The Apology Letter Essay Assignment

It was a spur-of-the-moment decision. Middle School Girl’s Basketball season had just ended and, suddenly, I had a school day where everything was planned and there weren’t any after-school responsibilities. So I called my coaching buddy and friend, Ron McKinney, to see if he was available to be my substitute (The politically correct term is “Guest Teacher”) for me the next day. After checking with his daughter who was home from the East Coast, he said “Sure!”

Ron had taught at Timberview ever since Moby Dick was a minnow, and then retired at the end of the 2020-21 school year to do other things, like go fishing, hunting, laying on beaches, and diving in Cozumel. Plus, he started substitute teaching at Timberview. He’s known, respected, trustworthy, and not easily fooled (A good quality for a substitute teacher).

I have 56 students who I see at least twice each school day, language arts in the morning and social studies in the afternoon. Half of them I also see a third time in another shorter class period that is meant more for academic help, study, and special presentations.

When I stopped by at the end of the school day to talk to Ron and see how things went, I got the report! THE REPORT! The morning classes had not gone well. Many of my students decided it would be a day that they’d feel the freedom to chatter to one again about meaningless subjects and not be on task. After a talk from Mr. McKinney to begin the afternoon, things went much better, but the rise in my blood pressure had already shot to the moon. My friend had to talk me down from the Bobby Knight-ledge, and, by the way, chairs were close at hand. (That’s a Bobby Knight classic story!)

The next morning I began each of the first two classes with the words, “What do you think we’re going to talk about first?” Instead of looks of cluelessness from their adolescent faces, I received confessionals from the guilty. “How we were not on task yesterday,” came the words from one astute young lady. “How we kept talking and made Mr. McKinney upset,” revealed another.

“Okay, so let’s make a list of our actions and what we are apologetic for.” Silence. They knew this was not a jury of twelve. This was a jury of 56 with a presiding judge of one. As they gave their contributions to what was and should have been done differently, I typed them on our classroom screen.

“The thing is…Mr. McKinney is a dear friend of mine. You wouldn’t let someone treat your friend in the ways you just mentioned, would you?” Several students looked crestfallen. Others, bored with life and the fact that they couldn’t be on their cell phones doing mindless video games throughout the school day, took on that middle school look of indifference.

“So, we’re going to write apology letters to him, and not just apology letters. We’re going to practice our essay writing.” The essay formula went up on the screen. “Since you’ve given me a number of reasons as to why my blood started to boil, use three of them for your body paragraphs. If one of your classmates was out of line with his or her actions, attitude, or behavior, you may reference those as your “source”.”

Pause for effect. “Oh, and this is for a grade!”

There was quiet in Wolfeville. The sound of fingers pecking keyboards began, and the testimonies were put into print. The names of the frequent offenders were pounded into the laptop. It was a little bit of revenge for those who did not care for the immaturity of some of their classmates. There was no holding back. Reading the student submissions was like pouring through the final chapters of a John Grisham novel, the courtroom scenes. The wayward had been revealed.

The concluding summary was already known and stated by most of them. That is, most of them want to learn, some of them have bought into the lie that eighth grade doesn’t matter and they will become suddenly transformed as high school freshmen, and a few others are like the wind, changing their status and efforts at a moment’s notice.

Teachers try to move the class train along the tracks, but there always seems to be a few education hijacking students who are intent on robbing the class of the possibility of learning something new. I will try, really try, to not be like Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride as I’m grading the test the students took on Friday, “Hello, my name is Mr. Wolfe. You wounded my friend. Prepare to be alarmed by your test grade.”

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