By Jack Clark
When Jerry Plecki was introduced last week at the Fine Arts Theater, it was his first public appearance since 1995. He'd left town in the midst of the cheating scandal at Steinmetz High School.
Plecki had taught English at Steinmetz. He was also the coach of its academic decathlon team. Five years ago, the team was caught cheating its way to a state title. Plecki had helped his students study from a stolen copy of the test.
The crowd at the Fine Arts didn't seem to care. "Why are these people cheering?" my friend Mary Valentin asked.
They had come to see a preview of Cheaters, a movie based on the scandal; it will be broadcast on HBO beginning this Saturday. Mary was sitting in the audience with her husband, Steve Grossman. Back in 1995 Steve was the assistant coach of the academic decathlon team at Whitney Young.
"I take full and complete responsibility for the events that occurred that year," Plecki told the 400 assembled teachers, school administrators, students, reporters, and cable TV executives. "I was the moral authority of the group as the adult figure, the teacher, and I should have stopped it. And since then until now, I've felt horrible that I didn't. And if I had to do it again, I certainly would have done things different....There is no justification."
This was the first time Plecki had publicly expressed remorse for his role in the scandal. In the movie, his character isn't nearly that repentant. As portrayed by Jeff Daniels, he's simply a good teacher in a nightmare school. He cares about the kids, but he's a bit of a mope. He has a PhD, yet he still lives with his mother, spending most of his time under a cloud of self-pity. He justifies cheating because he believes the deck has been stacked against his working-class students. He thinks the Illinois Academic Decathlon, or Acadec, favors the perennial winner: Whitney Young, a nine-time champion. Whitney Young's team ended up in second place in the 1995 state competition, but it reclaimed the title after Steinmetz students refused to take verification tests. The film describes Whitney Young, a magnet school, as a "private" institution operated within the city's public school system.
If there's a villain in Cheaters, it's Whitney Young.
In the movie, Plecki's character challenges an Acadec official: "Would you ask Whitney Young to retake the test?"
"There was a real animosity towards Whitney Young," said the real Plecki after the Fine Arts screening. "Mainly because they were such a dominant team. They had won this thing, at that point, nine years in a row, and I think now it's 15 years in a row. The reason Whitney Young wins is because they're a great school. And they had a great team and a great coach."
After polite applause, Plecki continued: "If I were a parent of a child needing a public school education, I'd pull any trick I could to get my kid into Whitney Young, or North Side Academy..."
"He still wants to cheat," Mary Valentin whispered.
"...because these are, God bless them, the finest schools."
John Stockwell, the writer and director of Cheaters, said, "I have a nine-year-old who goes to a magnet school in Los Angeles. I couldn't send him to a general enrollment public school. The magnet schools are so far superior that it really is the last enclave or lifeboat for the public school system in Los Angeles."
Someone in the audience stood up to ask: "Does this episode shine the light on inequities in funding among the schools--how some schools get the better resources, the better books?"
"This is a topic you really shouldn't get me started on," Plecki answered. "I can talk the next nine hours about the inequities in funding in the Chicago Public Schools."
Stockwell said, "What really struck me was that the kids at Whitney Young wanted to be there. They struggled to be there. And it was a place where learning was cherished. In Steinmetz, a lot of kids were just there. And I felt that difference when I went to the classes."
"Oddly enough, that was what made teaching at Steinmetz so ultimately rewarding," Plecki said. "I'm sorry I won't ever teach again, because teaching there you get a real sense of accomplishment."
That brought genuine applause.
Did Plecki lose his teaching certificate?
"No," he replied.
Then why won't he teach again?
Radio personality Roe Conn was moderating the question-and-answer session. "This is a decision you made?" he asked.
"It's a practical realization," Plecki replied. This response met with laughter.
"It was interesting," Stockwell interrupted. "Every kid that I talked to--not just kids on the team, but kids that were in Dr. Plecki's class--all said that he was a real dedicated, very passionate teacher. And he stood out at Steinmetz."
Plecki said some of the students on his team "tested high enough to be admitted to a magnet school program. But you know what? Besides a high level of intellectual achievement, much beyond their age, they have a certain maturity beyond their age. And they realized that, had they accepted placement into a magnet school, they'd be lending credence to a system that they believed was essentially corrupt."
