Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Lest ye be judged

My prep school publishes an alumni magazine, and the new issue has a short article about the judicial board, a council of students and teachers who assess cases of academic dishonesty and recommend punishments. The article gave me pause: I served on that board my senior year, and from time to time I think about that troubling, challenging experience.

The judicial board slots were elected positions, which meant I had to run for the office. But my high school was so small (my graduating class numbered 54) that these sorts of elections weren't very competitive--especially for the judicial board, which I think most people viewed with a combination of apathy and mild curiosity, if they thought about it at all. There wasn't a lot of academic dishonesty at my school, not that I knew about, anyway.

I threw my hat in the ring, late junior year, because I was anxious about college. I made good grades in high school, but for the first two years I was not much of a joiner and steered clear of clubs and the like. (My school at the time all but suppressed athletics, so I didn't have to worry about that; I was, and remain, an unskillful athlete.) However, as an upperclassman I finally began to heed teachers and counselors who pointed out, relentlessly, that college admissions officers looked kindly on well-rounded applicants. So starting junior year, I participated in activities with something resembling panic--I was a shameless procrastinator, even then.

I started one of these activities when a teacher approached me about joining something called the integrity committee, a group of students and faculty that met to talk about, as the yearbook puts it, "issues such as integrity, racism, homophobia and sexual discrimination in the schools." The yearbook goes on: "The club planned assemblies that focused on these various issues, including a debate about honesty." You can imagine how those assemblies went over, but I enjoyed our conversations. One exchange I particularly liked was more of an aside, and it concerned whether there was an adjectival form of the noun integrity; my friend Anil suggested integrous, and we made joking use of the--altogether useful--word thereafter.

It was not much of a leap from the integrity committee to the judicial board election, especially since, as I say, the seats weren't hotly contested. I recall feeling bemused when I learned of my electoral victory, the most immediate consequence of which was that I was invited, that summer, to attend a retreat at a camp facility for all the high school's elected officers. The substance of the retreat was cringe-inducing--lots of breaking off into small groups for "brainstorming," a process that involved magic markers. But I enjoyed the weekend out of town.

The judicial board met infrequently the year I served--perhaps six times. We found out about meetings, which were held secretly, from the high school secretary; she brought us notes in class. I came to feel dread and fear when I learned a conclave was to begin: because the school was so small, there was a good chance I would be recommending punishment for a friend, or at least a friendly acquaintance.

But the meetings themselves were efficient and--this may sound odd--cheerful, in a desperate way. I think every kid on the board (there were seven of us, one or two from each grade) agonized aloud at some point about the difficulty of our task, and this led to earnest talks about ethics and friendship, and about how these are not always in harmony.

I don't think serving on the judicial board made me any lasting enemies, though I recall later getting the stinkeye from one of the younger students we judged. In another case, that of a friend in my grade, we talked honestly afterward about how awkward the situation was. It was a good talk.

The most difficult case came when one of my best friends forged a series of absence notes from his mother. The story was almost laughable--there were so many notes, with so many excuses. But it was very grim for my friend. I begged to be allowed to recuse myself, and in the end I believe I cited some technicality and abstained from the voting, which otherwise went unanimously against my friend. Not my finest hour; the evidence was clear. But I kept thinking there had to be a better way.

I'm glad I'm not a judge in the pros.

No comments: