Thursday, June 13, 2013

The Terrible Term Paper

[This story is based on facts. Details have been changed in as obvious a way as possible.]


Mrs. Newby went into the teachers’ lounge for a cup of coffee.

“How do you like teaching grade five?” asked Mrs. Figley.

She knew that Mrs. Newby had not started teaching grade five yet.

“I think I will like it better than teaching kindergarten,” said Mrs. Newby.

“The students are already complaining,” said Mr. Wisenheimer. “They say a kindergarten teacher does not know enough to teach grade five. They say you will treat them as if they were in kindergarten.”

Mrs. Newby lowered her head and drank her coffee. When she straightened up, she looked straight at Mr. Wisenheimer.

“They are wrong,” she said. “I am going to make them work harder than they have ever worked before. I will have them write forty-page term papers.”

“Even in grade ten they only have to write thirty-page term papers,” Mrs. Figley observed.

“My grade five will write forty-page term papers,” said Mrs. Newby. “With footnotes. And graphics.”


“We have to write forty-page term papers,” Mike Johnson told his brother Bill, who was in grade ten.

“You’re kidding,” Bill said. “Even in grade ten we only have to write a thirty-page term paper.”

“We didn’t have to write a term paper in fifth grade English at all,” said Jessica Wilson, who was in grade nine.

“It’s not even English class,” said her brother Dave, who was in Mike’s class. “It’s Mrs. Newby’s social studies class. Each homeroom has to report on a different subculture. We have to write forty pages about the Amish.”

“There’s not that much to say about the Amish,” said Bill.

“There is too,” said Jessica. “There are whole books about them in the library. Remember the one we read two years ago?”

“Forty pages,” said Mike, “ten graphics, and ten footnotes.”

Jessica looked at Dave. “I wonder if we still have the last Brubakers’ Farm Supply catalogue?”

“I think so,” Dave said.

“We have to write forty-page term papers,” Mike said, “and all some girls can think about is clothes.”

“Brubakers,” explained Jessica, “are a Mennonite family who trade with a lot of Amish people. Their catalogues have lots of pictures of things different Amish people use. Butter churns. Cultivators. Washing machines you work with a crank, because most Amish people don’t use electricity. That kind of thing. The book we read said that Amish people don’t like people taking pictures of them but they don’t mind pictures of things like cultivators. So there are your graphics.”

“Are you going to write your term paper about the Amish, too?” said Bill.

“Why not?” said Jessica. “We only have to do twenty-five pages and five footnotes.”


“I’m going to flunk social studies,” Dave said at dinner.

“Why would you want to do that?” asked his mother.

“Because,” Dave said, “for the first three days after Mrs. Newby told everybody about the term paper, it rained. You wouldn’t let us walk home from school and stop at the library until today. All the other kids’ parents drove to the library in cars. So now every other kid is ahead of me on the waiting list to check out a book about the Amish. Every other kid is going to get to read all three of those books before I do. Some kids are very slow readers. I won’t get to look at a book about the Amish until my term paper is due.”

“There’s a chapter about the Amish in the seventh grade social studies book,” said Jessica. “Do you know any seventh-graders?”

“Not well enough to borrow books,” said Dave.

“What about a teacher?” asked their mother.

“My seventh grade teacher asked me to come back and visit her some time,” said Jessica. “She might let us borrow a social studies book.”


“I’m going to flunk social studies,” Mike said after dinner.

“You never flunk anything,” Bill said. “You’re the smart one in the family.”

“Yes but I’m on the waiting list after Donald McLummox and Frankie Doofy and Dorabelle Precioso to read any books about the Amish that Dave hasn’t read. Dave has some good stuff nobody else has, because his parents know some Mennonites, but if I don’t have anything different from what Dave has, that Mrs. Newby will give us both zeros. And punishment. She doesn’t like us.”

“Tragic,” said their cousin Ben, who was in grade twelve. “Truly tragic. Now you’ll never have a chance to be President of the United States.”

“I’d settle for a chance to be in grade six next year,” said Mike.

“A worthy aspiration,” said their cousin Kayleigh, who was in grade nine.

“And modest,” agreed Ben. 

“And humble,” echoed Bill. “The child is a credit to our family.”

“There’s a tour bus that makes a day trip to Pennsylvania and advertises Amish farm stands,” said Kayleigh. “Old Mrs. McCackling was wanting someone to go with her to take the trip. It costs eighteen dollars.”

“You can take my camera,” said Bill. “The things we go through, just so you can keep up with Dave Wilson.”


“Who would’ve thought,” gloated Jessica, “that nobody else had looked in the high school library yet?”

Dave looked at the three books. None of them was really extra-large, but they all looked fat to him.

“This had better be a good term paper, Dave,” said his father. “You’re getting plenty of help. Make good use of it.”

Dave opened a book. The print was normal-sized, but it suddenly looked to him as if the books had a thousand pages of tiny print. He looked at the last page. Page number 185! He had to read a hundred and eighty-five pages about Amish people!

“Cheer up, Dave,” said his mother. “You can write about eating shoo-fly pie.” She set a saucer on the table. On the saucer was a piece of sticky-looking cake.

“Thanks,” said Dave. “Excuse me. Please.”


“What are you working on, Mrs. Leadbitter?” asked Andy the Apple Polisher.

“This?” said the algebra teacher. “Oh, well, my son John is in Mrs. Newby’s fifth grade social studies class. Do any of you know anybody in grade five?”

Lots of students raised their hands.

“Well don’t you think it’s unreasonable of Mrs. Newby to make those children write forty pages?” said Mrs. Leadbitter. “I’m helping John with his forty pages about the Amish. I’m sure all of those children who write those papers are getting some help from some older person. That’s the only way a little ten-year-old child could write a forty-page term paper.”

Jessica rolled her eyes at Kayleigh and wrote in the margin of her notebook: “Dad found a German hymn for Dave but D. had to copy it himself.”

Kayleigh rolled her eyes at Jessica and wrote in the margin of her notebook: “Mike took twelve pictures of handmade quilts yesterday.”

After school Jessica asked Dave,  “Didn’t you say John Leadbitter was a friend of yours?”

“He was what I had for a friend in grade two,” Dave said. “That wasn’t much. All he ever reads are comic books, and he’d rather watch a ball game on television than play one.”


“Leadbitter’s mother is doing his term paper for him,” said Donald McLummox. “So he’s sure to get an A. What about Wilson? Is your father going to help you too?”

“No,” said Dave.

“Are you sure?” said Donald. He was taller and heavier than Mrs. Newby. He had never actually punched anybody, but he didn’t mind letting people think he might start. “We all know teachers can’t leave a kid alone.”

“My father is a farmer,” said Dave.

“So you say,” said Donald, “but Principal Wilson called you ‘son.’ Last week. We all heard him.”

“He’s just being tiresome,” said Dave. “He’s my father’s cousin.”

“That means he’s your cousin too.”

“Well, so what if he is?” Dave did not like Principal Wilson. “He’s not working on my term paper.”

“Then who is?”

“Nobody is,” said Dave. “It’s me myself and nobody else, like Barnacle Bill the Sailor.”


“All the way to Pennsylvania!” Mike’s aunt gushed. “Twelve pictures of quilts! Sixteen pictures of canned produce! Five pictures of rag rugs! You ought to go to the head of the class with a report like that!”

“They try to grade students impartially,” said Mike’s mother. “No head of the class, just a percentage of points scored. But he ought to get full points with this project.”

“I don’t know,” Mike said. “Lorna Boone was on the tour bus too. Lillian Jean Apfelzein is building a model Amish farmhouse. Dave Wilson found the words to an Amish hymn. In German.”

“But that’s not supposed to affect your grade,” said his mother.

“I don’t know,” Mike said again. “Even if my report’s really well written, it’s kind of boring. Social studies is boring.”

“Maybe your teacher thinks it’s interesting,” said his aunt. “If she liked science the way you do, she’d probably be a science teacher.”

“I could read your next to final draft,” said his mother. “I’ll tell you whether it’s too boring.”


“I’ve finished those books,” Dave said. “Thanks.”

“You’re welcome.” Jessica stacked the books in her backpack. “How many pages have you written so far?”


“Wow! Cool! Can I see it?”

“It’s at school.”

“You did all of it at school?” said his father. “What happened? Did the other teachers give you extra time to work on these term papers?”

“Well, sort of,” said Dave.

“What do you mean, ‘sort of’?”

“There are five homerooms,” said Dave. “There are at least thirty kids in each homeroom. If a person is quietly writing something in math class, the teacher thinks a person is probably doing math.”

“Speaking of math,” said his father, “how are you doing in math?”

“I’ll be okay, I guess.”

“What do you mean, ‘will be’ okay?” said his father. “Math is the most important subject for you to learn now. You already know how to read, so you can read all the other subjects any time. Math is a skill—something you do—and you need to be doing it.”

Dave stood up. “Well, it’s long multiplication, and I’m not getting it. But I’ll probably figure it out.”

“What part of multiplication is it possible not to get?” said Jessica.

“Would you like to spend all day Saturday doing tax returns?” Although Mr. Wilson was a farmer, he had studied accounting in college and helped other people with their taxes in winter. “Dave, you and I are going to work on long multiplication.”

“Oh. Well, thanks.” Dave picked up his backpack.

“I’d like to see that term paper, too.”

“Maybe you’d better not,” said Dave. “Everybody says John Leadbitter’s mother is doing his term paper for him. Some guys asked me whether Principal Wilson was working on mine. I said nobody else was looking at it.”


Lillian Jean Apfelzein had built a scale model of an Amish farmhouse from popsicle sticks. It looked very nice, but making it had left her time to write only thirty pages.

Alice Ann Arnold had done her whole report on wagons and buggies. Her drawings and diagrams always impressed teachers. By using thin paper under a bright light, Alice Ann could trace drawings straight out of a book. Dave had cited Amish Buggies and Wagons in his term paper, too.

Winston Black hadn’t been able to get a nonfiction book about the Amish from the library. His mother had an Amish cookbook at home. His report was about Amish food. Dave thought it might actually have been interesting if Winston had brought some of that food to school. Now that the reports were done, he would have liked another chance to eat shoo-fly pie.

Lorna Boone had used her mother’s computer to print her digital photos of quilts and canned vegetables into her report. It looked like a real book, Dave thought.

Frankie Doofy had stapled together seventy-three pages.

“Did you read all those pages?” someone asked. “You, Doofy?”

“Is there any rule that says you have to use the same font on every page?” said Frankie. “If you do your report on a computer?”

“You did not do your report on a computer!” Alice Ann challenged. “You wouldn’t know how. Would he, Lorna Boone? Would he, Mike Johnson? Would he, Dave Wilson?”

“I don’t know,” said Lorna.

“I don’t care,” said Mike.

“Even if he did, he’s still Doofy!” said Dave.

Maureen Gilligan had also used staples to attach Amish-style doll clothes to the pages of her report, and covered the binding with a miniature quilt.

Mike had decided not to use Dave’s catalogue pictures, since he had enough pictures of his own. He didn’t have a computer. He had printed his report very neatly by hand, wrapping his words around the pictures glued to each page. The title was “An Amish Farm Market.” He had asked a friendly Amish lady how to spell the German words for the things he had photographed. He had quoted her for some of the footnotes.

John’s report was exactly forty pages long, with the graphics printed in. It looked like a real high school term paper.

Donald McLummox’s report contained many long words and was very boring.

“You copied that,” Alice Ann said, after reading two pages. “You copied it straight out of that book, The Amish Farms of Lancaster County, that you kept me waiting for for three weeks.”

Dorabelle Precioso had, after talking to Lillian Jean, decided to bring in a model Amish farmhouse made of cake. It sat beside her desk in a wheelbarrow guarded by two life-sized Amish children made of straw. She had written her report by hand. Every letter was at least an inch high.

Dave had not thought of gluing his graphics onto pages of writing. However, he thought, if Mrs. Newby wanted graphics, she should have no complaint. Since Mike had returned his share, Dave had fifty-eight pictures, all numbered and tucked into his folder.

He hadn’t written a lot, but he had read books on the art of writing that advised, “Be terse. Don’t waste words.” He had not wasted any words.