"I don't buy it," Mary Valentin said. From the surrounding groans, it was apparent that most of the audience didn't either.
In the movie, the Steinmetz team doesn't seem particularly sharp. And they don't appear to be on a quest for knowledge. They want revenge against the Whitney Young team, portrayed as a bunch of gloating winners.
When a member of the Steinmetz team steals a copy of the upcoming test, Plecki lets his students decide whether to use it. He helps them reach their decision by implying that this is how the real world works. He talks of Bill Gates and stolen computer codes. "Try telling the truth on a loan application," he says. When the topic once again turns to Whitney Young, he insinuates they're unethical too. "If we can get the test, they can get the test."
The film's message is clear: Given the opportunity, everyone's a cheater. That's how the game is played, and that's how you win. Once the Steinmetz students get their hands on the test, they don't waste their time memorizing the answers, picking up a little knowledge on the way. They only memorize the letter for each answer: a, b, c, or d.
During the question-and-answer session, Steve Grossman stood up. He's now a psychology teacher at Niles West High School, where he also coaches the academic decathlon team. Recently he was named U.S. Academic Decathlon Coach of the Year.
"I have a lot to say," Grossman began.
"It's very hot in here," Roe Conn replied.
"Well, I'll make it short--I was the assistant coach of the Whitney Young team that year."
"Hi, Steve," said Jerry Plecki.
"Hi, Jerry, how're you doing? I haven't seen you in a few years."
"This is going to be good," Conn interjected. "I can tell right now."
Grossman said, "There's a lot that I could say about things that I remember differently than what you portrayed. I don't want to go there with this. On the whole, I think you made an interesting movie and I was, at some points, wrapped up in watching it. But the one thing that I find unconscionable is the portrayal of Larry Minkoff."
A smattering of applause interrupted him; then he continued. "I think the makers of this movie ought to be a bit ashamed of themselves. I learned more about teaching from Larry Minkoff--"
Conn stopped Grossman to explain that in 1995 Larry Minkoff was the head coach at Whitney Young. Minkoff had since died.
"Larry was very helpful to me," John Stockwell said. "I met with him three times, went to lunch with him, and I think we visited Whitney Young together. Every place I went with him, students came up to him. Clearly they adored him. There's no question in my mind that this guy had the utmost respect at Whitney Young, that he was a great coach. He went on to oversee the whole decathlon system at the Board of Education. I anticipated that people would possibly have these feelings."
"Well, why did you feel compelled, in terms of drama, to portray him in that way?" Grossman asked. "Why did you feel it was necessary to make not just Larry Minkoff but the Whitney Young team and the Whitney Young community look like a bunch of jerks, which they are not? I left Whitney Young a year after that too, and I've been coaching another team ever since, and we've been chasing Whitney Young for the last four years. A lot of people ask me, 'Why does Whitney Young win every year?' And I think they want me--knowing a little bit about the inside--to give them a nugget that will help them. 'They do this' or 'they do that.' Something conspiratorial. But the reason Whitney Young wins every year is because those kids work harder than any other kids. They study harder. They want it more."
The audience groans.
"And they're smarter," Stockwell said. "Whitney Young gets the best and the brightest of Chicago."
There's no question it's true. Students have to score high on an admission test to get into Whitney Young. Steinmetz takes any kid with an eighth-grade diploma.
Stockwell never answered Grossman's question, but he did recall Minkoff asking, "Are you going to make a film in which you portray Steinmetz as not having cheated and Whitney Young as being whiners who somehow stripped these poor immigrant kids of their title?"
"That was his greatest concern," Stockwell recalled. "And I said, 'No, in fact I found Jerry Plecki, and he admitted to cheating.' Larry was shocked: 'He did? That's impossible.'
"There was something about Larry and his Whitney Young team that I kind of stole from him to put in Plecki's mouth. He talked about having the confidence, the cockiness, to think that you could beat anyone in that room, and that was what he tried to imbue his team with. And some people took offense at that, and some people were just jealous."
