Tony and the Blue Book


Tony is a tough guy. Real tough. For the life of me, I can’t imagine most of my students doing anything violent. They look innocent—young and fresh faced, and actually sweet. No kidding. Tony isn’t one of those guys. He looks mean.

His eyes don’t smile, even when his mouth does. His hair is close-cropped, and his face is etched with lines of fatigue and resignation, though I can sometimes catch, in a rare flash of a grin, traces of how handsome he once was.

Tony’s arms ripple with tattooed muscles. He works in industry, not like so many of my students who work as tutors. He isn’t afraid to dive into our spirited and inevitably racially marked discussions, standing up for the “white is right” side (a blog-worthy topic on its own), and calling out everyone, including me, on what he calls our “politically correct bullshit.” Tony told me early on that he was a “lifer.” I asked him not to tell me more.

So, you can imagine my surprise when during our in-class ed psych midterm, Tony panicked and cried. I had given the students all of the questions for the midterm one week ahead of time and told them that the exam would be open note and open book to force up the higher levels of Bloom’s taxonomy.

The exam is very similar to the ones I use in the educational psychology class I teach every year at Carleton College. I often give it as a take home exam. Take home exams don’t work in a prison setting. The cell is not a dorm room; it is a cage, designed to confine human beings. The cellblocks are subject to lockdowns, potential confiscation of material, and other unpredictable interruptions, designed to ensure security. You can’t count on quality study time in the cellblock. Some “offenders” have access to computers; some don’t. Some have typewriters; some don’t. So, in order to level the playing field, as it were, I have everyone write the exam in class.

On the day of the exam, I passed out blue books, invited the students to spread out their notes and outlines, and started keeping time on our smart board. Then, as is my customary practice, I walked around the classroom, checking to see how everyone was doing and if anyone had any questions to whisper to me.

When I got to Tony, I stopped short. His arms were folded, his blue book was closed, and his eyes were wet. I crouched down next to him, “ ’sup, Tony?”

“I can’t do this,” he whispered hoarsely, and a tear spilled out of his steely eyes.

“Come with me,” I replied.

We sprinted out of the classroom into the hallway. The officer on duty glanced at us quizzically and then seemed to immediately know that he should look away.

“I just can’t do this. This test is scaring the shit out of me. I almost didn’t come tonight. I wanted to bag the whole class. No offense,” he added quickly. “I really liked it up to now. But I’m afraid I’m gonna flunk the exam.”

“Tony, don’t worry. You won’t flunk it, and even if you did, you could still pass the class this exam is only worth 20% of the course grade and you’ve gotten Bs and B+’s on your papers. You can make it up.”

“Well,” he said, “I came because my daughter just started college, and she’s taking a class like this too. I thought that for once we could do something at the same time, like doing it together. I can’t let her down, not any more than I already have.” The tears are falling now, for both of us.

“Tony,” I said, “here’s the plan. Go back in there, open the blue book and pretend to write anything. After the first person turns it in, then you do the same. Then no matter how you did on the test, we’ll figure out how you can still pass the class by kicking major butt on your lesson plan.”

“OK,” he mumbled, as we returned to the classroom.

Later on that evening, I opened Tony’s blue book. It only had 7 words sprawled across two pages in shaky cursive:

“Thank you. I’ll be back.”

When I told this story to my colleague Bill Titus he remarked, “Have you ever thought of having them write their exams on something other than a blue book? Maybe it’s simply the format that makes people anxious.”  Smart guy.

Like many of the lessons I’ve learned as a prison teacher, this one has some relevance to Carleton students as well. Perhaps there is a kind of operant conditioning at work here, one that make students palms sweat and hearts beat faster at the site of a blue book. I even found some research on this. (Schworm, 2008)

Maybe it’s time to rethink using bluebooks in any class, ever.

In the meantime, I am happy to report that Tony stayed with the class and rocked his lesson plan and presentation. When he got his grade on the lesson, I caught a glimpse of that elusive dimpled grin.

EXCERPT BLOG from “Words No Bars Can Hold”

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