Conversations With Will
Will Tucker glanced at the exam booklet that the teacher placed on his desk. The room was thick with tension as the twenty students in Garrett Faulkner’s American History class waited to begin their final exam for the fall semester.
Shenandoah County Preparatory Academy was a charter school and most of the students taking Mr. Faulkner’s Advanced Placement American History class were high achieving, college bound seniors. The exam would not be easy.
Mr. Faulkner finished handing out the exams and returned to the front of the room.
“You have three hours to complete the exam,” he announced. “You may leave when you are finished. Please place your exams on my desk on your way out. You may begin.”
The familiar sounds of pages turning and pencils scratching filled the room.
Will idly opened his booklet. Mr. Faulkner had been a major disappointment the entire semester and Will had low expectations for his teacher’s latest effort to measure the knowledge of his students.
Like his tests throughout the semester, Mr. Faulkner’s exam was a disorganized mixture of multiple choice, true/false, fill-in-the-blank, and short answer questions best designed to reveal the memorization skills and study habits of his students rather than their knowledge of American History.
Will sighed and turned to the last page of the exam. He quickly signed his name to the blank booklet and dropped it on his teacher’s desk on his way out the door.
Will had just finished his last exam and was standing in front of his hall locker. He gave the combination lock a final twirl and jerked open the metal door. Will glumly surveyed the contents of the small space. It would take at least two trips to haul everything to his car.
“Got a minute, Will?” a familiar voice asked.
“Hey, Mr. Faulkner,” Will replied. “I guess so. I’m through for the semester-just need to clean out my locker.”
“I’m curious, Will. Why do you hate history so much?”
Will looked genuinely surprised.
“I love history,” he replied.
“I certainly didn’t see that in class where your performance is measured,” the teacher replied.
“You didn’t measure my performance, Mr. Faulkner,” Will said. “I gave you nothing to measure.”
“Perhaps you had nothing to give,” Faulkner responded.
Will shrugged and returned his attention to his open locker.
Faulkner blew out a deep breath.
“Listen, Will, I know you’re smart. I’d like to learn how smart just for my own curiosity. It doesn’t have to be a test or exam. You can choose the format.”
Will looked at the teacher with renewed interest.
“Well, it would have to be for something more than just your curiosity,” Will replied.
“We can talk about changing your grade.”
Will waved off the suggestion.
“I don’t care about the grade. I’ll keep the “F.”
Will thought for a moment.
“We could have a discussion,” he suggested.
The teacher looked confused.
“A three person panel comprised of two of your colleagues and a member of administration can each provide a topic for our discussion. We will each be allowed ninety minutes in front of the panel to discuss the topics. The session will be video and audio taped. The panel will select the winner.”
“What’s the prize?” Faulkner asked with a bemused smile.
“Well, win or lose you will have satisfied your curiosity,” Will replied.
“And if you win?” Faulkner asked condescendingly.
“I will teach your class next semester,” Will replied. “You will not be present in the classroom or have anything to do with sixth period American History.”
“Impossible,” the teacher snorted.
“Not at all,” Will replied. “It’s not so different than having a student teacher from Lynchburg College or some other school doing their classroom semester. A faculty member would be in the room. It just wouldn’t be you.”
“This is a public school….” Faulkner began.
“This is first and foremost a charter school, Mr. Faulkner,” Will interrupted. “It has much more freedom and flexibility than a regular public school. It is expected to be innovative in its curriculum and teaching methods.”
Will waited while the history teacher gave it some thought.
“When?” he finally said.
“Tomorrow morning,” Will replied.
Faulkner watched as Will began emptying his locker.
“Why are you emptying your locker in the middle of the school year?” he asked.
“I’m done,” Will answered. “I got my GED back in October.”
“Good luck getting into college with that,” the teacher said, impressed in spite of himself.
“I’ll be starting at Lynchburg College next semester,” Will said. “I guess they liked my SAT scores.”
Faulkner gaped at his student.
“I hope you’re up to the challenge of college,” the teacher said.
“I hope so, too,” Will replied. “At least I already have twelve credits from the two CLEP exams I took in November. I have two more exams in a couple of weeks. See you tomorrow, Mr. Faulkner.”
The teacher stood speechless as Will started down the hall.
“What courses did you CLEP?” Faulkner finally called out.
“Two semesters of English and two semesters of American History,” Will answered.
