5: Consequences

5: Consequences

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Inspiration for Teachers


A man sooner or later discovers that he is the master-gardener of his soul, the director of his life.

~James Allen

I leaned against Susie’s open door. “If I have to grade another paper right now, I’m gonna lose it. I really need a break.” I dragged myself into her classroom and plopped down at the closest student’s desk.

“Tell me about it.” Susie, my friend and mentor, put down her red pen and pushed away from her crowded desk.

I slouched farther down. “I’m overworked, overloaded, and just over it. Final projects, exams, grades, parent conferences, paperwork, graduation, cleanup, checkout. I’m exhausted. I won’t relax till we walk out of this building next week.”

“Then we’ll have the whole summer.”

I glanced out the door. “I know, but — ” Oh, my God. Was that Kelly White coming up the hall? Seeing Kelly silenced my tirade. What was he doing here? I sat up straight.

Even though I was a fairly young teacher, I didn’t remember all my former students’ names and faces. But I’d never forget Kelly. He’d taken my public-speaking class several years earlier when he was a senior. When he failed and didn’t graduate on time, he was furious.

Kelly stopped at the door.

I forced a smile. “Hi, Kelly… What are you doin’ here?”

“I came to find you,” he said.

“Oh?” I shifted my position and held my breath. Why did he need to find me? Why now?

A recent event had put me on edge. A senior had threatened an English teacher because he hadn’t passed her class. He’d told her, “I’ll get you.”

The next day, as she left work, he was waiting in the teachers’ parking lot with his dog. He walked toward her. She went back inside the school, called the police, and pressed charges against him.

Kelly stepped inside the room. “I’ve needed to do something for a long time.”

I looked over to Susie. She had gone back to grading papers and probably thought nothing of a former student dropping by to see me.

All the events surrounding his failure came rushing back to me. Kelly wasn’t a behavior problem. He never put much effort into the class, but did enough to get by and pass first semester. Second semester was a different story. He didn’t do any classwork and blew off the exam. Even with my liberal grading scale, his average was below 50. He had no chance of passing, but he needed that elective credit to graduate.

A gifted athlete, Kelly had won a state championship in track. He ranked as one of the school’s all-time stars. A large photograph of him in his uniform was prominently displayed in the gym foyer. The coaches held high expectations for him. His athletic skills had earned him a scholarship.

His track coach approached me and asked me to change his grade. Then the head guidance counselor came. Finally, an assistant principal tried to pressure me to pass Kelly. They played all the typical cards — pity, guilt, race.

I just couldn’t do it. If his average had been higher and closer to passing, I might have been swayed. But it wasn’t, and I wasn’t.

If I changed Kelly’s grade, why shouldn’t I change every other student’s failing grade? Why should he be treated differently because he was blessed with athletic talents?

These men were upset and frustrated with me for not giving in.

The whole stressful ordeal had been tense and disheartening. I resented being questioned about a student’s grade. Didn’t we have standards? Weren’t we supposed to prepare students for the real world — not give them a pass? How could this successful coach and these administrators want me to do something unethical? I lost respect for them for asking me.

At the center of this firestorm, Kelly blamed me because he didn’t graduate with his class and had to go to summer school to earn that last required credit.

My stomach tightened as Kelly stepped farther into the room.

“You know, in my whole life, you were the first obstacle I ever encountered. Because of sports, I kind of slid by. I got away with things,” he said. “Even with my mother. But not you. No one ever held me responsible for my actions. I blamed you for failing me and keeping me from graduating on time.” Kelly shook his head. “But I learned an important lesson from you. I learned that I have to be responsible for my own actions.”

He paused and then grinned broadly. “I needed to come back to thank you.”

Did I hear that right? I began to breathe normally again.

He stepped closer to me. “You didn’t fail me. I failed,” he said, putting his hand to his chest. “You did the right thing.”

Tears streamed down my face.

Kelly sat on the desk next to me. “I wanted you to know that I did go on to college. I competed in track there, too.”

Still trim and fit, he was doing well. We talked for a few more minutes.

“Well, I know you must have a lot to do, so I better go.” Kelly stood.

“Wait.” I got up and hugged him. “Thank you for coming to see me. It really means a lot.”

As he was leaving, he stopped and turned. “I know you don’t think I learned anything about public speaking, but I really did.”

“Well, the short speech you just gave was wonderful,” I said.

He smiled and nodded before walking out the door.

I stood in the doorway and watched him walk down the hall.

Susie sighed and put down her pen. “One class down and two to go. What was that all about?”

“Closure. You know, sometimes we’re completely unaware of our impact on people.”

I was proud of Kelly. I was proud of myself, too.

~Linda Carol Cobb

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