Sunday, September 22, 2013

Dishonest in Small Things: What I learned in French class that had nothing to do with French

Last week, I was trolling through Facebook, vicariously experiencing life through my "friends" and I happened upon the page from my former high school in Goshen, Indiana. There was a link to the obituary of my high school French teacher, Mr. Fancil. He had died at age 83. He had taught 30 years and then spent several years volunteering. The notice said, "No services." This man taught me a lesson that I have never forgotten. The lesson had nothing to do with the French language but it served me well and I wanted to observe his death and honor his life by sharing this story. It didn't seem right that there were "no services" but I venture to guess that I am not the only one who had her own personal memorial moment for this fondly remembered teacher.

On a regular basis, Mr. Fancil would give our class a vocabulary test, as teachers are wont to do, and we would need to know the French/English counterparts of a list of words. I could have studied them but in all my 15 year old wisdom, I thought I had found a shortcut. What if, I wondered, I would take in my page of notes and use it to cheat on the test? It seemed easy enough so the day of the test, I snuck the note sheet out of my folder and slid it under the test paper. Sneaking furtive glances up to the front of the room, I would copy the vocabulary words onto my test, all the while anticipating the A+ that would soon decorate my paper. About five minutes into the test, Mr. Fancil lifted himself from his chair, walked over to my desk and picked up my test paper. Silently and without even looking at me, he wadded up my test, walked up to the trash can beside his desk and disposed of it.
Then he sat down and resumed his paperwork. I sat stunned, embarrassed, and horrified but knowing even then, that I deserved it. What happens now?  I sat there in the quiet classroom waiting for my classmates to finish their tests. Will he call the principal or worse, my parents? Will he berate me after class, have me kicked out of French II? These questions ran through my mind for the next ten long minutes in that third floor room with windows that looked out over the parking lot.

The fact is, nothing happened, except that I failed that test. He never said a word and never treated me any differently. I never cheated in school again, not through high school, college and graduate school. His decisive but wordless response taught me a valuable lesson.  Mr. Fancil, for whatever reason was shrewd, as is the steward in today's gospel. The words in Luke 16, "The person who is dishonest in small things is also dishonest in great ones " make me grateful that I was caught at a very small thing but given the gift of seeing that it mattered and wouldn't be tolerated.  As a teacher now myself, I know that when we catch students cheating, we need to address it quickly and without fanfare. To excuse it doesn't help them.

Years later, I caught college students turning in papers that were done by students who had taken the class the year previously. There were a couple of things that I had done which helped me know that these students hadn't done their own work. The first class session, I always assign a writing assignment to be completed in class so that I have a sample of a student's work. I knew how they wrote- their voice, fluency, and the use of conventions.  I had also read the previous instructor's syllabus so I knew the content of her class assignments, therefore I recognized the theme of the replacement assignments these students had tried to pass off as their own. At first, I was angry at these students, wondering why they thought they could get by with this. Such audacity! It didn't take long  to remember the lesson I had needed to learn and to decide to follow the example of my French teacher. With little ado, I talked to each young man separately and told them I knew the work wasn't their own and that I had given the assignment for a good reason. "Do the assignment," I said, " hand it in next week."  They did and it was done.  Later that semester, one of the students emailed me and said, "I don't make a habit of cheating but this time it seemed easier. Thank you for giving me another chance."  I wish I could say that was the only time as a teacher that I had to "Mr. Fancil" a student. It wasn't and with the availability of resources via technology, a teacher has to be shrewd and vigilant in new and complicated ways.  However, handling such infractions with firmness and grace is a timeless approach.

I never had the courage to thank Mr. Fancil although I don't know that he ever expected it. I wish he knew the valuable lesson he taught me that day and the impact it had on more than one life.

Rest in peace, Mr. Fancil. May your memory be eternal.


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