College Penance and Rescue

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Humor  |  House: Booksie Classic

Guilt from cheating on an ethics exam leads to college penance for a former student and the chance to rescue high school dropouts.

October 3, 2016 – Raleigh, North Carolina, USA

Sanders Bradford had avoided his alma mater since graduating.  After making the four-hour drive back to campus, he immediately walked toward the building housing the humanities departments.  The tailored blazer he wore reflected his success and good taste.  Stylish dress and grooming still opened professional doors.

Sanders passed random students, some walking alone and others in chatty groups.  They seemed too young and too anxious about artificial classroom problems.  Sanders chuckled to himself with a thought along the lines of, “Just wait until they reach the real world.”

The exterior of Professor Garnier’s office looked unchanged.  The same nameplate, quotations, and book cover were pinned to a bulletin board.  Since his visit was unannounced, Sanders was prepared to camp in the hallway if Professor Garnier was not around, but the office door was cracked open and the light on.  Sanders gently tapped and a voice inside called, “Come in.”

Professor Garnier sat behind her desk, facing a computer screen.  Every available shelf and flat surface contained a book or stack of papers, as if to prove to visitors she had read and pondered far more than the average mortal.  Her curly gray and black hair was left in the wild bird’s nest style expected of a serious philosopher.

Professor Garnier told her students they were welcome to talk with her whenever her door was open.  But she knew better than to let them grow too friendly or give them the chance to question her role as an authority figure.  Like most university professors, she wanted a reputation as brilliant yet selectively approachable.

“May I sit down?” Sanders asked as he slipped into the office.

Professor Garnier gestured to the mismatched chairs opposite her desk.  Sanders chose the hardest one, a simple metal folding chair.

“I’m sure you don’t remember me.  I was in your class eight years ago.  Business ethics.”

Professor Garnier studied his face as if vague memories were returning.  In reality, any hint of Sanders was lost in a thick catalog of student faces.

“I came in today because I have a confession to make.  Most of our grade in that class was based on the final and I cheated on it.  Someone sold me the answers.  I know I should have studied but paying the money was a whole lot easier at the time.”

Professor Garnier remained thoughtful and silent.  Sanders shifted in his chair before continuing.  “I thought I would forget all about it, but instead of fading away, it haunts me.  I can’t get away from the raging guilt.  It’s like in the book Crime and Punishment.  At my company, I’m the Vice President of Corporate Development.  I talk about business ethics all the time and feel like a hypocrite.  And I do appreciate the irony of cheating on an ethics test.  I had to come and tell you and try to make it right somehow.”

Sanders slumped down in his chair, relieved and exhausted after his confession.  Professor Garnier furrowed her brow as Sanders waited for a response.  This kind of scene was not new to her.  Every year, at least one student returned to confess cheating on a test or plagiarizing a paper.  Each had a different motivation for making the pilgrimage to her office and they looked to her for a pardon and to erase whatever emotional burden they carried.

All the penitent used the phrase, “Make it right.”  When she was a new professor, she investigated the possibility of retroactively failing a student from a class and revoking a degree.  The process was a nightmare, even by academic bureaucracy standards, and she decided she did not have the energy to pursue it.  What was the point after someone had been out of college for years?  Was anyone going to check and ensure degrees listed on a resume were completely valid?

When those confessing wanted to “make things right,” they did not actually expect it to involve punishment or work.  They hoped Professor Garnier would say it was okay and that she was glad they had learned a lesson.  If they promised not to do it again, their consciences would be reset, and they would be pronounced clean.

In the quiet moments while Sanders squirmed in front of her, Professor Garnier’s thoughts drifted to the interesting psychology of why she held such influence over him after almost a decade.  Regardless of how the power originated, she did not feel ready to simply set him free.  Perhaps he looked too successful.  His hair and complexion glowed.  Even during his confession, he sounded confident.  This was not a person who had traveled many bumpy roads.  And he had caught her in one of her more feisty, obnoxious moods.

“How many people were in the class?” she asked in a deadly serious voice.

“It was a big class.  Maybe a hundred.”

