By JOSEPH TINTLE
I’ve been fortunate to have been taught by several excellent teachers throughout the years. Father Adrian McLaughlin was one of them.
This Benedictine monk stood six-feet, one-inch tall, sported a white crew cut, stood ramrod straight, and took no prisoners in the classroom. Why would he? He not only taught us eighth graders English literature, grammar, and spelling in 1965, he was the Dean of Studies for Delbarton School in Morristown, N.J. There was no messing with Father Adrian.
When he entered class that first day in September, he introduced himself then spelled out his number-one rule.
“If you don’t have your homework in this corner of my desk every day,” he said pointing with a purpose, “you will receive a zero for the marking period in the homework category. It counts one-third. So even if you have a 100 average in the two other categories — tests and class participation — the best you’ll do is a 67.”
No one stirred.
“Yes, Father,” we replied.
After that, he explained our course of study for the upcoming year. Personally I did just fine in his class. Spelling was a snap, I was pretty good at grammar, and I found literature fun. To this day, excerpts from several stories we read almost 50 years ago still spin through my head.
But in early October I forgot to place my homework in the right-hand corner of Father Adrian’s desk. I did it, of course, but it was in my book bag next to my desk. Father Adrian collected the homework, thumbed through it, turned and said, “Tintle, that’s a zero.” I did some quick computation and realized that even though I was running a 94 in literature, I was probably going to get a 63 if he carried out his rule. I’ll give Father Adrian this, he nailed me in literature as he had promised, but he spared me failure. I received a 70 for the first marking period. I’ve never been late with an assignment since. Lesson taught.
A week later, I noticed that the student in front of me was crying.
“What’s wrong?” I whispered.
Chris explained that he forgot to place his homework on Father Adrian’s desk. Yes, it was a problem, but it was a major one for Chris because his parents were more demanding than mine when it came to academics because he had to match his older brother in grades.
“Look,” I said to him. “Just follow my lead.”
As Father Adrian was about to close the classroom door, I got up, approached him and claimed I was ill. I took the conversation into the hallway to give Chris a chance to place his homework on the desk.
Meanwhile, Father Adrian expressed his concern for me and suggested that I see the nurse. By the time our exchange was over, Chris had slipped his paper on top of the pile and returned to his desk undetected. He, no doubt, earned a splendid grade that marking period and all was well at home.
Now let’s jump ahead four years.
I am a junior headed to my finals in chemistry. Algebra, and anything math related, did not relate to me. Even worse was chemistry. Given my academic troubles in freshman year (11 failures and a stint spent in summer school), it was inevitable that I’d have trouble with formulas and whatever else chemistry had to offer.
Again, I was running a low average, and here I was about to take my final exam. Father Richard, our teacher, told me that I needed an 85 to pass for the year. That morning I was running a 68.
As I reached for the classroom door knob, out came Chris. He jammed a piece of paper in my hand and told me not to open it until five minutes into the test. Hey, look, he was a peer. And what do teenagers do, they listen to their peers. So I did.
Five minutes in, I became curious about the contents of the written message. When Father Richard walked to the back of the classroom, I peeked. It was a list of answers. For the rest of the time, I scratched out a few formulas to make it look as if I were hard at work, but all a student needed to do back then was bubble in letters and hand in the exam. Forty-five minutes later, I turned in “my” work. A couple of days later, I learned that Chris and I had passed. And I asked him why he gave me the answers.
“Don’t you remember when you helped me in Father Adrian’s literature class in eighth grade?”
When I tell my high school students this story someone always yells out, “Hey, Mister, you cheated.”
“No I didn’t,” I insist.
“Sure, you did,” the student insists right back.
“That’s not cheating. It’s called making the most of an opportunity.”