I have a few students really angry at me. I guess I’m doing my job.

“Teachers of the nineth grade, I need to meet with you, after the meeting.”

That was not the message I wanted after the teacher’s meeting. It was about 4:30 pm, China time, and 4:30 am from my laptop in Michigan. The news shook the sleep out of my blurry eyes.

“The cheating continues,” my principal blurted before her screen froze.

I couldn’t figure out why. My 9th graders are so smart, they don’t need to cheat. Or, if they did cheat, wouldn’t get caught.

Cheating pencil confiscated from a former fifth grader

So last week, I announced I was replacing their regular test with a “I know you are cheating” essay.

Students rolled their eyes at my announcement and speech. “Colleges won’t ask you the definition of Odoriferous at in interview. Hospital won’t hire doctor who cheated on medical exam. “It’s character and not grades that matter in the end.”

This wasn’t an easy choice.

It would be easy for me to turn a blind eye to cheating, too. Grading is the ultimate headache of online teaching. Homework has to be scanned in China by a teacher assistant then emailed to me, where I try to grade them without killing any stateside trees.

As soon as I post grades in the online and unhackable gradebook, I receive a deluge of messages from students, all loaded weeping emojis. My favorite was this:

“You really want me to read in literature class?”


While my older students were grumbling over points that don’t matter, the school director was penning an email about a different student, a spelling champion.

This nine year old didn’t suffer from She didn’t suffer from hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobia or the fear of large words. She could spell pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanocosis. Her chair had been vacant since the spring. I figured it was Covid. I did not expect bone cancer.

I hoped the director’s email was a terrible mistake.

“I hate to inform you that a student passed away last night.”

I could feel the Grim Reaper’s sickle scrape down my back like a raggedy fingernail. A lump of bile sank to the bottom of my stomach. Memories of spelling-bees suffocated my brain. They were inescapable, like a swarm of mosquitoes in Michigan during the summer. If only I could swat the thoughts away. Instead, they buzzed in my ear all night.

I pressed the fast forward button in my mind. Who will these students will be ten years from now? What memories will flow down one’s face in the form of tears?

While I wait for clearance to return to China, I fantasize about being an education god. I’d cancel online school, turn off computers and have every student download the reading list of St. Johns College. At this small liberal arts college, the curriculum consists of reading books for four years, none of them starring Captain Underpants.

One of the required titles is the Federalist Papers, the same ones Lin-Manuel Miranda sang about in Hamilton. The original words were penned with a goose feather in 1877, most likely from the left wing of a bird*. Here is a hard-to-sing sentence from the introduction:

Among the most formidable of the obstacles which the new Constitution will have to encounter may readily be distinguished the obvious interest of a certain class of men in every State to resist all changes which may hazard a diminution of the power, emolument, and consequence of the offices they hold under the State establishments; and the perverted ambition of another class of men, who will either hope to aggrandize themselves by the confusions of their country, or will flatter themselves with fairer prospects of elevation from the subdivision of the empire into several partial confederacies than from its union under one government.

If you think your brain is tripping arcane words, consider this: The Federalist Papers were written forty years before Webster published his first dictionary!

I think of my students. Could they read this? When is the last time I stumbled over the word emolument? My thoughts are interrupted by a swarm of grief. I try swatting away the pain.

I’m not a real teacher. I just play one on ZOOM TV. I make mistakes. I get angry that some students cheat on tests.

I get angrier that others get cheated out of life.

The loss of a student is never easy, no matter how they can spell. Here is a website that can help you share difficult news: https://grievingstudents.org/

*Note: Right hand writers favored using quills plucked from the left wing of a bird as the curve made it easier for them to write. Is this related to right-wing and left-wing policies? Who knows.

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