Model Citizen

Unlike a lot of kids, I loved school. I liked getting on the bus, listening to the music on the bus driver’s AM radio, getting to school and running to class. I liked the hot lunches they’d wheel to our classrooms on carts, and always looked forward to recess…as well as coming back from recess. What I had trouble with, however, was keeping my enthusiasm for class to myself.

Close up of an old school report card from an elementary grade.

You see, I was a talker. I couldn’t keep my mouth shut. When it was time to read out loud, I was the first to volunteer. When it was time for show and tell, I was the first to raise my hand to try out my latest material on the rest of the class. The thing was, that when it came time to sit down and read quietly, I wasn’t nearly as good at that as the rest of the class seemed to be.

Even though I spent first and second grade at Riley elementary across town, the third-grade teachers at Western Elementary quickly shared intel on this new kid who was pretty bright, but just couldn’t quit talking. Whether it was my home room teacher, Mrs. Stevens, or the other teachers, they all started sitting me near the front of the class to keep a close watch on me.

That seemed to work most of the time, and my grades were generally pretty good…but back in elementary school, there was a check box for “Works and Plays Well With Others”. In first and second grade, it was a simple plus sign, a check or a minus, and unless you were really out of line, the teacher would give you the benefit of the doubt.

When I got to Western Elementary in third grade, we got actual letters. A, B…and you can C where this is going. When we got our first quarter grades, Mrs. Stevens called our names to come up to the front of the class, where she handed each of us a plain brown envelope, which she allowed us to open.

I sprinted up to front of class to get mine, and smiled proudly as a I marched back to my seat. I pried open the little metal clasp on the envelope, and pulled out the blue report card inside. I quickly scanned the card to see how I’d done.

  • Spelling – A
  • Arithmetic – B
  • Social Studies – A
  • Reading – A

I started to breathe a sigh of relief, and looked down to the bottom of the card to see what other good grades I might have received. My eyes locked onto the last line as my mouth hung open in shock:

Citizenship – D

I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Me? Fine upstanding model citizen me? I read further. “Student needs to stop talking in class and respond only when called”. I was shocked! I thought that the attention I got when I called out answers or made jokes was a good thing. Evidently, Mrs. Stevens didn’t think so. I looked down at the bottom of the card and saw the words that turned me white with fear:

Parent Signature (required) _____________________________________

I was doomed. There’s no way I could show this to my parents. Mom would have a conniption fit, ranting hysterically on how horrendous this was, while Dad would likely just haul off and hit me. I wondered how I was going to get their signature without getting taken to the emergency room.

Throughout the afternoon, I worked through potential strategies for getting their signature. I thought about doing the old ‘hide the card behind another sheet’ trick, but the Citizenship grade was right above the signature block. I considered forging their signature, but both Mom and Dad had impeccable cursive penmanship…while me, well, I wrote like a typical 3rd grader with block letters.

By the time I got home, I knew I didn’t have much time, because my siblings all had their report cards, and I’d have to turn over my cards to the dealer. Suddenly, I had what I considered a stroke of genius. I looked at the card, the grades….and the type of writing instrument. Darn it. Mrs. Stevens used a pen. If it was a pencil, I had a chance…..but wait! We had tons of ink pens in the house….

I looked a the card again to confirm the color of ink. It looked black to me, like the pens Mom and Dad used. I snuck into the office desk and retrieved a slick Parker ballpoint pen. I grabbed some scratch paper and started drawing circles and squares to avoid attracting attention….then I turned to printing block letters…A, B, C, D….A,B,C,D…

I realized that “B” wasn’t that different than “D”. Now I knew what my goal was. I was going to improve my results by 2 letter grades before anyone was the wiser. As I examined the report card to make sure I knew how to re-create the exact strokes, I started to imagine the culmination of my plan resulting in success.

After I had practiced about 50 times, I carefully took the blue report card, and tried to imagine how much pressure was needed to match Mrs. Stevens’ previous entry. I held my breath, and with sweat rolling down my forehead, I moved pen closer to the blue card stock. I knew that I’d only have one shot at this, and if my hand wavered, it was all over.

I swallowed hard, gripped the pen firmly, and with just a couple strokes, changed the “D” to a “B”. I went from “Needs Improvement” to “Good”. I briefly considered trying for an “A”, but since Mrs. Stevens used capital letters, that would have been a bridge too far. I stick my card back in the envelope, and waited for Mom to get home.

If Mom sensed any nervousness on my part, she didn’t let on. She simply said, “Good job, and see if you can work on your math next time.” She signed the card, and handed it back to me. I breathed a sigh of relief, and waited for the next day at school, where I turned in the signed (but altered) card.

The following Monday, Mrs. Stevens asked if I would stop by Mr. Davis’ (the principal) office. I asked what for, and she said not to worry, he’d tell me when I got there. By this point, I had completely forgotten about the ‘upgraded’ report card, and wondered if there was some sort of prize or trophy that I had unwittingly won.

When I walked into Mr. Davis’ office, I could see the report card peeking out of the envelope, and could feel my face turning warm and red. The principal let me sit there for a minute, then said, “Do you know why you’re sitting here?”

“Well, uh, because Mrs. Stevens told me to?”

The principal wasn’t amused. He picked up the card, held it to my face, and said,”Why did you think you could change your grade?” I started to come up with a distraction or excuse, when my eyes caught sight of the writing on the card. What I thought was black ink…..was actually blue. I had used a different color than Mrs. Stevens did, and anyone who looked at it for more than 5 seconds could see that the grade was changed.

I slumped in the chair, defeated. Mr. Davis could see that I was turning alternately pale and red, like some sort of human barber pole, and was about ready to cry. He seemed to soften a bit. “Why do you think you got a ‘D’ in citizenship?”

“Because I talk a lot.”

“Yeah”, he said. “I’ve heard about you.” He cleared his throat and said, “I need to let your parents know, but let me see if I can smooth things over. He sent me back to class, and I was tied in knots all day, wondering what would happen when I got home.

When I walked in the door, Mom said, “Well, if it isn’t our model citizen”. She was pretty short with me, but it seems that Mr. Davis had called the house and explained how apologetic I had seemed, that this wasn’t the first time a kid had tried to ‘upgrade’ their report card, and that I’d likely been punished enough by being caught. After that, I worked on (mostly) keeping my own thoughts to myself…as well as my own grades.

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