One of the last big projects we had in junior English was to write a research paper. It was the largest part of our grade for that six weeks, so it essentially was the grade. I knew my grade was completely dependent on how well I did with my research paper. I knew it could make or break that six weeks. I still didn’t write one.
It’s not that I didn’t want to write it. Well, that’s not very accurate. I really didn’t want to write it (much like I didn’t want to do most of my assignments). More precisely, it’s not that I was unwilling to write it, it’s just that my stubbornness and irrepressible need to point out unfairness in the classroom forced my hand.
Our English teacher introduced the topic of research papers, how to plan them, how to construct them, and even included a helpful list of the Principles of Research. I only remember one of them, mainly because it’s the one that got me in trouble. More precisely, it’s the one I used to justify not writing a research paper. We were in the library when she explained on of those Principles of Research.
“Now, it takes at least five weeks to write a good research paper. You can’t just throw it together. It takes time,” she stated.
Seems reasonable enough, doesn’t it? It takes time to do something right, so why not five weeks for a good research paper. Of course, there’s more to this or I wouldn’t have remembered that single Principle. Remember, this paper would form the bulk of our grade for a six-week period. According to our teacher, it took at least five weeks to write a good one. Ours was due in two.
I approached her after she dismissed us from the lecture portion of our class to begin seeking topics for our papers.
“I have a problem with the assignment,” I said.
“I’m sure you’ll do fine. This should be easy for you. Just do your best.”
“No, I don’t think I will have a problem with the assignment, I do have a problem with the assignment. Like, right now.”
“Okay, I’ll regret this, but what is it.”
“You said it takes five weeks to write a good research paper, but you want us to hand in ours in two.”
“So that’s not fair.”
“Well, you say it takes five weeks and then you give us less than half that to do it. According to you it won’t be our best if we don’t take at least that long, so you’re setting us up to do poorly.”
“Leighton, it doesn’t matter how long I give you. You’ll just write it the night before it’s due and probably still get an A.” She knew me well.
“What I would do is immaterial. What about everybody else? What about the person who needs five weeks? You said five weeks. You gave us two. That’s not enough by your own words for that person.”
“Leighton, just write the paper.”
“No?” She was quite incredulous, but continued, “If you don’t write the paper you will fail this six weeks.”
“I know. I’m still not going to write it.”
“You’ll fail the six weeks.”
“Then I fail. I refuse to write the paper unless you give us five weeks, which is how long you said it should take.”
“And you’ll still fail.”
“But I’ll fail on principle, not because of my work. I’ll fail in spite of my work. I’ll fail because of your unfair assignment. It really is the principle of the thing.” Looking back, I have no idea why I didn’t spend more time waiting outside a principal’s office.
The funny thing is, I actually worked harder than I normally would. I listed the required number of topics, wrote outlines, wrote summaries, and even an introductory paragraph. I never wrote the actual paper though. I had principles after all.
Two weeks passed. As everyone else handed in their work, I sat with crossed arms.
“Are you really not turning in a research paper, Leighton?” the teacher asked.
“I thought we covered that two weeks ago. I didn’t write it on principle.”
“But you did all the other work.”
“But I didn’t have the five weeks you said it would take.”
“You even wrote an introductory paragraph!”
“Yes, but not the paper. I told you I wouldn’t write it and I didn’t.”
“If you hand it in tomorrow, I’ll give partial credit.”
“The only credit I want is for standing up to your unfair assignment.” Did I mention I’m amazed that I didn’t spend more time waiting for a principal?
She tried and failed over the next couple of days to convince me to write the paper. I held firm and, wouldn’t you know it, I failed that six weeks. At least I stuck to the principles of research though. My parents were no impressed.
I may have failed the six weeks, but I learned that I was willing to stand for something even if it cost me. I know many might argue the wisdom of my actions, but even now, as a parent myself, I’m not sure I didn’t do the right thing. It really was unfair, and I felt it should be pointed out. I couldn’t remain silent.
I paid with more than that six weeks. I don’t know if it was that one F that held my GPA just below a 3.00 which cost me a few scholarships , but it could have been. It probably wasn’t as I had a few others to keep it company (mainly an entire semester of sophomore English, but that’s another story). I’m sure it will someday put me in an awkward situation when my children are older, but I truly hope that I side with them if they are actually standing for something worth standing for.
I’m sure about that awkward situation because I already had on, about a year after the incident. It happened on a day I learned that such decisions can come back on you in surprising ways.
CEMC took me around to all the local high schools to promote the essay contest I won. I spoke to most of the junior English classes in the county and while at Clarksville High School found myself forced to answer a question.
One of their teachers explained, in front of most of the junior class, that they were also going to have to write research papers.
“I’ll bet you didn’t have any trouble with your research paper, huh, Leighton?”
I floundered for a moment, took a deep breath, and started, “Well, actually . . .” and I answered the question. Truthfully.
I ignored the shocked stares from the teachers and the subtle thumbs up from in the assembly.
“But you should really write your paper,” I finished lamely, “This is one of those don’t follow me kind of situations.”
“Was it worth it?” Someone in the crowd asked.
Fortunately we ran out of time before I had to answer him and myself.