I cheated in school only once and I was caught.
I had this marvelous teacher named Mrs. Gouldy who was my English and French teacher my Freshman year of high school. I had both classes on the same day and on this particular day, I had an exam on Golding’s Lord of the Flies in her English Class and a vocabulary quiz in her French class. I stayed up most of the night before reading all about human kind’s base status of savagery and evil, how the innocence of children was a mere myth, and how in the end individualism would replace comradeship and lead to our complete destruction. Human kind may have been deemed a complete wash, but I was ready for that exam. I was also prepared to argue with Golding, because I believed then as I do now that humanity is inherently good. Rampant individualism might indeed lead to humanity’s destruction in the text and in real life, but I was (and am) optimistic that in community our goodness will prevail.
That morning, French class was first and to my horror I had forgotten about the vocabulary quiz! So, I begin frantically writing out the words to help me remember them. Before the quiz began I hurriedly stashed the pile of papers I was using on the floor. As I shifted in my extremely uncomfortable seat, not knowing the answers to the first 3 questions, I realized that my study sheet had slipped ahead of the others and was visible to me from the floor just in front of my desk.
I was usually such a good student, normally such a well-prepared student, even an overly conscientious student and yet, how could I not look? Likely, No one would believe my good intentions at this point anyway, not even me. The paper was way too conveniently placed. I knew even then, that the right thing to do would have been to move it out of view. I didn’t. Three or four questions of taking advantage of the opportunity and I was busted. I was left to writhe in my own discomfort, devastated and embarrassed as I awaited the Scarlet C for cheater to be emblazoned upon my breast.
She was my favorite English teacher, ever, and the only French teacher at my high school.
I would be forced to not only face her regularly, but she would also accompany me through the pages of Hawthorne, Camus, and Sartre. Her curriculum and the way I saw her seeing me would shape my behavior for years to come: from my own exploration of atheism and the influence of existentialism to my desire to be an exchange student and a French and Philosophy teacher. But at that time in my 14-year-old mind, one mistake and now I was a cheater.
“Label[ing] individuals [is] shorthand [when] trying to deal with people who are always complex, and [People] always pop out of the boxes we put them into” Sister Helen Prejean, writes. “Like [the way we view] Mother Teresa, we will attribute nothing bad to her. Then, when somebody (else) has done a terrible thing, we say that's all there is to them…Suppose there was a way that the worst thing you had ever done could be projected on a screen for everybody to see. Then suppose you were told, "That is all you are." You'd say, "But…I've been kind to my grandmother. I was honest most of the time.”
My value as I understood it then, was entirely dependent on my mistake. How on earth would I be able to argue just two class periods later for the inherent goodness of humanity, with the same teacher? Maybe, Golding was right. Maybe even in Paradise, even in idyllic circumstances…when there is plenty of food and water for everyone, and no real threats, humanity will inevitably find a way to war against itself: project our fears onto the world, fail to live up to even our own moral standards.
Since that young age of 14, I have not just cheated. I have stolen, lied, gossiped, misconstrued, omitted, been unfaithful, been greedy, boastful, envious, gluttonous, angry, lusty, and lazy… And I still believe people are inherently good. In our nature we are good. We are also inherently fallible, because we are not God.
I believe in redemption. Our value does not rest on a single event, nor does it merely rest on the sum of our actions. When we have a desire to be held accountable and a diverse community who will do so, healing of all kinds is possible. It is in community we glean what is right and wrong and so it is in community our redemption and mercy are found.
Tis the season to be redeemed.