George Graham

Ever Wonder about The Grades They Gave You?

I have always been intrigued by words. As a child, I would lie in bed and read the dictionary. I know. I was a weird kid. So when I went to a boarding school in Jamaica called Munro, I did very well in English. Except for this one occasion when I got a zero on my paper. I had just been moved up a grade and my new English teacher was a man called Mr. Boland. I never knew his first name. For reasons that were lost in antiquity, we boys called him Bessie (behind his back, of course).

Mr. Boland was handicapped and walked with the help of a crutch. That might be why he was so grumpy. Anyway, his face would sour milk, as the old folks would say.

On the first test I took for Mr. Boland, all I had to do was give the meanings of words – like those features they used to have (still have?) in Reader’s Digest. I wrote down the meanings as well as I could remember from reading the dictionary. And I was stunned when I got my paper back. There was a red line through it, and a big, fat zero in the top right-hand corner.

When I worked up the nerve to ask Mr. Boland why, his answer was so shocking that I have never forgotten it.

“Your paper was so perfect, you must have looked up the meanings in the dictionary,” he said. “We don’t tolerate cheating here!”

He would not be persuaded that I hadn’t cheated. The zero stuck.

Many years later, when I taught journalism at St. Clair College in Windsor (Canada), I found myself grading students’ papers. And the injustice I had suffered at Mr. Boland’s hands made me extra careful. It is an awesome responsibility. Especially when you have to grade a final exam, you literally hold a youngster’s future in your hands.

On at least one occasion, the mark I gave the kid had physical consequences. His dad would beat the **** out of him if he failed.

Sandra has spent part of her working life as a teacher (when she wasn’t writing for magazines or newspapers), and she “always gave the students the benefit of the doubt.”  Even when the tests were factual, leaving no leeway for leniency, she would bend over backwards to encourage them. In Mr. Boland’s place, she says, she would at least have made me take that test over in front of her.

I had the same qualms when I was a manager and had to perform evaluations of the people reporting to me. How do you grade a human being?  Especially when they’re all so special? There wasn’t a bad egg on my staff, as far as I could see. They worked their butts off for me. Sometimes the results weren’t what I’d hoped, but it wasn’t for lack of trying.

With my reservations about the entire concept of grading, you can imagine how horrified I am to learn that educators deliberately tamper with grades to further their self-interests.

A man named Tony Bennett (not the Tony Bennett, of course) just quit his job as Florida’s education commissioner because his grade fiddling was exposed. He is accused of changing grades back in Indiana to accommodate a campaign contributor who owned a charter school.

And apparently Mr. Bennett is not alone. Grade tampering is so prevalent that Tampa resident Susan Smith has started a campaign to suspend Florida’s grading system. I received a request to sign her petition in this morning’s emails.

From time to time, I’ve read about local teachers and education administrators cooking the books to meet state requirements and preserve their careers. But this morning’s email mentioned an even more despicable kind of abuse. It seems some educators are letting their prejudices influence the grades that students receive.

The letter accompanying Ms. Smith’s petition cites “allegations of serious discrimination based on race.”

Sometimes I wonder about the entire concept of education. What are young people really being taught? How to study? Or how to cheat?

I signed Ms. Smith’s petition, of course. But I wonder what she would suggest to replace the corrupt grading system now in place?

Click here to sign Ms. Smith’s petition.


About the author


I am a Jamaican-born writer who has lived and worked in Canada and the United States. I live in Lakeland, Florida with my wife, Sandra, our three cats and two dogs. I like to play golf and enjoy our garden, even though it's a lot of work. Since retiring from newspaper reporting I've written a few books. I also write a monthly column for