Why did Stockwell choose to attribute that sentiment to Plecki instead of Minkoff?
"Well, Larry was talking about what winning does, and how after winning nine years in a row he tried to keep his kids knowing that the title was theirs to lose. And this was the first time that Steinmetz had won, and I wanted to use some of that psychology."
A former Whitney Young student rose to his feet. "I went to school with kids straight from the projects," he said. "And I also went to school with kids whose parents were on the boards of Fortune 500 companies. At Whitney Young we had a sense of pride that, yes, we were a good school and that, yes, our teachers cared about us."
"I didn't intend to offer up any easy answers," Stockwell said. "I certainly don't think there are any."
Grossman approached Plecki after the question-and-answer session. He was still bothered by the movie's portrayal of Larry Minkoff.
"Well," Plecki told him, "there was a lot of truth there. He did go on national television and call me a moral midget."
In the movie, Larry Minkoff--played by actor Robert Joy as a smug, smarmy
hustler--is first shown booking bets at the regional competition. He taunts Plecki to join in the gambling, offering him generous odds on his Steinmetz team. Plecki grudgingly puts up 20 bucks.
"But Jerry," Grossman said, "that betting thing, that never happened."
"Well, we remember things differently," Plecki replied.
Grossman's memory of events was entirely different. According to him, there was no betting at all at the regional competition. But five weeks later at the state contest, he says, Plecki approached Minkoff wanting to bet. Minkoff was hesitant but relented under pressure. Grossman says Minkoff insisted on giving Plecki 3-to-1 odds. After Steinmetz won the state championship, Minkoff paid Plecki $60.
"He was setting us up for the surprise that he knew was coming," Grossman says. "He was working the room, saying stuff like, 'God, I can't believe it. I've never had kids like this before. These kids have been unbelievable. They've been studying like crazy. They are so smart. They've been doing great on the practice tests. They think they're going to score 50,000. Are they crazy?'"
That did sound crazy to Minkoff and Grossman--no one had ever scored that high. Still, Plecki was persistent.
"He would say things to Larry. 'Finally I know what it's like to have what you've had all this time, to work with these amazing kids. They are just so amazing.' And then he offered to bet."
The winners of the first round were announced. "I think Steinmetz won eight out of the nine medals," Grossman says. "They were winning almost everything. We picked up one. I think we tied for third. Larry kept being very assuring to the kids, to calm them down. He said, 'Just wait. Something must be wrong here. Don't worry. We'll figure it out.'"
Whitney Young was used to winning, of course, but that wasn't the only reason they were shocked, Grossman says. "We started putting all these pieces together. There was circumstantial evidence that something was going on with Steinmetz. Our kids had been telling us all day that the Steinmetz kids were the first ones to finish the tests. They were finishing the math test in ten minutes. The test had 40 questions and you were given 30 minutes, and even the best math kids we had had trouble finishing it. They had to really rush through the questions. The Steinmetz kids were finishing first and then gloating about it. They were purposely doing things to show up our kids.
"We came into our team room on a break and someone had written on the board, 'How does it feel to finally lose?'"
After Steinmetz was announced as the winner, Grossman recalls, "One of the other coaches said, 'I heard that they got signed out of their classes for three days to study. Maybe that's how they did it.' Larry said, 'Forget it. There's something else going on here.'"
Minkoff was suspicious--Steinmetz's score had risen by 9,400 points.
"Larry immediately jumped on the point differential," Grossman says. "I was new to this. I kept asking, 'Are you sure?' And he kept saying, 'Nobody could go up 9,400 points in five weeks.'
"Whitney Young actually went down between the regionals and the state that year, and we were working our butts off. But that's not unusual. It was a harder set of tests. We went down about 1,000 points. That's pretty typical. You don't go up 9,400 points. Most teams went down that year."
Minkoff and Grossman ran into Jerry Plecki in the parking lot after the competition. "Larry was very gentlemanly," Grossman says, "but he was slightly tongue-in-cheek. He said, 'Hey, congratulations. You really did something tonight. How does it feel to have the highest scoring team in the history of Acadec?' They shook hands, and Plecki said, 'What do you mean?' And Larry says, 'Well, we heard you got 50,000. No one's ever hit that before.' Plecki turned sort of ashen, and he said, 'I thought all the good teams scored 50,000.' 'No,' we said. 'It's never been done before. Congratulations.' And so we got one little moment of satisfaction out of that, because he did look a little ghostly. We laughed about that."
