Sampling has become a theme of my life for the past week or so. For one, Greg, Laurel, and I decided to do something different at Costco. We flipped a coin and the result was that we tour and eat samples as an appetizer rather than after the hot dogs, as desert, like we normally do. It wasn’t as good; don’t do it. But not all sampling is as effortless as Costco may lead one to believe. Last week I applied for a job at a magazine at a local university. I made the first cut and they asked for three writing samples. They asked for one sample to be a feature story. So, I wrote one and I thought I’d share it with you. It’s not as good as the samples at Costco, but I’m proud of it just the same.
How to cheat on a test in China
By Jon Allison
The campus was on lock-down and the students were starting to get cabin fever. It had been weeks since many of them had gone to the city. The Chinese government was reacting as pragmatically to the 2009 swine flu as a hardened soldier might react to the sight of tears. The government did everything it could to just make it stop, and when it makes a decision it is usually, like China’s one time zone, country-wide. No one could leave school, the students were told, and millions of college students across the nation commiserated. The fall, which is usually non-existent in north-eastern China, hadn’t yet performed its annual hit and run; so the weather was still warm. Everyone had his own reaction to their forced sequestering. Some came to terms with it. Boys played basketball until there was no more light. Girls looked on, many of them wearing doctors’ masks. Roommates watched Prison Break marathons together. Thousands of students flocked to the college’s only pond like it was mirage in a desert, only to mingle and mope. Many students, being used to these kinds of government policies, cheated the system without thinking twice, a mindset I would soon become familiar with in my own classroom. Groups of clever boys often sidled their way to the corner of campus and hopped over the school wall to escape to the city for a while, but they always had to come back. At eleven o’clock every night some school guard threw some massive electricity switch, shutting off the dormitories’ electricity in an instant, and the school guards and doormen locked the campus down. Everyone was on the same schedule, in the same place, afraid of the same virus, and no one was having fun. For the English majors, going to the foreign teachers’ English classes was a respite from their boring confinement. I was viewed as a respite, and, with all due respect, a doormat. It was my second year teaching at the Hebei College of Finance and I had garnered a reputation. Not only was I extremely handsome, as any fair-skinned, big-nosed American is in China, but my classes were a cinch. During my first year I taught oral English exclusively, and my classes were on the brink of being childish. Each class began with a group game like “Simon Says”, which was often followed by prizes like candy or American money, and I even once gathered them into a circle and read them a children’s book by Shel Silverstein. I still believed I was a real teacher, however, and I wanted to prove it. For my second year I requested to teach an English literature course. I was given the reins, which included no supervision, no syllabus, and whatever readings I deemed necessary. For the most part I decided to assign short stories, but I included one novel: The Great Gatsby. The students would have to read something for homework every week, and every week there was going to be a quiz on those readings. When I explained this system during our first class, the students didn’t complain or rebel; instead, they were speechless and dismayed. Some of the students had become close friends and they warned me that homework would never work. My good friend Vince explained to me that the students loved me, but were not interested in reading or tests. “You’ll become a cheerleader in class,” he told me, “you’ll always have to sell the book to the class because no one wants to read it.” Grades will solve that, I thought. I decided to ease them into the habit of homework by starting the semester with a few in-class short stories. At the end of the first month it was time for our novel and assigned the first weekly reading. The next week I handed out my first quiz on The Great Gatsby and I returned to the front of the room to look over my notes for the rest of class as they worked. I was surprised to hear loud chatting from my normally mild-mannered students during the quiz. I was astonished when I saw them scooting their chairs closer to each other to better see their friends’ answers and I couldn’t believe how some ostentatiously turned around to show other students their quizzes. I wasn’t prepared for rampant cheating in a college class room and I didn’t know what to do, except feel disrespected. I did my best damage control and eventually collected the quizzes. Everyone failed. I collected myself and continued the lesson. A couple hours later the next class filed in and I administered the quiz. This time there was no talking, only diligent writing and bowed heads. I was pleased, thinking that some classes are just more slacker-filled. I collected the quizzes and flipped through them, curious about how they did, but no one wants a flip book when all the pages are the same. All the answers were identical and they were all correct. I stood behind my podium in bewilderment and was silent. Finally I addressed the class with a smile. “Wow,” I said, “everyone got all the questions right! This is great because the last class got them all wrong.”
I turned to the dusty chalkboard and began to write out my logic as I said it. “So, everyone got all the questions right. This means that, A, everyone did the homework,” at this point I performed a mock cheer, raising my hands in the air slightly, “or, B, the other class told you the answers.” Silence ensued. Most of the students drooped their heads to their chests. I lost innocence that day and from then on it was continually dragged out of me like a mult-colored scarf out of a magician’s throat. As the semester progressed and the swine flu dissipated into an afterthought, students began to take off their doctors’ masks, but I grew more paranoid. Half of my lesson planning was now scheming my next defense against the cheating. I wanted the issue to be a moral one because that’s a battle I knew I could win, but the students weren’t concerned with right or wrong when it came to class. Like war generals, they knew there were casualties in getting what they wanted, even if it meant disobeying to get a passing grade. At the end of the semester, the swine flu was long-gone, but the cold weather taken its place. For the final exam I had recruited my roommate, Ryan, a fellow American teacher, to join me in patrolling the classroom as the students sat bundled in their heavy coats, huddled over their exams. I had requested an auditorium to better manage the temptation to cheat, but even with several seats separating each student I found minute attempts to slide exams closer to friends or to whisper when Ryan and I were out of earshot. For the most part, however, the students behaved and completed their exams without hiccups. I stood proudly at attention in front of them, a seasoned veteran in line for his medal. As the final student trickled out, I marched up and down the aisles to see if anything was left behind. I spotted money on the ground under one of the desks, but it was far from my lucky day. I picked it up and examined it, unfamiliar with its brownish hue. I squinted and pulled it close to my face to read what looked like tiny writing along the border. “Jay Gatsby’s real name is Jay Gatz…”
“Nick and Gatsby live in West Egg…” I pocketed the money, grabbed my backpack full of exams and headed over to the cold, deserted pond, and I moped. Victories are always marred by casualties.