Day 1, continued
“Dear Mrs. Langley. I wish you and your family only the best of health during this unsettling time. My husband and I are incredibly appreciative of all the measures that you and your colleagues are taking to ensure that our children have as normal a school experience as possible, considering this pandemic. And we are grateful for the flexibility that you have shown to Atherton throughout his freshman year. Every time that you have allowed him to pass in work late, you have respected his true potential. We cannot thank you enough for that.”
At 9:18 a.m. on the first day of Teacher Appreciation Week, this email from Atherton’s mom seemed promising. But Mrs. Langley was experienced with this sort of a soft opening. It was kind of like what happened to her at her previous teaching job.
A seemingly typical morning in February, 2013: Mrs. Langley had just submitted to the guidance office course recommendations for the following year for her ninth graders. Most of her cherubs would stay at the Accelerated level; only a precious few would be moving up to Honors. The mother of a mediocre student (overuse of linking verbs; comma neglect; expressionless eyes, even when Mrs. Langley talked animatedly about the irony of a story called “The Lottery” in which a town’s citizens were chosen randomly to be stoned to death) requested a meeting, a casual check-in, a touch-base-kind-of-a-thing, to which she showed up with two large cups of Dunkin’ coffee. “Oh, how lovely!” Mrs. Langley had mused, touched by the mother’s thoughtfulness. No parent had ever brought her a coffee before. Ten minutes into the meeting, both the coffee and the mother had gone cold. Why didn’t you recommend my son for Honors English next year? His B minus in your class is only an indication that he’s bored and needs to be challenged.
This email from Atherton’s mother sounded like a breakup. Or a back-stabbing. Or a plea to give Atherton one more chance. Just one more. Just one more in addition to the one that she’d be asking for come the end of the year, when Atherton was sure to screw up again.
“However, we are extremely disappointed that you did not give Atherton full credit for the Shakespearean Sonnet Project.”
Mrs. Langley slumped in her seat. Since Quarter 3 grades had been due, exactly a week before, she had known this protest was coming. She had been trying to fortify herself against giving into Atherton’s chronic behavior of leaving all of his work until the last weekend before grades were due and then either forgetting to send one of the assignments or sending one of the assignments in the wrong format so that she couldn’t read it.
“We watched Atherton slave over this project for three days and three nights. We know that he worked tirelessly on the project because he was in his bedroom with the door shut, on his computer, for sometimes six hours at a time, not even emerging for lunch or dinner or to take a shower. We can certainly attest to his diligence.”
Mrs. Langley thought back to college, to the last torturous days of each semester, when she would sleep for an hour, drag herself out of bed and to her desk and write for an hour, sleep for an hour, and repeat the process from dawn to dawn, so that she could finish her final English paper on time. She wondered if Atherton’s mom would write to his college professors when the time came, swearing by her son’s conscientiousness even though he hadn’t abided by one deadline all spring, and even though she hadn’t ever observed what he was doing behind his dorm door.
“The havoc that a zero on a project that Atherton in fact completed would wreak on his English grade for freshman year would be devastating. Imagine, Mrs. Langley, if you had spent nearly 72 hours straight on an endeavor, only to have someone in a superior position slam down the gavel of judgment in your face, rendering your efforts useless.”
Mrs. Langley had been teaching for twenty-one years. She was also still receiving emails like this one on a regular basis. Her hands were sweating, now, and the claw of a migraine was scratching behind her eyes.
“I understand that this Shakespearean Sonnet Project was due at the beginning of February, but whether Atherton had finished the project three months ago, or whether he finished it two days ago, he did finish it, period, and then submit it to you.”
Atherton’s mom had a point.
But Mrs. Langley had given Atherton a strict deadline for sending her his outstanding assignments, because she had needed time to evaluate all fifteen of them, as well as time to evaluate late work from ten other students, during the weekend before the Monday that Quarter 3 grades were due. Mrs. Langley searched her inbox for the email that Atherton had sent with his makeup assignments attached. Aha—his email was stamped 2:52 pm on the Friday before the Monday that her grades were due, twenty-two minutes after the deadline that she had set for Quarter 3 late work.
Not only had Atherton missed the deadline, but he had also sent Mrs. Langley his Shakespearean Sonnet Project in Microsoft Word, a program that she did not have installed on her laptop, because nobody in her school system used it; they were a Google district. Mrs. Langley could not even open Atherton’s Shakespearean Sonnet Project. When she tried to, she received an error message that the file was unreadable.
“Mrs. Langley, you indicated in your last email that you could not open Atherton’s Shakespearean Sonnet Project and therefore you could not grade it. Even though you wrote to Atherton on Friday afternoon to ask him to resend the file, he did not see your email until Monday. He then immediately sent you the project in Google Doc form. It was 8:12 a.m., to be exact. You say that your grades were due at 8:30 that morning, so Atherton was attentive to your grading deadline. In addition, Atherton’s Spanish teacher let him pass in late work at least three hours after the grading deadline that you gave to us. So there must be some sort of misunderstanding.”
Mrs. Langley’s face was heating up. Atherton’s mother had not caught her in a lie, exactly. Per the administration’s instructions, the grading deadline really had been 8:30 on that Monday morning. Teachers did know, though, that sometimes, the grades weren’t officially secured in the system until a few hours afterward, because the tech office needed time to perform a final check. So occasionally, teachers would take the risk and change a grade after the given deadline.
Maybe Mrs. Langley wasn’t being gracious enough. Atherton had, in fact, eventually sent her the Shakespearean Sonnet Project in a readable form. And even though Atherton had not given her editing privileges for the document, which meant that she could not search Atherton’s own editing history to figure out when he wrote the final sentence, Mrs. Langley supposed that she could still see that he had done the work.
“Once again, Mrs. Langley, we do want to express our gratitude for your accommodations as the school year has progressed. You accepted Atherton’s late work after Quarter 1 had closed and applied for a grade change. You also accepted Atherton’s late work after Quarter 2 had closed, and applied for yet another grade change. We are asking for accommodations once again. Clearly, after this incident with his Shakespearean Sonnet Project, Atherton will have learned his lesson. We ask you to pardon any of his foibles that may be a result of honest growth and learning and give him the credit he is due for completing his work.”
Okay, Mrs. Langley thought. Okay. What would happen if she stood her ground?
Would Atherton’s father use a familiar intimidation tactic by usurping the email controls from his wife? Would he violate Mrs. Langley’s professionalism as an educated woman with the salutation, “Dear Samantha”?
Would Atherton’s parents step on her face on their way up the administrative hierarchy, launching themselves over her Department Head and the Assistant Principal and the Principal only to land at the Superintendent’s door?
Would she wake up in the middle of the night, having sensed a presence lording over her, and look straight up into Atherton’s shadowy, placid face, noticing the gun in his hand a moment too late?
Mrs. Langley would have to think some more about her next move. She shifted the cursor down to the next bolded subject line in her inbox, thinking about the gun. Or the knife. Or the sledgehammer. Or the cold flesh of strong, suffocating fingers that had typed and typed and typed about Shakespearean sonnets for days, to no avail.