Originally posted on November 17, 2017 via P&P.
I went to a Catholic grade school. There were about 40-50 of us split between two classes.
Through the years, my class gained the reputation of being particularly troublesome. Detentions, demerits, revoking class trips, barring us from dances and even threatening explusion did nothing to fix the problem we collectively had with authority.
It's no surprise, then, that during finals in 7th grade, a history test (complete with answers) was stolen from the teacher's desk. He had stepped outside to speak with his sister (who happened to be the principal) and while he was in the hall, someone walked up to the podium, grabbed the final, and hurried back to his/her desk. I did not see this happen as I was reading a book on Greek mythology, but from the giggles and high fives being shared by the class, I had an idea someone had done something stupid.
When Mr. Walsh stepped back in, he checked over the papers on the podium, confused. It was clear he knew something was missing. He said aloud that whoever grabbed the "papers" had one shot to return them before he went to the principal.
No one stepped forward.
At this point, my interest was piqued because it was clear something of importance had been taken. I shot a look over to the likely culprits who were shuffling in their seats. I sighed and went back to reading my mythology book, knowing full well they wouldn't step forward and we'd likely have yet another class punishment as a result.
The next day, Sr. Walsh (the principal, and our teacher's sister) entered the room after morning announcements. Having grown sick of punishing us en masse, she decided to get creative and punish us individually in addition to as a class. One at a time, she called us out into the hall to see if anyone would confess or give up the name of the thief. She didn't make it more than ten students in and she discovered the culprits (there were three). Unfortunately for the class, it turns out they were only too willing to divulge the plan and admitted to making copies of the test (and answers) which were then passed around to everyone in the room.
However, one of the culprits did something that still baffles me to this day. She defended me. After confessing to stealing the test and making copies for everyone, she specifically told the principal that even though everyone else in the class was aware that a cheat sheet was made, I hadn't had anything to do with it.
I had absolutely no idea this conversation had taken place. I was likely still trying to steal time between lessons to make it through my mythology book and saw the 1:1 grilling as a means to that end. When Sister called me out into the hallway, I assumed it was just my turn to be grilled. I wasn't concerned. Everyone in the school knew me to be a good student and a relatively honest kid, so I figured this was all for show.
But then Sister told me what happened, neglecting the part about me being singled out. She said, "Because this is a class-wide problem, the whole class is going to be punished, and since the transgression is so severe, the punishment will be equally severe."
She didn't say it because she didn't have to; 7th grade would not be attending the school-wide field trip to Clementon Amusement Park, nor would we be allowed to attend our class field trip to the aquarium. We likely wouldn't be allowed to the end of year dance, either. Those were the only things she had on the table to take, and she was taking all of them. It also meant letters would be going home to the parents informing them of precisely what had happened, and let's be real... THAT punishment was the worst because it meant my mother would think I was cheating! Sister might be able to take a good many activities from me, but my mother could and would end my life. So I had a pretty good idea that I was about to be screwed over a barrel.
But then she said, "Claudia said that you didn't know they were planning to steal the test."
I was incredulous. I'd figured out what had been stolen and by whom at that point, but to think Claudia would defend me with absolutely nothing to gain stupified me. She was a popular kid and I was decidedly not. She lived across the street from me, and we played together on the weekends, but in school? In school she didn't know who I was because she was much too cool for me. But here she was, going out of her way to protect me. I honestly didn't know what to say.
Sister then asked, "Did you know? Did you know they'd stolen the test?"
I had to be honest. I said, "I knew that something was taken, but it wasn't until Mr. Walsh got angry that I realized it was probably the test."
She then asked, "Did you know who took the test?"
I said, "I had a pretty good idea who it was, but since I didn't see them take it, I couldn't be sure."
She then asked, "So if you knew the test was taken, and you had a good idea who had taken it, why didn't you tell Mr. Walsh?"
I said, "Because I wasn't sure. After school, everyone was talking about it, so it wasn't hard to put the pieces together."
So she asked again, "Why didn't you tell him this morning? Why didn't you come to me?"
And I replied, "It doesn't have to do with me. I didn't take the test and I wouldn't have used the cheat sheet. So yeah, I knew they took it, but I wasn't going to do anything with it."
This contradicted Claudia's attempt to get me out of being punished. Obviously I was just as culpable as the rest of the class, and I owned my part in it. Remaining silent is just as bad as participating, and I learned that lesson in that moment.
But I also learned something about myself, and I learned it because Sister Walsh saw it in me and explained it. She said, "Gina, do you know what integrity is?"
I shook my head. I'd heard the word a few times, but it was a hazy concept for me. Something about respect and George Washington cutting cherry trees...
She got closer and looked me in the eye. I was uncomfortable with this level of intimacy and leaned against the wall as I shifted uncomfortably under her gaze. She said:
You had the chance to walk away without punishment. Claudia said you didn't know anything, and I believed her. Instead of just going along with that, you decided to tell me the truth. You told me the truth knowing that you'd be punished just as harshly as the rest of the class for enabling this to happen. THAT is integrity. You are taking responsibility for a choice you made and I am proud of you. You must always remember to hold on to your integrity, because one day, it won't just be a cheat sheet. The decision to keep your integrity will get harder and harder, and I want you to remember this moment. You are brave and you are honest and you are strong. Never let anyone take that integrity away from you.
I was in 7th grade, so that was back in 1994. Wow. This conversation took place more than 25 years ago and I remember it as if it was yesterday. It clearly made a strong impression on me, and I've tried to heed that advice ever since. I think she'd be just as proud of me today as she was then. No matter the circumstance, I refuse to allow anyone to siphon off my integrity. Not no way, not no how.
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