Alder Hosking was a boy in our house. He was your average boy, a year ahead of me, a little bigger as most of those boys were. There was nothing special about him. I only knew him because he lived in our house, and I knew all the boys there by name.
He knocked on our door one night when Mike was off studying with Derek. Mike found trigonometry flustering and frustrating. Derek could do trig with one side of his brain tied behind his back. One of the great things about Banyard was, if you were having trouble in any subject, there were lots of boys there to help, and there wasn’t any teasing, either. At least not in Culver House.
“Hi,” I said. “Come on in.”
Alder walked in and looked around. I pointed at the chair and then the bed. He sat on Mike’s bed, totally at ease as a boy meeting a younger boy naturally is. I met his eyes, which I’d been learning how to do. Tyler had worked with me on that. Tyler was a very sociable boy and had told me when he was growing up that his father had told him the best way to meet people was to look them in the eyes. Not in a confrontational way but in a friendly, open, honest and congenial one. He said that got things off on the right foot and made you look like someone they could deal with, even like. So I’d practiced with him and then Derek and had gotten much better about it.
The strange thing was, it made me like myself better when I did it. Strange indeed. But I’d never been able to before Tyler had made me practice, and now I could.
Alder didn’t say anything, so I finally said, “You’re Alder, aren’t you? You room with Tory, right? How’s it going?”
He mumbled something, not looking at me, and suddenly he wasn’t at ease any longer. His eyes were surveying the room, looking at everything except me. His nervousness was obvious.
I watched him for a few moments, then asked, as gently as I could manage, “Did you want something specific, or just to get acquainted?”
He grimaced, briefly, then smiled. “It’s awkward,” he said. “I need a favor, quite a large one, actually, and I don’t even know you. How do you ask a stranger for a favor?”
I smiled, too. “I guess you just ask. You’ve already shown more courage than I’d have, just coming up here.”
He grinned at that, and somehow his body seemed to lose some tenseness. “OK, I guess. I have this problem, and talking to the guys I know, one of them suggested I talk to you. See, I’m kind of desperate.”
He stopped and took a deep breath, and it looked to me that his eyes suddenly were moister. Could he be ready to cry? Damn, I hoped not.
He shook his head, breathed deeply again, and said, “See, I’ve got Mrs. Mitchell for Creative Writing. We had to write a 5,000 word story about something that happened to us that taught us a valuable lesson. The lesson had to be true—the something we’d learned, I mean—but the details could be stretched or even made up.”
He looked up at me as though wanting to see if I understood, so I nodded, and he continued. “Well, I wrote it. I thought it was pretty good. I handed it in. Mrs. Mitchell handed all the papers back when she was done grading them, all except mine. She told me to come see her, and when I did, she accused me of having plagiarized it.”
At that, his voice cracked. He raised his hands to his face. I felt horrible. He was breaking down, and I didn’t even know him. Should I go sit next to him and physically try to comfort him? I’d feel so out of place, doing that. I didn’t know what to do.
He rather quickly pulled out a handkerchief and wiped his eyes, then looked at me, obviously embarrassed. “Sorry,” he said. “I just get so upset, thinking about it. I didn’t plagiarize anything. I didn’t! But how can I prove that? I just figured out something and wrote it. I told her that. She was very stern, not a bit friendly or receptive. She said she has an internet tool she runs all her papers through because it’s so easy now to just pull up a paper on the internet and copy it, and a lot of boys do that. Well, maybe they do, but no one I know does, and I certainly don’t. I didn’t even think of doing that. But she said I did it, and she was going to fail me, but I had the option of taking it to the student court if I wanted to. She seemed to find that amusing. Then she followed that up, talking in a very threatening manner, saying that if the court found me guilty, which they would because she had proof of her accusation, I’d be expelled, so I’d be better off taking the failing grade. She told me that, then smirked at me!”
He wasn’t crying any longer. Now he was mad. He stood up and tried to pace to work out his emotions. The rooms were not really set up for pacing. They were roomy enough, but you really needed a good deal of space for pacing. Soon, he sat down again, this time without the anger. He looked defeated.
I’d watched him pulling himself back together. I gave him a moment on the bed and then asked, “How do you think I can help you?”
“I told a bunch of guys on my floor about this. They all got angry as well. She’s told a lot of her classes that she knows we pull papers from the internet and copy them, and she warned us against it. But we don’t! At least I don’t know anyone who does. She thinks we do, however. None of us like her.”
