Friday, March 21, 2008

Taking Credit

I'll wrap up my memorable elementary school teacher posts with this one. This teacher taught me quite a lot, but the most important lesson I learned from him had nothing to do with finding sums or knowing parts of speech. And that lesson has stuck with me ever since.

Mr. B– was my fifth grade teacher. He was one of those people who always had a smile lurking, just waiting to escape. He was of medium height (from my about-5-foot-tall perspective), and wore glasses. His short-ish brown hair had just enough curl to give it a flip at the ends, and it gave way to bare skin on top (but only a little bit).

Our class had just finished reading Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, by Robert C. O'Brien, and Mr. B– gave us a writing assignment to follow up: write the sequel. I looked forward to this, as I enjoyed the book immensely, and worked hard to create an authentic story. After painstakingly hand-printing my good copy, and stapling it in between a custom-designed construction paper cover, I proudly handed it in, sure of getting a good grade. I wrote it for my eyes, Mr. B–'s, and my parents, but didn't think anyone else would see it, let alone hear it.

A day or so later, Mr. B– called us all to the part of the room where he did read-alouds. Usually I loved read-alouds, but this time was different.

"Today, instead of reading other people's books, I'm going to read your sequels," Mr. B– announced.

The blood drained from my face, and my stomach felt like hundreds of tiny butterflies were flitting around in there.

"Then," he went on, "I want you to guess who you think the author was."

Well, I thought, maybe this would be fun

The more sequels he read, the more my butterflies quieted.  We laughed and smiled and called out our guesses after each reading, and it was fun... until I saw my sequel resting in Mr. B–'s hands.

I sat as still as possible, listening, as Mr. B– released my words out into the air, where they floated freely into my classmates' ears. My thoughts. My words. I could feel my face getting warm, so I looked down the whole time he was reading.  

"So," Mr. B– said, "who wrote this one?"

The class broke into a flurry of guesses the same as before.  When one particular person's name (not mine) was unanimously called out as the writer, I looked up and chimed right in with that name, too.

Mr. B– looked at me curiously and let this go on for a short time, then held up his hand for quiet. He told everyone it was my work, and then he spoke directly to me. "Why would you do that?" he asked.  

I squirmed in the silence. He kept looking at me, and so did everyone else.  After what felt like 10 years, I looked down and mumbled, "I don't know."

"Kim," he said firmly, but not unkindly, "this is very good. You did this. It was your work."  

He paused for a moment, and when I looked up again, he said one last thing: "Why would you give credit for your own work to someone else?"

I didn't know what to say.  But from then on, I did know what to do.  Or rather, what not to do...

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