Mothering 101

I sent an email to the vice president of academic affairs with the subject line: I need help.

I am quite certain a student in my English 100B class is not writing her essays. I believe her mother is. I would like to consult with you about this.

His response:

That is a tough situation. I am sharing your email with my assistant dean who handles all faculty issues. Let me know if there is anything else I can help with.

Her response:

Set up an appointment with my secretary and bring any proof you have.

I gathered the file of what I had of the student’s in-class writing, which I usually didn’t collect, her grammar exam, and the student’s three personal essays. I made copies of our email correspondence. Before I contacted the dean for help, I called the disabilities office and spoke with Carol.

“Did you look at my student’s grammar exam before you sent it back to me?

“Yes,” said Carol. “I don’t know what to say. We have a problem.”

“I think her mother’s been writing her essays.”

“I think that is a real possibility.”

I handed the file over to the assistant dean who looked through everything perfunctorily, frowning at the grammar exam. “This looks like chicken scratch. Nothing she does on this paper makes sense.”  She read a sentence from an in-class writing. “Well, this is a little better.” She read one paragraph of the student’s last essay and shook her head. “No way she wrote this. Wait, I know this student. I remember when she enrolled. Her mother was with her. She refused to take a placement test. We told her she would be automatically placed in developmental studies if she didn’t take a placement test. She passed 100D and 100A? **


Before I contacted the dean, I talked with the student’s previous English professors.

100D teacher laughed and said, “I had my suspicions.”

100A teacher said, “I remember her. I wondered.”

I didn’t want to say anything about my colleagues to the dean, even if I was angry with them for not dealing with a clear problem, which was now mine to confront.

“This stops now, “said the dean.

“I have a writing conference with her tomorrow. I plan to tell her that I don’t think she wrote these essays. That her mother did.”

“No! Don’t tell her that you think her mother wrote the essays. That just opens us up for a lawsuit.”

“I cannot work with her. I don’t trust her. She is a very sweet young woman, very empathetic to other students, tells us about her fiancé, her father. He’s a minister. She knows all the right things to say and presents herself with great maturity. She insisted she take the grammar test in the privacy of the accommodation’s office. I reassured her that we go over all the answers in class, together, and eventually everyone passes. She said she had a right to take the exam away from everyone else. She was very stubborn about it. It is when I saw the results that I realized something was very wrong.”

The dean looked over the exam again.

“Jeeze, this is sad.”

“Very sad. She clearly has a deep learning disability. That is not being addressed.”

The dean brought up her academic record.

“She got an A in sociology.”

“It was an online class.”

“He gives all his students As, doesn’t he?”

“I don’t know.”

“This is what we are going to do. When you meet with the student, and do not tell her you think her mother wrote the essays, understand? Tell her that you don’t think this is her work and that she needs to talk to me about it. This is out of your hands now. Or after tomorrow.”

“Thank you for taking this seriously. I am very upset. I mean cheating is one thing. This is premeditated deception. On the mother’s part.”

I was more stressed about meeting with this young woman than I had ever been in 20 years of teaching. I called Beth in the Counseling Office.

“I am so nervous and pretty defeated. I will be meeting with a student in 100B in an hour. I am going to accuse her of cheating. I think she will flip out. Or maybe I will flip out.”

“I can come sit in on the meeting. Oh, no I can’t. I have a student coming in then. Tell her she can come to the counseling office if she wants to talk. What kind of cheating?”

“Her mother has been writing her essays. Although I cannot accuse her mother, only say that I suspect she didn’t write them. I don’t why I am so nervous and sad about this.”

“Because it sucks. Let me know what happens. Good luck.”

I waited in our small classroom. The student was late. I stood up and looked out the large window, watching other students walk the path up to campus. Part of me hoped she wouldn’t show up. She came rushing in, her short, smart looking heels pounding the tile floor, apologetic.

“I am so sorry. We didn’t mean to be late.”

“It’s okay. Sit.” I sat next to her, the file in front of me.

“We have a problem.” I wasn’t going to hem and haw or sugar coat or ask for a confession. I needed to tell her straight on. “I don’t think you have been writing your own essays.”

“What are you talking about? I got an A in sociology, you know.”

“I have seen your in-class writing, your grammar exam and that work does not match the essays you have turned in. I don’t think you wrote them.”

She looked angry.

“You have no idea,” was her response. 

I heard years of her frustration in her statement: not recognizing letters, not understanding what she was seeing on the page. Her mother’s insistence to try harder.

“You’re right. I have no idea.”

Silence. I hoped she would say more. She didn’t.

“If you want to challenge my determination, you can take it up with the dean. She is aware of the situation. It is out of my hands now and you shouldn’t return to class.”

She stormed out and my heart broke.

I walked back to my office. The phone was ringing.

“This is the assistant dean’s secretary. I have a very angry mother and daughter here demanding to see the dean, saying that you have accused the daughter of something. What am I supposed to do with them?”

“She is expecting them.”

“She is gone for the day. Nobody ever tells me anything around here. I’m sending them down to your division chair.”

I shut my office door, slightly, leaving a small opening. They passed my office to the chair’s office. A few minutes later there was a quiet knock on my door and Kathy walked in.

“I have a student, with her mother, in my office. Very angry. Well, the mother is. The student isn’t saying much. Do you know about this?”

I told Kathy the story, told her about working with the dean, gave her a copy of the student’s file.