I kind of fidgeted, and he saw it because he looked sheepish for a second and then said, “That doesn’t answer your question, does it?” He managed a weak grin. “I just get so worked up about it, the unfairness of it. Sorry. It’s just that I’m a student, and she’s a teacher, and she has all the power. It isn’t fair. But this is where you come in. One of the guys I talked to on our floor said he’d heard rumors. He’d heard you had something to do with the housemaster at Kennilworth getting canned. That you had some sort of an in with Dr. Rettington. I guess I was hoping you could help me. Maybe you could talk to him, explain I’m innocent. He might listen to you.”
He looked back into my eyes, and his were pleading.
I stood up and took a deep breath, then leaned against my desk. I thought a moment, then asked, “Uh, if that’s what should be done, talking to Dr. Rettington about this, then why don’t you do that? Why don’t you go see him? He isn’t hard to talk to, and he’s very fair.”
Alder was shaking his head as I spoke. “I can’t. I mean, I just can’t. I get intimidated speaking to adults, and one like Dr. Rettington…I, I, I just can’t.”
“And you think I can?”
“That’s what my friend said.”
“Why did he think that?” I was suddenly worried that maybe my first-day ordeal really wasn’t the secret I’d thought it was.
“I don’t know. He just said he’d heard a vague rumor about you being friendly with him. Nothing more than that. We were kicking ideas around about what I could do, and that was mentioned, that a kid in our house might be able to help because he knew Dr. Rettington.”
I shook my head and sat back down, feeling a little relieved that it seemed I was off the hook as far as knowledge of my visit to Kennilworth House was concerned. “I don’t know what to say, Alder. As you said, you and I don’t know each other. While I can see how upsetting this is, if I go talk to him and he asks me how I know you are being honest about this, what can I say? That you seemed to be? That you were upset? No, the only way it would work would be if you were there, so he could question you himself.”
His face lit up. “I could do that! If you were there and could do the talking, telling him about it, and then Dr. Rettington wanted me to confirm it—sure, I could do that.”
“You know,” I said, thinking about it, “I’d have to schedule a meeting with him, and for that to happen, he’d want to know what the meeting was about. He wouldn’t agree without knowing that. So I’d have to tell him, and then I’m sure he’d want Mrs. Mitchell there, too. It wouldn’t be just Dr. Rettington you’d have to face, but her, too.”
He gulped. “Are you sure?”
“Well, no. I’m not even sure Dr. Rettington would be willing to meet with us. But if he is, I’d sure think he’d want her side of the story as well as yours.”
He didn’t like that idea at all, I could see. He tried pacing again and found it just as unsuccessful as it had been the first time. He stopped and fell back on the bed again. “I guess I could do that. I don’t know what else to do. Will you try? Will you talk to him and see if he’ll meet with us?”
It was my turn to grimace. I looked away from him, thinking. I was committing myself to something I didn’t want to do, and it was to help someone I didn’t even know. But as I thought about that, I realized that helping someone I didn’t know, giving of myself to do that, seemed rather noble, something that would make me feel good about myself. It would make me feel even better if I could get him out of the mess he was in. I had no idea how I could accomplish that, however.
I turned back to him. “I’ll see if he’ll agree to talk to us. If he says no, there wouldn’t be anything else I could do, but I can ask.”
He got off the bed. I did too. I thought for a minute he was going to hug me, and I could see he thought so, too. But, awkwardly, he just put his hand on my shoulder briefly and said, “Thanks, Luke. This means everything to me.” Then he blushed, turned, and left.
That evening, I spoke to my friends about Alder and what he wanted me to do. “I more or less agreed to feel out Dr. Rettington about it,” I said.
Mike frowned, Tyler looked neutral, and Derek grinned. “So you’re going to be a mob mouthpiece?” he asked. “Cool!”
“What mob?” I asked.
“Well,” he supplied, still grinning, “You said Alder conferred with his floor mates. That sounds like a mob. And you’ll be acting as his lawyer—or mouthpiece, if you want to indulge in the vernacular.”
“I think I’m more just giving him some confidence,” I said in dissent. “I don’t think I’ll have to say much of anything. I’ll state his case, that he didn’t do it, and leave it at that. He’ll then speak for himself.”