From a list posted on Mrs. Newby’s bulletin board:


Apfelzein: C

Arnold: B

Black: B

Boone: A

Doofy: D

Gilligan: B

Johnson: C

Leadbitter: A

McLummox: C

Precioso: D

Wilson: F


“I got an A on the test on long multiplication,” Dave said.

“Good job,” said his father.

“Now,” said his mother, “may we finally read the famous term paper?”

The smile faded off Dave’s face. Mrs. Newby must have used a laundry marker to print that big black F on the binder of his term paper.

“You didn’t even paste those pictures onto paper and write captions?” Jessica said.

“No,” Dave said. “That’s what ticked her off, I guess.”

Jessica read the text aloud:

“Amish people live in Pennsylvania and other states. They are Christians who believe that God wants them to do things the oldfashioned way. Brubakers’ Farm Supply Store sells different types of equipment to different Amish people according to their rules about what they may use. The Amish Quilt Book illustrates handmade quilts. Amish Buggies and Wagons shows how their transportation equipment is made. The Plain People tells about why they don’t go to high school. Concepts in Social Studies tells about some problems they have in modern-day society. More books about Amish people are in the town library, or will be after everyone finishes this project.”

“Well?”  said Mrs. Wilson. “That’s a nice list of references. What happened to the term paper?”

“That’s what I wrote,” said Dave.

“Footnotes one through fifty-eight are the Brubakers catalogue,” said Jessica, “and footnotes fifty-nine through sixty-two...”

“Did Mrs. Newby tell you anything at all about how to write a term paper?” asked Mr. Wilson.

“She says she did,” said Dave. “I don’t know. The way she smiles all the time and twitters is kind of hard to listen to. She forgets she’s not talking to kindergarten.”

“But you could’ve shown it to me!” said Jessica.

“But when people asked who was helping me,” said Dave, “I said, ‘It’s me myself and nobody else,’ like Barnacle Bill the Sailor.”


“A C is not bad,” said Mike. “All I wanted was to be in grade six next year. A C won’t keep me back.”

“A C is not what we sent you to Pennsylvania to get,” said Kayleigh.

“Some other kid did something fancier, right?” said Kayleigh’s mother.

“That’s not supposed to matter,” said Mike’s mother.

“Well, it does,” said Kayleigh’s mother. “You read that paper again and tell me how anybody could ‘impartially’ give it a C.”

“Maybe because he quoted that Amish woman instead of some book?” said Mike’s mother.

“Why don’t you call that teacher and ask her?” said Kayleigh’s mother.

“It’d only make more trouble for Mike,” said Mike’s mother. “Everybody else has more money and his father’s the way he is. This family is like a little boat tossed on a stormy sea. We shouldn’t rock the boat.”

“I’m going to ask her,” Bill decided. “My name is Mr. Johnson too, and she doesn’t know Dad or me.”

Kayleigh rolled her eyes. Mike went to the bathroom, filled the sink with cold water, and dipped his face in it.

“Mrs. Newby,” Bill said, “my name is Johnson and I’m surprised by Mike’s grade...”

“Yes,” said Mrs. Newby on the telephone. “It was a B paper but I told them I’d deduct one letter grade if their papers weren’t typed.”


At their ten-year class reunion, Lillian Jean Apfelzein had identical triplets. Alice Ann Arnold worked for the FBI. Winston Black and his mother owned a restaurant. Lorna Boone worked for a newspaper. Frankie Doofy was in a drug treatment program and couldn’t come to the reunion. Maureen Gilligan-Johnson had a two-year-old daughter. Pastor Mike Johnson often preached on the evils of alcoholism and the redeeming love of the Heavenly Father, Who looks after children whose earthly fathers fail. Donald McLummox was a truck driver. Dorabelle Precioso had been divorced three times. Dave Wilson had his own construction company. He tried to give John Leadbitter jobs.

That was all Dave and John had to say, at the reunion. People weren’t terribly curious about their ordinary lives because everyone was interested in Lillian Jean’s triplets.

But Jessica and her husband, Paul Smith, who was Dave’s partner, often told their children, “You can do better than that. You don’t need help. You need to think about it and work at it until you get it right. You don’t want to be like poor old John Leadbitter, do you?”