“I wish someone had informed me about all this earlier.”

“I’m sorry. I went straight to the dean.”

The dean and the chair did take over. Their resolution was to offer the student a chance to prove herself by writing a two-page essay on Kathy’s computer in Kathy’s office in response to a writing prompt, while Kathy waited.

“She said she didn’t know if she should do that when I made the offer.” Kathy told me. “She asked me what I would do. I told her that I couldn’t tell her what to do but it would be that only way to prove she had done the work in 100B. She isn’t going to follow through. I’m pretty sure.”

I saw the student before the semester ended, out in the commons. She smiled when she saw me and then she remembered and frowned. Her name was still on the roster for final grades. I put an F next to it. She didn’t write a 2-page essay to prove herself; she never withdrew from the class. The issue of cheating never went on her record. Nothing more was done.

I retired.

The pandemic forced all classes online. The student, I imagine, will soon pass English 101.

This is the conversation I have with myself:

So what? A sweet student with a severe learning disability, who will always have the support of her mother and father, cheated her way to a community college degree. Her disability will, for the most part, remain hidden and she will be proud of herself for her academic endeavors. What harm has she done? What harm did I do to her? What harm did our system do to her? What help did we give her? Does it matter? Maybe my colleagues were right. Just pass her on. I think about our email exchanges. I was responding to the mother, not my student. I think about how her beginning essays were good and got better, with my comments. How impressed I was. But it was a mockery. There was always something in the back of my mind. This writing. Is it too good? When I finally figured it out, I wasn’t sure what I figured out. This mother: Protecting her daughter? Controlling her daughter? Presenting a daughter to the world that she wanted?

Was I just a burnt-out community college teacher?

Of all the wonderful and difficult times teaching writing to first- and second-year students at an open enrollment community college, this experience is the only one that brought tears to my eyes.  I was duped by a mother who either thought she was helping her daughter, was ashamed of her daughter, or something even more complicated.

I don’t like this story. I don’t like how it played out. I don’t like the ending because there really isn’t an ending, for me.


**Students placed in the English Developmental Program, take three semesters to receive !01 credit. English 100D and 100A are noncredit, pass/ fail courses. 100B is the accredited class, equivalent to English 101.  Students must pass English 100B (101) with a C (or better) to move onto the second semester writing class.

**Every Friday in 100B is devoted to grammar and the exam covers what we have been working on, over and over, throughout the semester, including diagramming sentences.

Here’s a copy of the Grammar Test.

The test is in three parts: Part I: wholistic, editing exercise. Part 11: answering 3 questions.  Part III Diagramming.

There are different ways to get points and a score of 25/50 is passing. (If the student can recognize there is something wrong with the sentence but cannot identify, the student still gets a point.) Everyone eventually passes.  (Except the student in this essay.)

Part I

There are 19 grammatical errors in this paragraph.

3 run-on sentences. (r-o)

2 mixed (or ambiguous) modifiers. (mm)

5 vague pronoun references. (vpr)

3 wrong prepositions. (prep)

3 sentences lacking parallel structure. (pp)

3 point of view shifts. (pov)

Identify the error under the sentence or word, using the abbreviations in parenthesis above, and fix the error. (2 points each. Total=38 points)

 John and Susan were going to the movies it was the blockbuster film Superman and Tiger Lilly and they were very excited.  Swinging by to pick up their friend Rachel, the tire on their car went flat.  They were worried they wouldn’t make the film on time but Susan was able to fix the tire quickly.  When they got to Rachel’s house, they discovered she wasn’t planning on going.  John forgot that Rachel had told him she couldn’t go and she was angry that they had to make an extra stop and that John was a terrible communicator.  It meant that they really might be late during the film.  Susan was so proud of herself to fix the tire quickly and then became disgusted that it was for nothing.  Realizing that Susan was in a bad mood, going to the film looked like it might turn into a fiasco.  John pleaded with Susan to forgive him for not remembering that Rachel couldn’t come Susan forgave him and they arrived on time.  All was well.  They bought their tickets and popcorn and running toward the first row of seats caused quite a commotion in the theatre.  People were watching the previews and didn’t appreciate their disruption.  One man yelled at them to sit down and shut up.  John and Susan were not bad people and when the man yelled at them, they sat down quietly, ashamed of it. Then a baby started to cry and a woman started to cough.  Susan felt relieved that she was not the only one who could be noisy in a theatre John was annoyed but he knew he couldn’t say anything about the noise because of what happened before.  The baby crying, the man who coughed, and the heat turned way up in the theater made Susan think that perhaps it was a mistake.  She wasn’t going to enjoy the film.  It turned out to be one the dumbest movies she ever saw.  You never know when what you have planned will turn out badly.  They say that you have to take whatever happens for life.  Spending an evening fixing a tire, a man yells at you, and going to a bad movie may not be the worst thing in the world but Susan couldn’t tolerate it. She would rather stay home and read.

Part II

Answer the following questions or statements. (2 points each.  Total= 6 points.)

  1. Define Grammar.
  • What is the purpose of diagramming sentences?
  • Which grammatical concern (mixed modifier, run-on sentences, lack of parallel structure, the wrong preposition, point of view shift, vague pronoun reference), in your observation, makes for lack of clarity in writing in the above paragraph and why?

Diagram these two sentences: (3 points each. Total= 6 points)

Susan went to the movies.

John felt badly about his lack of communication.

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