Tyler shook his head. “It sounds like he doesn’t want to talk at all. I think he’s expecting you to do all the arguing. Just like a lawyer.”
Mike agreed with him. “He’ll expect great things from you. You’d better be prepared. That includes checking his briefs, doesn’t it? Isn’t that what lawyers do?” He wiggled his eyebrows, evoking laughter.
Derek said, “It might be good if you were better prepared than you are now. I think he is expecting you to stand up for him, and you should have some ammunition for that.”
I thought about that, then did as Derek suggested. I had Alder supply me with copies of all the papers he’d submitted to Mrs. Mitchell. I went to work with them. That took me a couple of days to complete. When I called on Dr. Rettington, his wife answered the door and smiled at me. She seemed to like me. She checked and said the headmaster would be happy to see me and led me to his office, then left us together.
I explained briefly what the problem was and that Alder felt too shy or intimidated to come to him directly, and that he’d asked me to intercede.
“This is a serious matter, Luke. She’s accusing him of cheating, and he’s accusing her of a false accusation. If it comes in front of me, I’m forced to take a stand that’s in line with the school’s disciplinary guidelines. Are you sure you want to do that? That he wants to face what that could mean?”
“That’s what she warned him about, sir. And I didn’t like what that sounded like. She told him to take the F grade or he’d probably get expelled. That didn’t sound fair to me. He should be able to argue his case rather than just submit to a grade he says he doesn’t deserve. You’re a fair man. You proved to me that you support the students here. You bent over backwards to excuse their behavior at Kennilworth House. That’s why I came to see you. You were more than fair then, and I think you will be now. A boy shouldn’t be expelled for explaining himself and why he’s been wronged.”
He smiled. I think he could see I was slinging it rather thick. But I was also making a point. He could see that, too.
“OK, Luke. You’re right, it isn’t fair if it’s as one-sided as it sounds. Let me talk to Mrs. Mitchell and hear her side of this and find out when she’s free, and then we’ll all meet. OK?”
“Great,” I said, and stood up. I offered him my hand, and he shook it. I felt good, leaving his office. I was getting Alder what he’d asked for, no matter how it turned out.
We were sitting in Dr. Rettington’s office. There was a conversational setting of furniture on one side of the office with a couple of armchairs and a couch. Alder and I sat on the couch, and the two adults were in the chairs.
Mrs. Mitchell looked like she was in her 40s or 50s. She was a very large woman, both in length and girth. She also seemed to wear a perpetual scowl. I could see why kids of my and Alder’s ages wouldn’t like her.
Dr. Rettington thanked Mrs. Mitchell for coming, then asked who was going to speak for us. Alder didn’t say a word. He simply looked at me. His face was red, and he was fidgety. I could tell he was acutely uncomfortable and wouldn’t be much use in selling his case.
“I guess I’ll start,” I said and went on to explain that Alder hadn’t copied anything from the internet and, as such, there was no cause for him to receive a failing mark, either for the paper or the term.
Mrs. Mitchell made a scoffing sort of grunt. Dr. Rettington asked her why she was sure Alder’s paper was plagiarized.
“I have a tool that I use,” she explained. It scans a student’s paper, then compares it to a vast data bank. When a certain portion of the paper can be found in the data base, I know it was copied. I found that with Alder’s paper. He can say what he likes, or you can say it for him,” she said, looking directly at me, ”but he cheated, and I can prove it.”
Dr. Rettington looked at me as well. I cleared my throat.
“He says he didn’t cheat, and I believe him. He has no proof he didn’t copy anything, because how could anyone have that kind of proof? You can’t. So it comes down to looking at your proof that says he did cheat, Mrs. Mitchell. Tell me, what is this ‘certain portion’ you mentioned? What portion? 5%? 2% of the paper?”
Mrs. Mitchell’s scowl deepened. “You have the temerity to question me? ME? You’re not even old enough to take my class. I don’t have to answer anything from you.”
“If that’s the case,” I said, seeing Dr. Rettington was about to speak and jumping in ahead of him, “I don’t see why you’re here and how this can be anything but a ‘yes-you-did, no-I-didn’t’ sort of argument. You need to respond to my questions.”
Where I was getting the courage to say something like that, I didn’t know, but adults were never a problem for me; besides, she with her high and mighty attitude was pissing me off.