This scene is in the movie, but it's nothing like Grossman remembers. Minkoff's hot and ready to pull clout. "Call the boys," he says. "Get the scores. Do whatever you can. I want those numbers."
"In that long night, two things happened," Grossman says. "We figured out that they must have had an advance copy of the test. We worked through all the other scenarios and nothing else fit. They use the same test all over the country, but it's not always given on the same date. We thought maybe they got it from another state.
"I said, 'We've got to protest.' But Larry felt very strongly that there was nothing we could do, even though we knew they cheated. He said, 'We're never going to be able to prove this. And if we complain or file a protest, we're going to look like sore losers.' He knew that immediately. He said, 'Everybody's going to give our kids a hard time. And it's not worth it, to put them through that, because nothing's going to happen.'
"But I thought about it, and I talked it over with Mary, and finally it just hit me. I called Larry the next morning. 'Look, our kids are the ones getting cheated. These kids worked their butts off and they're getting cheated out of the chance to compete at the nationals. And there's also scholarship money involved. We're the grown-ups here, and we need to fight for our kids. And even if we don't win, we owe it to them. We'll take the heat for being crybabies and sore losers. We'll put that on our shoulders.'
"And Larry said, 'You're right.' But over the same night, he'd been on the phone with Dan Spetner in California. Dan runs a company called Acalon Cards and Exams Inc. He knows more about the Acadec than anybody. All the coaches in the country call him. He sells preparation materials--practice tests and stuff like that. He's a real hyper, fanatic, excitable guy. Larry called him when he got home, and they stayed on the phone until after midnight. Dan said right away, 'Something's wrong here. Something's going on.' Even when we were trying to be cautious, he said, 'No. These kids cheated.' He had no doubt.
"So when I told Larry we had to file a protest, he'd already made the same decision. But he always gave me credit for convincing him to file.
"Monday morning we went in and filed the protest. We were very careful not to use the word cheating. We presented some of the evidence. We'd called around. We'd pulled together some numbers. We'd found out that only 12 kids in the whole country had hit 900 on the math test--and six of them were from Steinmetz. We pointed out some of the statistical anomalies. And a lot of the language we used in our protest, the Illinois Academic Decathlon ended up using in their decision.
"One of the things they didn't do well in the movie was to draw out the drama of the question--did they or didn't they cheat? We kept quiet about the protest, but somebody went to Sneed."
Michael Sneed's story, on the front page of the March 22 Sun-Times, ran under the headline "We didn't cheat." The accompanying photo showed Jerry Plecki, the Steinmetz team, and school principal Constantine Kiamos, who said, "If [Acadec officials] should strip Steinmetz of its honestly won awards, they leave us with no recourse but to seek legal action."
One Steinmetz team member said, "We think it was outrageous of Whitney Young to accuse us of cheating because they can't accept the fact that we did win."
"That was the slant everybody took initially," Grossman says. "We were the bad guys." He remembers one radio station had a two-hour call-in show pitting the Whitney Young Whiners against the Steinmetz Scholars. "If you're from Whitney Young and you want to whine, don't even bother calling," he says the disc jockey told listeners.
The day after the story broke, the Illinois Academic Decathlon Association stripped Steinmetz of the title and Whitney Young was named state champion. The Sun-Times reported, "In its letter the Association said, 'It is common in standardized testing to require students to retake tests if scores indicate variances beyond statistical probability.' Association officials were incredulous that Steinmetz could improve its score [9,400 points] from the regionals to the finals, racking up the highest score in the country. By comparison, the highest point improvement among Chicago's five other schools in the championship was 2,600. Most state champions saw their scores drop by an average of 1,000 points between the regionals and the finals....
"Steinmetz coach Jerry Plecki said his nine member team didn't do well in the regionals because two students had the flu, one had a cold, one a sinus infection, and one was recovering from pneumonia."
