I know that wealth equals privilege. I know that students whose parents are wealthy will get into college more easily since they can afford tutors, SAT prep, personal trainers, you name it.
That is part of the reason why I love working in an urban school where over 70% of my students are on the free and reduced lunch program. I strive to help these students to build the tools that they need to make themselves college and career ready.
I love it when the spring arrives and my seniors begin to receive their acceptance letters. I also love it when former students contact me to thank me for preparing them for their college English courses, or to tell me about their interesting travel abroad experiences.
This week I am particularly excited because a student I taught as a junior last year has been accepted to Yale, Harvard, Columbia, Stanford, and now MIT. This is the student success story that the world loves to hear. This student is incredibly intelligent, but simultaneously humble. He is simply a phenomenal human being despite his modest upbringing and I am so happy to have gotten to know him last year.
I have other students who have graduated from Tufts and MIT who are now enrolled in grad school and others who are making the world a better place through their careers. Teachers are sometimes under-appreciated, but every time I hear from one of these students, I know that I am making a difference.
I have a letter that I give to my students on the first day of school that allows me to introduce myself to them and then I ask them to write a letter back to me as their first assignment of the year. The last line of my letter reads as follows:
“This year, I seek to teach you not only the components of writing, but also a course in ethics, because ultimately, your grades means nothing if you cannot look yourself in the mirror and be proud of the person you see.”
How fitting that sentence is in light of the recent college admissions cheating scandal.
Today, some of my students were saying how they know that it’s wrong to cheat, but they also know that they would probably do anything they could in order to get their future children into a good college. They asked if I would do the same.
Now, granted, I’m not a parent, but I really don’t believe that I would. I don’t want to raise privileged children who simply ask and receive; I want them to know the importance of hard work. They should get rejected from some colleges they apply to because we all need some degree of failure in order to grow.
These celebrity parents are raising entitled children and no matter how much money I earn, that is not what I want for my kids.
Some people think it’s almost a waste to even fight the recent scandal, saying how there will always be parents who cheat (especially those who have the financial means to do so). They mention how it’s always been known that some families make massive donations to Ivy League schools with the hopes that their children will then be accepted.
But here’s the thing: I don’t care about the fact that some cheaters aren’t caught. Sure, there will always be cheaters, but that doesn’t mean we give up. We can’t just wallow in the fact that people will always cheat; rather, we must keep trying our best to eliminate as much of it as possible.
Every college placement that was filled by a student who cheated or whose parent cheated is a spot that a deserving student was unable to attain.
I teach some of those deserving students who are rejected because their family has no high standing in society. Most of my students have parents who have never attended college, some of whom have never even finished high school. Many of my students have parents who are not fluent in the English language. These parents cannot fight for their children as much as they might like to because of language barriers.
These students grew up without tutoring and SAT prep courses. They had parents who often could not help them with their homework. Many of them came home to empty houses after school, since their parents were working long hours trying to make ends meet.
These are the students who know that hard work pays off. These students who were able to succeed in high school and enter college are one of my greatest sources of joy as a teacher.
I understand that some of them are upset with the recent scandal (I am upset myself). They have every right to be angry, but I just keep reminding them that ethics and character still matter. Students who got into college as a result of a scam don’t understand the value of hard work. They have no idea what it means to struggle through the daily obstacles of life. My students do, and I believe that because of that, they will be more prepared for the world they enter upon graduation because they know that everything in life will not simply be handed to them.
My students will be able to live with the confidence that anything they achieve is truly a result of their own perseverance. They will be able to look themselves in the mirror every day and be proud of the person they see looking back at them.
It may sound naive, but that has to count for something. I recently read a book entitled The Cheating Culture: Why More Americans are Doing Wrong to Get Ahead by David Callahan. He examines cheating in all aspects, from lawyers who lie about their billable hours, to pharmaceutical companies knowingly promoting drugs with major side effects, to plagiarism, to athletes who use performance-enhancing drugs.
What happens is that we see other people getting ahead as a result of cheating and this causes us to justify our own cheating. He’s cheating, so it’s only fair if I do, too. This leads to a perpetual cycle of cheating, and there is no clear solution.
I try my best to avoid cheating, although Callahan makes it clear how we have all done this from time to time, even in minor ways. Ever downloaded music illegally? Gotten extra change and kept it rather than returning it to the cashier? Embellished a resume? Failed to report under-the-table income? Re-used a stamp that wasn’t cancelled?
We’re all guilty at times. But the only way I can see a change happening is by maintaining a high degree of ethics and morals myself. My students know that I strive to be an overall good person. I try to instill ethical behavior into them as frequently as possible. We have conversations about honesty and integrity and they see my disappointment when I catch them plagiarizing.
If my students see many of their parents, teachers, and peers acting in an ethical manner, they will follow suit. But if they see all of us lying, stealing and cheating our way into success, they will mimic that behavior.
I don’t have the answers, but I do know that character counts, even today when it sometimes seems like all hope is lost. Because of my faith, I know that my ultimate goal of Heaven will only be fulfilled if I maintain an upright character. It doesn’t matter how much power people achieve through false means here on earth; that will not help them to inherit the kingdom of God. And even for those who do not believe in God, they can consider the idea that what goes around comes around.
So I will continue to be proud of the woman I see in the mirror because I know the hard work that was necessary to get to the place I am in today. I know that I did not get any college admissions, degrees, jobs, or awards as a result of any cheating or fraud. I do not have to fear the embarrassment and shame that would occur if I had deep dark secrets that I didn’t want to get released.