For Mr. Big 10th-Grader, a high school history exam turns into a test of character

Joe Tarica.
Joe Tarica.

Most nights when I get home from work, I ask Mr. Big 10th-Grader what happened at school that day.

Sometimes, he’ll have a tale of friend drama. Other times, it’s an update on who’s dating whom.

Whatever he has to share, I can almost guarantee it will be a better story than whatever’s on TV.

One day last week, he came home with his best yarn yet, about a test gone awry and what happens when you give a collection of kids prone to peer pressure and an unsupervised choice between right and wrong.

It happened in history class, when the teacher inadvertently stapled the answer key to each student’s test, effectively giving each of them the opportunity to grab a perfect score.

Or so the story goes.

Let me pause here to say that, throughout the telling, I really wanted to believe the teacher did this on purpose as some kind of social experiment to see who would take the unexpected windfall silently and who might speak up to note the error.

Because, forget history: Wouldn’t an impromptu integrity test on a bunch of 15-year-olds have more lasting value than whether they can explain to what extent Otto von Bismarck influenced German unification in the 19th century?

(Not a joke. That’s a true subject from the test.)

Adding to my initial suspicion that an educational conspiracy might be afoot, the class had a substitute, making any shenanigans more likely.

But that doesn’t seem to have been the case. Apparently, including the answers was an honest mistake.

What happened next, not so much.

To hear it told, the first class took the test during second period and quickly realized their good fortune with nary an objection to be heard. I’m sure some disregarded the answer key and did their honest best. But plenty of others took advantage of the bonus.

The most charitable and forward-thinking members of the group ripped the answer key from the exam to share with friends in later classes.

Afterward, second period shared the good news with fourth period, which also initially received tests with the answer key attached.

Sometime during that class, a couple of students (who deserve an A for ethics) emailed the absent teacher to alert him of the problem with his test. He was able to reach the substitute and had the kids remove the answer key part of the way through test.

But here’s where the story gets weirder.

Rather than throwing the exam out and announcing a new test at a later date, the teacher emailed all of his students to apologize for the mistake and provided a remedy: Sixth period would take the test without the answer key and their average score would be applied to each of the students from periods two and four. If those students didn’t like that score, they had the option to take a new test. Sixth period’s individual scores would stand as is.

Wait, what?

This seems like an odd solution, and it spawned a full lunch break of conniving and cajoling as kids from second and fourth period lobbied their peers from sixth period to toe the party line and use the given answers so as not to jeopardize anyone’s grade.

“It was like ‘Lord of the Flies,’” the boy told me, earning extra points for the on-point literary reference. Too bad this wasn’t English class.

Unfortunately, he was not exempt from the nefarious influence, and by the time lunch ended, he had a his own mini 30-answer key taped to the back of his watch, even as his conscience gnawed at him.

To his credit, the angel on one shoulder drowned out the devil on the other, and before taking the test, he took off his watch and put it in his backpack.

After school, much virtual hand-wringing occurred from student to student, via text and snap, as they pondered the relative righteousness of their choices. The teacher ended up adjusting his solution a bit, letting fourth period keep their scores because they only had the answer key for a short time.

Personally, I wish this all was a big setup. Better these kids learn a life lesson now rather than later, so they don’t grow up to be greedy little hedge fund managers who get busted for insider trading.

As for Mr. Big 10th-Grader, he passed the history exam with a 90 percent and the character test with flying colors.

If he’s looking for your vote some day or wants to sell you insurance, rest assured. You can trust him.

Oh yeah, sixth period averaged 76 percent on the test, so even though second period started out ahead, they lost in the end.

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Joe Tarica is the editor of The Tribune in San Luis Obispo. He’s worked in various newsroom roles since 1993, including as an award-winning copy editor, designer and writer of the Joetopia column. A California native, he has been a resident of San Luis Obispo County for more than three decades and is a Cal Poly graduate.