Alderman Carole Bialczak, whose 30th Ward included Steinmetz, vowed to seek City Council hearings.
Four days later, the scandal was back on the front page of the Sun-Times: "Steinmetz Admits Cheating in '94." The story said Plecki had slipped his students the answers to the decathlon's Super Quiz just before the test. "The revelation came from Angela Lam, the school Honor Society's 'Student of the Year' in 1994." She told the newspaper that she cheated, "but the incident so sickened her that three days later she turned in her gold medal to her coach." The story said Plecki had admitted to the cheating in a meeting with Kiamos. "But Plecki and the eleven members of the team steadfastly deny they cheated in this year's competition," the Sun-Times wrote. "And Kiamos said he believes them." Nevertheless Steinmetz decided to drop its lawsuit.
"It's funny," Grossman says. "Whitney Young had never lost at Super Quiz before. But '94 was my first year as a coach, and it had never occurred to me that Steinmetz might have cheated. Larry told me later that he was suspicious, but he never brought it up."
Yet even the disclosure of prior cheating didn't turn public opinion completely around. Some people even argued there was no way to beat Whitney Young without cheating--the kids were too smart and the school too well funded for the competition to be fair and square. Steinmetz was just leveling the playing field, they said. The cheating was even called an act of civil disobedience.
Whitney Young wasn't the only school with smart kids or cash for academic competitions. New Trier, Stevenson, and the Illinois Math and Science Academy, to name a few, have all been in the competition at one time or another, and they've all been beaten by Whitney Young.
"Acadec requires more than just smart kids," Grossman contends. "You need nine good kids who are willing to work hard. It doesn't test on what you know--it tests on what you learn. For instance, in art, every year they have between 12 and 18 pieces of art, and you have to know everything you can about the artwork, the artist, the period, the style, art terms that apply, and anything else you might think of. If you take the nine smartest kids in any school and they don't study, they're going to do poorly on that art test. It doesn't matter how smart they are. Whitney Young wins because they study."
Whitney Young has been beaten. The school lost the first year it entered the state competition. "Then Larry decided to become more serious and they won," Grossman says. "But then they would go to the nationals and get trounced. And Larry got sick of that. And that's when he really got serious and created the system that's still in place at Whitney Young--and that I use at Niles West. He didn't decide to cheat. He decided to work harder.
"Larry was a master motivator and he built his program out of nothing. He created an aura about Acadec, and once they started winning it became this institution at Whitney Young."
Whitney Young has never won a national title. The year of the scandal it came in second behind a team from California. Year after year the top teams in the country are from California and Texas. Why?
"Those kids give up their lives," Grossman says. "And the coaches give up their lives. Our kids have lives.
"And that's true most places. Any school has nine top-notch kids. But at other schools they're not necessarily going to be on the Acadec team. They have other things they want to do. But at Whitney Young, all the best kids trip over themselves to try and get on Acadec. My last year there we had 75 kids try out for nine spots."
A week after the Sun-Times reported the '94 cheating, the Tribune printed an essay by a Steinmetz student. The essay, written for an English class, laid bare the cheating conspiracy, and public opinion finally started to turn around.
"The movie's a little too easy on Plecki," Grossman says. "They let him off the hook by saying here's this well-meaning guy who's faced with a moment of truth and makes one mistake from which everything else falls. They want us to forget that he'd cheated the year before, gotten away with it, and then came back and cheated again."
At the end of the question-and-answer session, someone asked Plecki, "Why did it take an HBO movie for you to finally admit that you cheated and to apologize?"
Plecki said John Stockwell "was able to convince me that this story was going to be made, whether I was dead or alive or whether I liked it or not. This was going to happen. Further down the line, he convinced me that perhaps this wasn't going to be the traditional story that had been brought forth in the media to this point. When I felt comfortable on both of those levels, I agreed to talk to him. I felt that this might bring a sense of closure to the whole event. And at that point I agreed to sell my life rights to HBO in such a way that both HBO and myself would be protected legally."
"This protects HBO from being sued by Jerry Plecki," Stockwell said. "We're about to show a movie where this guy teaches kids how to cheat, lie, and steal."
