as having the same issue my teacher did - her real problem was that I upset her status quo and she resented it.

Thomas said...

To clarify, the definition of plagarism per my high school's student handbook included failure to cite sources.

In retrospect, it was the first time that I was really made to ponder the possibility that I couldn't perpetually slide by in life without really trying.