Wally, a husky Ute student, blossomed when I worked with him individually in a lockdown building. He mourned when I was assigned to the regular school in minimum security. Two years later, he was moved to minimum security and placed in my U.S. History class.
I didn’t realize that Wally might feel overwhelmed in a classroom with 15 or 16 other students. On his first test day, I didn’t see him leave class without turning in his test. He offered it to me the next day after class. Since our students were all criminals, the school had strict policies about cheating. The secretary informed all students of school policies when they enrolled, and they signed an agreement to abide. I repeated the rule that no tests could be taken from the classroom and showed Wally the bold type on top of the page: “Do Not Take This Test Outside The Classroom: NO CREDIT.”
“I can’t accept a test which you took home.”
“Can I get credit for this chapter?”
“No, but we’re starting on the next chapter. You can do that work, take the test, and get credit for it.”
Wally’s eyes narrowed and his voice rose. “Then I did all the work on this chapter for nothing?”
“I’m sorry. I can’t accept your test. That’s school policy.”
Wally pleaded. “I read slow. I needed more time to finish, so I took it to my house.”
“You didn’t tell me you needed more time to finish. I could have given you a few extra minutes.”
“Just take my test this time.”
“I’m sorry, I can’t.”
By now everyone else had exited the school for lunch. Wally took a step toward me. His jaw tightened. His voice rasped as if he were fighting to hold back tears. “You’re saying I cheated!”
“I didn’t say you cheated. Taking a test out of the school is against the rules. I can’t accept it.”
Wally’s black eyes sent me a look of pure hatred as he wadded up his test, threw it in my face, and stomped from the room. I was shocked. He had been such an amiable lockdown student. I didn’t intend to drop him from school over the issue and dismissed it from my mind. The next day Martin, the school psychologist, came into my room. Wally had asked Martin to keep him from being dropped from school. Wally said I’d called him a liar and a cheater. He told Martin he’d been so mad, it was all he could do to keep from picking up a desk and hitting me on the head.
My knees quivered as I heard of Wally’s rage. Martin put his arm around my shoulder. “Are you okay?” Martin reassured me until I quit trembling, but I was left knowing I had let my guard down. I had gotten too comfortable. I should not have stayed alone in the school with a student, angry or not. Wally could have killed me.
Why had I been unaware of Wally’s rage? I think now it was because I expected him to react as I would have. I had not accused him of cheating. I could understand disappointment, but not fury at having a rule enforced. I had briefly forgotten I was dealing with a person who sees the world entirely differently from the way I do.
Did Wally take the test with the intent to find the answers in the book or from a friend outside of class? Probably. Wally was dropped from school—possibly he was sent to another facility. I never saw him again.
This event caused me to qualify the statement, “I like my students” by adding “in prison” to the phrase. Inmates can be agreeable, even fun, within the confines of prison walls, but that doesn’t mean they can function outside a strictly controlled environment.