"Well, it's cheat and lie," Plecki corrected him, apparently forgetting that the copy of the test he'd obtained in '95 had been stolen by one of his students.
"It was a bad mistake on my part," Plecki said. "It's not a road I would go down again."
That's not the message of Cheaters. The movie ends with one of the Steinmetz students walking across a college campus that looks like it belongs in the Ivy League. The scandal didn't stop her from getting into a good college, she says. As a matter of fact, the admissions officer saw the scandal as an asset. The student has no regrets; she's even thinking of becoming a teacher. The real student attended the screening and told reporters her only regret was getting caught.
She's the hero of the movie. Cheaters has a couple of goats too. One is the former team member who wrote the essay published in the Tribune. The other is a naive student who believes school officials when they tell him his fellow team members have all signed confessions implicating him.
In the film the kid who wrote the essay is physically beaten, first by his old teammates, then, after the scandal breaks, by Steinmetz students at large. You don't feel much sympathy for him because he broke the code--not the code against cheating but the one against stool pigeons. The code of the underworld.
There's free food and drink down the street at the Congress Hotel, but Steve Grossman is ready to skip the reception. He's already been confronted by people who viewed his objections to the film as an elitist's defense of the magnet school program. It brought back bad memories from the early days of the scandal, days when Whitney Young could do nothing right.
But Grossman ends up deciding to go to the reception anyway--he wants to say hello to Larry Minkoff's widow, Dolores. On Michigan Avenue, he looks back at his time with Minkoff: "In two years, I learned more about teaching from Larry than from any other experience, classroom or whatever. I try to model myself after him. Even today, I think back on what Larry did. Or I find myself asking, 'What would Larry do?'
"He was one of those guys who always had a clear, thought-out reason for everything he did. And he was the best guy to go to if you had a problem. And it wasn't just Acadec. He was the kind of guy you could call up and just run something by. You might not agree, but he always had a logical, rational answer.
"He felt things clearly and he explained things clearly. Nothing he did was by mistake or haphazard. Everything he did was thought-out."
Near the entrance to the hotel ballroom Dolores Minkoff is standing with her son-in-law. She tells Grossman, "I was OK until you started talking....Then I lost it."
"I'm sorry," he says.
"Oh, no. I was so happy to see you stand up. Somebody had to tell the truth."
Grossman asks about her daughter. "Where's Karen?"
"She didn't come," Dolores Minkoff says. "She knew this was going to happen."
We drift off toward the food and drink, and when I return Dolores Minkoff is talking to John Stockwell. She's trying to convince him to remove her husband's character from the movie. "Just edit him out," she says softly. "Cut the scenes. Then my daughter could watch it."
Stockwell defends himself by saying, "I think what I had was an actor out of control." He explains that Robert Joy went off on his own in his portrayal of Larry Minkoff. The writer-director apparently had a hard time reining him in. Part of the problem, he theorizes, was that Joy had played a villain in a previous role.
Dolores Minkoff is also upset because the movie allowed Plecki's character to claim the Whitney Young team had snubbed Steinmetz after the victory. "Well, that's not true and that's a terrible thing to say. Larry was always a good sport, no matter what."
Stockwell says he's sorry but explains he didn't write that line. "It was an ad-lib by Jeff Daniels."
Later Stockwell huddles with HBO Films president Colin Callender. "She wants me to cut him out," Stockwell says. He looks concerned. The Larry Minkoff character only gets a minute or two of screen time, but suddenly he's the talk of the evening.
"I don't think he would have done it if Larry were alive," Dolores Minkoff says. "And that's very upsetting. I feel he took advantage. I think if Larry had lived, he would have been involved more in the project.
"Larry was kind of excited about the movie. He was very impressed with John Stockwell. So for it to turn around like this is really unfortunate."
Dolores met Larry when they were both 16. They were married for 34 years, until Larry died in 1998, the morning after Valentine's Day. He was 56.
"His last job, he was in charge of all academic competition for the Board of Education," Dolores says. Then he became sick. "He worked on Friday and he passed away on Saturday. He was doing fine. He had a pulmonary hemorrhage. He woke up and it was four o'clock. And I thought, 'Oh, this is good. He really slept a long time.' He usually didn't sleep that many hours. And he just coughed, and he said, 'Call 911.' And I did that. And he said, 'This is it. I always loved you.' And that was it, in seconds."