“Hmm.  Not a trivial thing to take an unfair advantage over 100 people.  Exactly what we talked about in that class.  I suppose you could make it right by tracking all of them down and attempting to make up for the advantage you gained.  But the university would never provide a list of students from the class or their contact information.  The next best thing would be to help 100 other students with their education.  Provide them with an advantage to make up for the advantage you stole.”

“I don’t understand,” Sanders replied.  The surprised look on his face clearly showed he regretted the visit.  “Are you talking about donating to a scholarship fund?”

“Not at all.  Money got you in trouble in the first place.  You can’t buy yourself out of this.  You need to give your time and your soul to these people.  Remember, your actions speak louder than words.”

“How am I supposed to do it?”

“That’s up to you.”  Professor Garnier turned to her computer and began clicking.  “I’ll make a note on your permanent record with the registrar’s office.  Your degree will be on hold until your makeup work is completed.”

Sanders remained uncharacteristically speechless.  He looked away from Professor Garnier and stared down at his hands.  He dared not ask for any advice which might risk making his situation worse.  He staggered out of the office and back to his car.  He drove home in a disgruntled trance.

That same afternoon, Professor Garnier enjoyed a chat with two colleagues.  As they griped about recent student encounters, she brought up Sanders’ confessed cheating.

“I told him he had to help 100 people to make up for it,” Professor Garnier said with a laugh.

“Let me guess.  He offered to give scholarship money.  Those business types are all the same,” one of the other professors replied.

“Yes, but I told him he had to give up his time.  Practically the modern version of Hercules’ labors.  Then I told him I was putting a hold on his degree until he was done.  Maybe I went too far.”

“Sounds perfect to me,” another professor said with an appreciative chuckle.

“I’m sure he regrets coming to visit.  That’s the last time we’ll ever see him on campus.”

Over the next three weeks, Sanders did his best to suppress the vivid memories of his short meeting and Professor Garnier’s ridiculous assignment.  He tried to go back to the root of his discontent.  He read articles about forgiving himself and how that was the hardest part of any redemption process.  He easily forgave himself for other selfish and destructive decisions, but for some bizarre reason he could not forget the ethics exam.  The campus visit made things worse.  Now he felt guilty for cheating and for ignoring the 100 people project. 

When Sanders finally decided he had to follow through on helping some people, he was drawn to a nearby community college.  He arranged to speak with the dean of students and explained his willingness to assist.

“We’re trying to expand our scholarship pool.  Best way to help is a donation,” the dean immediately replied.

“I can’t simply give money.  I want to give my time.  Is there maybe a seminar I could teach?  Or tutoring?”

“Do you have any math or programming skills?  We can always use those.”

“Not particularly.  I’m more of a business guy.”

The dean sighed.  “How about I let you know if I think of something?  You might also try one of the high schools.  They need volunteers a lot more than we do.”

It took Sanders a week to get over what felt like an insult.  What kind of organization was the dean running if he could not find a spot for a willing, perfectly normal, volunteer?  Sanders gradually swallowed his pride and found the contact information for the largest high school in the city.  He arranged for a meeting with a Vice Principal and made a pitch to help.

“What are your biggest problems?  I want to make a difference.”

The Vice Principal’s tired eyes automatically narrowed on a printed list taped to the wall near her desk.  “Those are the kids who keep me up at night.  The dropout list.  You want to make a difference, get those kids back because if they don’t graduate high school, their lives turn out a mess.”

“I was thinking maybe I could do something with the kids who wanted to go to college.”

“Forget college.  Society gets worse or better right here in high school.”

“Then what am I supposed to do?  Go find them and tell them to come back?”

“Sure.  You can work through the PTA.  We can get you names and addresses.  Go out with some of the parents.”

Sanders walked out of the school feeling disheartened and unappreciated again.  He had no intention of following through with the Vice Principal’s rescue plan, but she sent his name and number to the PTA and before he knew it, he was driving with a parent volunteer to a rundown apartment complex.  The place smelled of cigarettes and grease smoke.  Sanders knocked on the door and hoped no one was home.  No luck.  A short woman with frog eyes appeared wearing pajamas.