Faulkner felt a swarm of butterflies invade his stomach. Nothing to be concerned about, Garrett. He’s just a kid.
The teacher turned and hurried back down the hall to his classroom. He had some studying to do.
Faulkner was the first to arrive the next morning. Jenny Walls greeted him.
“Ready for your test?” she asked, grinning broadly.
“As long as it isn’t European History,” Faulkner replied with a weak smile. “I might fall asleep from boredom.”
“Listen, Garrett, are you sure you want to do this?” Walls said, suddenly serious. “I got a look at Tucker’s file. His I.Q. is 169 and there are indications that he may have eidetic memory.”
“How did you manage to see his file?” Faulkner asked.
“You don’t want to know,” Walls replied.
“He’s eighteen years old, Jenny. He’s probably been using that gift to memorize sports statistics and girls’ phone numbers.”
The two teachers looked up at the sound of approaching footsteps. Will greeted the two teachers and sat down to wait. Five minutes later the school principal came out and invited everyone into a small conference room where the third member of the panel was already seated.
The principal spent the next few minutes reviewing the purpose and conditions of the discussion that the panel would moderate and the process for determining which participant demonstrated the most complete knowledge of the topics presented.
“Any questions?” the principal asked.
There were none.
“Who would like to go first, or shall we flip a coin?”
“It makes no difference to me,” Will said.
Garrett Faulkner smiled and readied himself to impress the panel with a deep reservoir of knowledge gained from two degrees in history and twenty five years of teaching.
Will waited patiently, flipping through a couple of ancient magazines. He looked up when Faulkner opened the conference room door seventy five minutes later wearing a satisfied look.
“You’re up, Will,” he said.
Will entered the room and took a seat. The next ninety minutes passed in a blur. Two of the topics presented, the presidential administrations of Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis, and the American Revolution, were subjects for which Will had a passionate interest. The third topic for discussion was the Jim Crow laws.
Will allotted thirty minutes for each topic and used the entire time. He began with an overview and comprehensive analysis of each topic, citing numerous well known sources. He followed that with a series of mock conversations. Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis were followed by Rosa Parks and Patrick Henry.
The panel was surprised and delighted by the concept of delivering additional information and insights through the eyes and voices of principal figures of the particular periods in history.
Garrett Faulkner stood as the door to the conference room opened.
“Come in, Garrett,” the principal said.
Faulkner took a seat beside Will.
“Let me say that you both acquitted yourselves quite well,” the principal began. “It is, however, the unanimous view of the panel that Will Tucker demonstrated greater insight and knowledge of the topics presented. Accordingly, Will will take over Mr. Faulkner’s sixth period American History class next semester. Mrs. Walls has volunteered to serve as the faculty representative in the classroom.”
Garret Faulkner felt the blood drain from his face. He stared at the panel in disbelief.
“I want to see the tape!” he demanded.
The principal nodded.
An hour later Faulkner turned off the tape. He had seen enough. There was no basis for an appeal. It hadn’t even been close.
The first day of the spring semester was eventful. The sixth period American History class descended into chaos as soon as the principal and Mrs. Walls introduced Will as the new teacher.
“We’re going to try something new this semester,” Will said when order was restored.
“I’ll say,” someone called from the back of the room.
“Besides that,” Will responded, smiling briefly. “I want to try something different. I want to bring history to life. I want to grab those exceptionally dull words from that exceptionally dull textbook and drag them kicking and screaming into the twenty first century.”
He paused and looked around the room.
“Will you tell us what we need to know for the tests?” a girl asked.
“You don’t need to know anything for the tests because there will be no tests,” Will replied.
He now had the full attention of everyone in the class.
“How will we be graded?” someone wondered. “Will you be giving lectures and asking questions?”
“I won’t be giving any lectures because I’m not your dad and I’m not interested in one way communication,” Will responded. “We will be having daily history conversations. I hope you will participate. If not, I’ll just be talking to myself. I will have two conversations with each of you this semester. Each conversation will last thirty minutes. The quality of the conversation, the knowledge and critical thinking skills you present, will determine your grade.”
“Will you assign the topics for conversation?” a boy asked.
“No,” Will replied. “That’s entirely up to you.”
“You’re not really a teacher, Will,” someone said. “What if we don’t agree with our grade?”
“Well, first of all I really am a teacher for this class. But, to answer your question, the conversations will be taped. If you decide to challenge your grade, Mrs. Walls will review the conversations and assign a grade. Her decision will be final.”