“The idea!” she said, loudly, and began to rise. Dr. Rettington put out a hand on her arm and said, soothingly, “Now, now, Michelle, you agreed to come for this. Let’s talk through this to the end. Please?”
She settled back into her seat, reluctantly, and then turned a glare on me that would have killed ants without the aid of a magnifying glass and a hot sun. I decided I wouldn't take Creative Writing from her.
Dr. Rettington gave her a minute to compose herself and then asked, “Can you tell me a little about this computer tool?”
“I thought I just did,” she said, snarkily. “I’ve used it for years. These boys....” I think she realized at that point that continuing in a way that vilified the student body might not be in her best interests, and so she simply stopped.
She had given me a great place to reenter the conversation, however, and I cut in. “Mrs. Mitchell, did you find this tool with an internet search for plagiarism-detection methods?”
“Yes,” she said huffily. “I did a search and found one and bought it. I’ve used it for some time now.”
“I think that’s very true,” I responded. “I checked just in Culver House where Alder and I live. I found four boys who say you accused them of plagiarism and were failed in the course. They were all mad about it still. I asked them why they didn’t come forward and complain, and they said you told them they’d be expelled if they did. All of them told me quite vehemently that they had not cheated, but failing one course was much better than expulsion, and that as the school has a rule that if a course is taken over, the new grade replaces the old one in the record, they felt the only penalty they’d serve by accepting the failing grades would be the loss of time to retake the course.”
I’d been talking half to her and half to Dr. Rettington. I now turned to face her directly. “What this tells me is that you do have a pattern of accusing boys of plagiarism, and it all comes solely from using this tool.”
Mrs. Mitchell nodded. “Yes. There are a lot of cheaters in this school. I ferret them out.”
“But don’t you think it’s possible your tool might be leading you astray? Don’t you think maybe you should have more than one method of determining if these boys really are cheating?”
“No. I have absolute faith in my method.” She tightened her lips together and crossed her arms across her chest, taking as defensive a posture as possible. She looked invulnerable.
I turned to Dr. Rettington. “Sir, I ran an internet search myself. I looked for plagiarism-detection tools. I found several. Many search data bases like Mrs. Mitchell’s. But some compare what is suspected of being a fraud with other examples of that writer’s work. Some programs can detect style and usage and determine the likelihood any one paper was written by the same person as other papers he’s produced.”
Dr. Rettington looked interested. I continued. “I bought the tool. I compared Alder’s paper with other pieces he’s written for Mrs. Mitchell. Then, I did the same with the putative plagiarized papers of the other four Culver House students. In every case, the tool showed a very high likelihood that the papers were written by the person Mrs. Mitchell accused. Every score was in the mid 90% area, which, according to the literature that accompanied the tool, is as close to certainty as one can ever have.
“I would submit that as evidence that Alder did not cheat, that Mrs. Mitchell should scrap that defective tool of hers and apologize to all the students she’s maligned and that a way is found to make whole the other boys she had her way with in Culver House.”
Mrs. Mitchell was seething. Dr. Rettington was wearing a wan smile. Alder looked like he’d been hit with an ax handle. I got to my feet and pulled Alder up as well. “Thanks for listening to us, Dr. Rettington. I have here a file folder of the papers in question and the scanning printouts I ran.” I laid the folder on his desk, then said, “I’ll leave you to decide what’s to be done here, what’s fair. Thanks for giving us this audience.”
Then I walked out, taking Alder with me.
That evening Alder had a visit from Dr. Rettington. They met in the housemaster’s quarters at Culver House, and Alder came to see me directly afterwards.
“You did it, Luke! He said he’s moving me to Mr. Conrad’s class, and that the F grade will be withdrawn. For the inconvenience, I’ll be given an A on that paper, whether it deserves that or not.”
“What about Mrs. Mitchell?” I asked. It was none of my business, of course, but who wouldn't be curious?
“I asked him that, too. He told me he was there to discuss my situation, not her. But he apologized to me for the fracas—that’s what he called it—and patted me on the back, and told me I’d had a pretty good lawyer!”
I laughed. But I was rather proud of what I’d done, too. It even gave me an idea. I’d been wondering what I wanted to do when I left Banyard. I’d go to college, but for what? I’d had no idea. Now maybe I did. I’d enjoyed what I’d done, both the research and the fact I’d helped someone who’d needed it. People in general have a low opinion of lawyers.
Until they need one.