“We’re looking for Johnny Sochi.  We’re from the high school.”

“He’s in trouble?”

“We came by because he hasn’t been coming to school.”

The woman acted surprised and she called for Johnny to join them in the front room.  Sanders sat on their couch and stumbled over some words about the importance of education and how people worried about Johnny.  They cared about his success and happiness.  The parent volunteer talked about programs which could help Johnny catch up in his classes.  Sanders looked around the depressing apartment and questioned why he was there.  This was not his idea of an educational boost.  This was raw and filthy and hopeless.

Johnny barely said a word until Sanders and the parent stood up to leave.  Then Johnny looked through the torn screen of the front room’s window and spotted Sanders’ car in the parking lot below.  “Is that your car?” Johnny asked, clearly impressed.

“Yeah, that’s my car,” Sanders answered flatly.

The next day, the Vice Principal called.  “Johnny Sochi came to school.”

“You’re kidding.”

“Whatever you did worked.”

“That’s great.  But I have no idea what we did.”

If it had not been for that first success, Sanders probably would have quit then and there.  He thought of Johnny Sochi every time he went out in the future.  His visits did not help everyone, not even most of them, but they did matter to some.  He kept things simple, first finding something unique about the student.  He tried to convince them they mattered.  The dropouts appreciated that a successful looking adult actually knew their names.

Students who responded to a visit were invited to group lunches and dinners.  Sanders sent them notes of encouragement and wanted to hear how they were doing in their classes.  During the first year of his rescue mission, twenty-four students ended up graduating because of his direct involvement.

Sanders did not like calling what he did a program.  It was too personal to be a program.  It took on its own momentum and he and the PTA grew better at saying the right things.  Some of the dropouts became interns at Sanders’ company.  He let some of them drive his car around the block.

In the third year of the experiment, Sanders was surprised one evening to visit a neat house in a respectable neighborhood.  He met a seventeen-year-old girl named Quinn Garnier, who gave her parents an overload of attitude.  After repeating his speech about not quitting on school or life, Sanders asked if Quinn had any relatives who were philosophy professors.  Yes, her grandmother.

Close to the three-year anniversary of his confession, Sanders returned to Raleigh.  He looked older and less confident.  His jacket did not fit perfectly.  He had walked down some bumpy roads.

This time, he had an appointment to see Professor Garnier.  He could tell as soon as he sat down that she did not remember him.

“When we talked before, you gave me an extra assignment so I could get credit for your class.  To make up for cheating on a test.”

A look of recognition dawned on Professor Garnier’s face.  “Oh right.  Yes, I remember.”

“You said I needed to help 100 students.”  Sanders reached into his satchel and pulled out a stack of file folders.  He dropped them on the desk in front of him and pushed them forward.  “These have pictures and a story for 100 students who dropped out of school and then returned and graduated.  I met each of them in their homes and brought them back.”

Professor Garnier thumbed through some of the folders, stopping to look at the photos inside.  “I had no idea.  This is incredible,” she said in a far-off voice.

“You said you would clear up my degree with the registrar’s office.”

Professor Garnier acted like she had been woken from a nap.  “Oh, that’s right.  Let me go into the computer system and do that right now.”

Sanders chuckled.  “I figured out pretty early on you were just messing with me.  I called the registrar just to make sure.  I ended up helping those 100 kids for myself, not for you or my degree.  And I can tell you I don’t feel guilty about cheating anymore.”

Sanders leaned over and retrieved a final folder from his satchel.  “Here’s one more you should look at.  This one was for you.”

Professor Garnier opened the folder to find a picture of her granddaughter wearing graduation robes.

“She’s very sweet underneath the sassy exterior,” Sanders added.

Professor Garnier continued to stare at the picture in silence.  She looked up to find Sanders gently smiling.  Try as she might, she had nothing to say.  She thought she had experienced practically every emotion, but this was a new one.

“It’s okay.  You don’t have to say anything.  Reactions speak louder than words sometimes.  Funny how we all get connected eventually.”



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Submitted: August 19, 2023

© Copyright 2023 Aaron Hawkins. All rights reserved.

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