Torture in the Sky Club

My flight to Boston has been delayed, which means that my short stop in the Terminal A Sky Club has changed to a two-hour stint.  The club is crowded and I sat within earshot of a man who is giving line-by-line edits for a term paper to a person on the phone, whom I can only imagine is his child. 

My ear is hooked.  I cannot stop listening, even as I’m becoming infuriated on behalf of this kid’s teacher.  

Because every teacher I know has had this experience: The kid whose writing is poor and whose grasp of details is weak, turns in a paper that is polished and substantive and does not appear to be plagiarized.  Because his helicopter Dad (or Mom) wrote it for him.  You know right away that something is off, and go to work to devise future assignments so that it doesn’t happen again. 

And I’m angry in other ways too — I wouldn’t do it for my child.  My parents didn’t do it for me (they would not have been able to).  And there are so many other kids whose work is as good or better than this one’s who don’t have this advantage.  It’s privilege in its rawest form, and it’s incredibly unfair.  

As soon as I sat down I heard the word “Plessy,” and thought, “Well, that’s not your usual Sky Club conversation.”  Ears perked, a quick glance over my shoulder showed a Word document on the man’s computer, and the rest of the one-sided conversation offered plenty of clues about what Dad was about. 

First I sat through a complete mini-lecture on Plessy and then Brown. It sounded like an explanation I might have offered to students as I taught them, but I wasn’t sure why anyone in an airport lounge was explaining these two cases on this level, which was decidedly a high school or intro college level.  

In between filling in the kid’s factual knowledge (Supreme Court justices rule on the law; it’s the Court, not the judge, who issues the decision, the role of lawyers, prosecutors, clients …), Dad did some wordsmithing too, in a way reminiscent of that social studies teacher in Ferris Bueller.  Three quick examples, out of too many:

  • “Now here you say the “chief justices voted.” How many chief justices are there?” Clearly Junior’s answer wasn’t satisfactory, because he repeated the question, with increasing emphasis on the word chief, three times before trying another tack.  “Well,” he said, “how many justices are there on the Supreme Court?”  Pause.  “There are nine.  So how many are chiefs?”  Eventually the kid got the message that there was only one Chief Justice.
  • “Now, this line where you talk about Marshall’s record, when you say ‘he ruled in favor of,’ there’s one word that means ‘in favor of’ that you should use.  What’s one word that means ‘in favor of.?’”  The kid wasn’t getting it, so Dad provided more hints.  “It’s two syllables, and begins with a ‘u.’” Finally he gave it to the kid: “Upheld.”
  • Discussing another case, he notes, “Now you write that it was ‘six female and six male.’ Six female what? Chickens? Cats? Monkeys?”  Junior’s not catching on, but finally says that he was writing about the jury.  “Well, what’s another word for female?” Dad prompts.  Finally, Dad tells the kid that “women” is a better way to write it. 

This line-by-line coaching took the better part of an hour.  Dad basically rewrote the paper, even waiting while Junior transcribed what he suggested.  “Read that sentence back to me,” Dad urged before moving on to the next one.  And in between Dad would chuckle over how clueless his son was, as if this education-by-parent-by-phone was how things should be and, after all, what else could you expect. 

So I imagine Junior’s college essay and college papers will get the same treatment.  Maybe Dad will do his taxes for him until he’s 30.  Most likely, he’ll pave the way to internships and jobs.  

To me, that’s the swamp.  And I just sat next to a swamp creature. 

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