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Commentary: Cheating takes the shine off

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 31, 2011 - I wanted to say something about cheating, all this cheating we are reading about in Atlanta, in Philly and, now, in New York City. Not kids cheating. Adults. Educators. Teachers and principals so afraid for their jobs, their funding and their reputations that they will sit down in secret and erase all those little penciled ovals to change student answers from wrong to right.

But there is not really much to say other than: What were people thinking other people would do given the unrelenting pressure of mandates called No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top? The very names make my heart beat faster, and not in a good way.

The current system is designed to create cheaters. No surprise there to anyone who has ever been tempted, in analogous circumstances, to take a shortcut or lie out of fear of what will happen to them if they don't.

Instead I will talk about a man I will call Mr. A., because I suspect that no matter what the consequences, Mr. A. would never have erased any ovals, or directed anybody else to.

Mr. A. and I both worked at Gundlach School in north St. Louis. I was a writing enrichment teacher. He was the lead school custodian. At 10:30 on a February morning back in 2005, Mr. A is buffing his already glossy linoleum floor, the hallway outside the school office.

When a passing line of first graders reaches his machine and their teacher tells them to stop, Mr. A. tips the buffer back so the teacher and students can see what's collected on the bottom of it: gray dirt on white padding. They pass on, and he continues working.

"When you do an exceptional job," Mr. A. tells me, "People notice. I got to keep my shine up, because this here is my run."

Mr. A. tells me that if the environment is shining, clean and orderly, that if it reflects care and respect, it will inspire children to learn, to bend their minds to learning and paying attention.

Mr. A. supervises two other men who work on other floors. He explains to me that he had a mentor at Laclede who taught him what it meant to be a custodian. Caring for the space is more than just cleaning, he says. You're a storyteller, a mentor, a disciplinarian when necessary.

"At Laclede I wore five or six hats," he says, "and I learned so much. Now I speak to kids at their own level." Here he gestures with his hands, practically diving down and forward into a sense of "their level" and what that means, the intensity of what that means. His eyes bear into mine. Mr. A. establishes rules and makes sure they are followed.

"Your mama don't work here," Mr. A. says to the kids. It's good for the kids, he says, to hear it from a man in addition to female parents and teachers. "They know I care," he says.

As things turned out, that was the last year Mr. A. and I shared professional space and time. By the beginning of the 2005-06 school year, the district had outsourced custodial care to Sodexo, and later to Aramark, a multi-national corporation that employs more than 255,000 people who clean national parks, prisons, Olympic stadiums, sports arenas, hospitals and even zoos. By 2008 Gundlach was shuttered and I was gone, too, my students sent to schools farther from home.

I wonder what Mr. A is doing now. And I wonder if he's keeping his shine up.

Inda Schaenen is a writer and teacher in St. Louis.

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