Eighth grade. Honors Math. Mrs. Rawls gave us a take home test. She didn’t even tell us not to cheat. Maybe in-passing she said you gotta work alone. Of course, we cheated. Or a lot of us did. And were caught. Because we all got the same problem wrong, in the exact same way.
Mrs. Rawls was crestfallen. She sobbed, asking us: why? We were intelligent, why would we resort to cheating? We were honors students, why would we betray her trust and debase ourselves? To her, it was inexplicable. To us, she was naive.
The thing is, Mrs. Rawls taught for decades, retired, and then came out of retirement because our school was in dire need of a math teacher. During her retirement, a lot had changed. This was Will County, the fastest growing county in the country. The old Will County- the one she knew- was rural, traditional, simple. During the nineties it became suburban and the population multiplied exponentially. When she came out of retirement she was teaching in the same school, but she was teaching complete strangers. We weren’t farm folk weaned on the Ten Commandments. We were the sons and daughters of investors and technocrats, whose only notion of righteousness was being the best.
We craved it. Success. Out-performing the rest of the school and each other. Scoring high on tests. Being called gifted. Special. Honors Class. A bright future where we’ll excel in high school then get into a good college in order to have a terrific career that will allow us to live in our own suburb- an even better one. No roots. Roots are the last thing you need when you’re flying toward the sun.
Mrs. Rawls thought that because we were good students, we were good people. Bad kids, she thought, are the ones who cheat and lie. That might’ve been the case, years ago. But we weren’t good students because we were good, we were good students because we were ambitious. We cared enough to cheat. The “bad” kids didn’t give a shit about doing well- they were the ones who had no need to cheat.
One way to interpret it is that we reflected public education’s own moral vacuity right back at itself. A system that determines merit through quantifiable standardized tests has no room for inner qualities like integrity, wisdom, and honesty. All that matters is how many bubbles you correctly fill with graphite.
Back then, I looked down upon the “bad kids”. They weren’t as smart as me, I thought. But in retrospect, I think they were the ones with moral fiber. They had values: music, play, being relaxed for chrissakes. But these values, while certainly honorable, go unhonored by the system.
Of course, some of the kids who didn’t care about school, also didn’t care about anything else. They possessed neither the values of society, nor any of their own. Nihilism. Cynicism. Pessimism. This is where the ambitious end up, too, when we realize our ideals are hollow.
Hollow’s good. You can fill it with something. With what? Who knows. Maybe just hold it up to your ear, and listen to the sound of the ocean.