The first few classes were awkward as the class sat back and watched Will ask himself questions and answer them. During the study of the Civil War, Will spent two entire classes holding mock conversations with Ulysses Grant and Robert E. Lee.
Gradually they were drawn into the conversation. Classroom discussion became lively, fueled by Will’s provocative approach and passion for his subject. A couple of times Will saw Mr. Faulkner walk past his room, registering his sour mood as the unfamiliar sounds of students who were excited and engaged followed him down the hall.
The last day of the semester arrived and Will spent the class thanking each student individually for their participation and giving out his phone number and e-mail address to several students who wished to stay in touch.
Will closed his classroom door for the final time and turned to see Garrett Faulkner waiting for him in the hall. Will took a step back, unsure what to expect from his former teacher.
“Good semester?” Faulkner asked.
“Yes, I think so,” Will replied.
“How was your first semester of college?” Faulkner continued.
“Good,” Will replied. “4.0 as a matter of fact.”
“Sixteen credits down and only one hundred and eight to go,” Faulkner observed, barely suppressing a sneer.
“Forty credits down, actually,” Will corrected. “I earned twenty four credits from the CLEP exams and should pick up three more this summer. I’ll be carrying a full load from now on, including summer school. It won’t take long to finish my undergraduate degree.”
“Then what?” Faulkner asked.
“Graduate school,” Will replied. “I’d like to teach English or History at the college level as well as do some writing.”
Will glanced at his watch and extended his hand.
“Good luck, Mr. Faulkner.”
Faulkner watched Will Tucker leave, feeling as though their teacher/student relationship had somehow been reversed.
“Have you got a minute?” Garrett Faulkner asked.
The principal looked up from the paperwork on her desk and beckoned the teacher to enter.
“I haven’t received a renewal offer on my contract for next year,” Faulkner said.
The principal nodded.
“I know. The board has decided not to renew your contract, Garrett.”
“What?” the teacher asked weakly.
“I went to bat for you last year, Garrett, but the board was adamant this time.”
“I’ve been teaching for twenty five years,” Faulkner whined.
“Maybe it’s time to do something else,” the principal suggested. “Your student evaluations, parent comments, and my observations show a consistent pattern of mediocre and uninspired teaching.”
“There are worse things than mediocrity,” Faulkner said.
The principal shook her head.
“I don’t think so. A mediocre teacher is utterly forgettable. They suck interest and enthusiasm from their students and generally survive to do it year after year. On the other hand, a bad teacher doesn’t last long and the students that get such a teacher have no expectations other than survival. A charter school can’t afford mediocrity, Garrett.”
“It’s Will Tucker’s fault,” Faulkner said angrily.
The principal returned to her paperwork, not bothering to reply.
Faulkner had no memory of driving home. His mind was whirling, his heart was pounding, and he was drenched in sweat. He found himself sitting on his sofa staring at a blank television screen that was airing a re-run of the last twenty five years of his life.
You certainly have had a remarkable career, Garrett, he mused. All the faceless students year after year that you failed to inspire. Your indifference has been repaid in full. How can a person fail so completely? Twenty five years and you were never recognized as teacher of the year, never had a graduating student return to visit or keep in touch, never had a student ask for a recommendation, never received any type of award for anything? Really?
Garrett was reminded of something his father had told him when he was a boy.
“Never confuse experience with excellence or even competence,” his father had warned. “Everybody is experienced at something, but not everybody is excellent at what they do.”
Garrett grimaced at the memory of those prophetic words. You’re living proof of that, Garrett.
Faulkner continued to stare at the television as the shadows in the room began to lengthen.
It was Tucker’s fault. The kid had exposed him, stripped him naked, as a failure for his principal, colleagues, and students to witness.
Let it go, Garrett. Move forward.
Garrett Faulkner wandered into his kitchen. There were things he needed to do: apply for unemployment, update his resume, try to schedule some job interviews, register as a substitute teacher.
You know where he lives, Garrett. You know where he goes to school. You’ve got plenty of time on your hands. You can afford to wait for the perfect opportunity. The two of you can have one of those conversations he loves so much.
An ugly smile appeared on Garrett Faulkner’s face. Tucker was a kid with big plans and big goals, but life could be unpredictable. Will Tucker was about to meet his future head-on.