Did she feel his presence at the screening?
"No," she says, shaking her head. "I don't get that. I know some people do, but I don't. I feel other things."
Grossman is talking to a couple of Steinmetz students, while Plecki is wandering around the room. He looks uncomfortable and appears to avoid eye contact. He seems shy and awkward but not nearly as mopey as his movie counterpart. He's just a guy who used to be a teacher; now he's a businessman.
Grossman had started out as a businessman. One day he was driving to a meeting when John Prine came on the radio:
How the hell can a person go to work in the morning,
come home in the evening,
and have nothing to say?
Those words--lyrics in the song "Angel From Montgomery"-- jumped out at Grossman. "That was my life," he says. He decided to change it. He quit his job, got divorced, and went back to school with plans to become a teacher. He's never regretted it.
"Oh, this is so pathetic," says Mary Valentin, gesturing off to the side where Plecki is busy collecting souvenirs. He's got a movie poster and a table placard. The poster says, "He helped them to cheat. He taught them to lie. He was the best teacher they ever had." She whispers, "The high point of his life."
During the ride home, the conversation returns to the screening. Somebody mentions Plecki's comment about being able to make a difference at a school like Steinmetz.
"Larry used to tell me the same thing," Grossman says. "His first ten years, he taught at Marshall. And when I was concerned that maybe I shouldn't take this job at Niles West because I loved it so much at Whitney Young, he said, 'You're gonna love the kids anywhere.' He said he loved it at Marshall and in some ways he found that more satisfying than Whitney Young, because at Marshall you knew you were making a difference.
"The kids loved Larry. He had a real casual and easygoing attitude toward the kids and toward the class, and some people thought he wasn't working. And sometimes that's the case. The teachers that all the kids love, they love 'em 'cause they're easy. But that wasn't Larry. He was the most organized and well-prepared teacher I've ever known. And, like always, he had a plan. He knew exactly what he was doing in the classroom.
"At the end he was teaching five sections of honors psychology. It was only offered to seniors, but his classes filled instantly. They all wanted Minkoff. Everybody wanted Minkoff."
"He was a good guy," Valentin says.
"Yeah," Grossman agrees quietly.
But something was wrong with Minkoff. "He had this cough that he couldn't get rid of," Grossman says. "They thought it was this, they thought it was that. And then he called me up one day and said, 'I've got to tell you something--I've got lung cancer.' But he was totally upbeat about it. And he said, 'It's a real small tumor. They're not going to operate. They're going to do radiation and chemo. And I'm going on business as usual. And I'm going to be positive.' And he sort of told us these are the rules. 'We're going to be positive and upbeat and we're going to beat this thing.'"
"'And you can't hang out with us unless you can deal with that,'" Valentin adds.
"He'd talk about it, but he didn't want to hear woe is me," Grossman says. "I had a feeling that he knew it was terminal, but he wouldn't tell people. He would never use the word inoperable. He just said, 'That's not an option.' He acted fine. He was cool about it. He didn't mind losing his hair. He looked good bald, and he was proud of the way he looked. But he was very short of breath, and he couldn't walk a block without resting. And he had this really rough cough. I think it was from the radiation. They'd burned his lungs or something.
"We came home one day and there was a message on the machine from someone at Whitney Young. I called Dolores immediately. I was basically calling to tell her how much I loved Larry. But before I could say anything she said, 'You really loved Larry, didn't you?' And I said 'Yes,' and we both broke down."
After a while we get back to the movie. Grossman says, "If I was totally objective and didn't know anything about it, I'd say it was a decent movie."
That's true. The movie works, but it works because of what it shows, not what it says. It says Plecki is a great teacher, but it shows him as a mope. It says the Steinmetz students are smart kids who were never given a chance, but it shows them as a group of not very studious misfits in a school on the edge of anarchy.
"And the movie says, 'Cheaters prosper,'" Valentin says. "And the movie says, 'This is how the world works.'"
Grossman disagrees. "I don't think it really does. It would say something, but there was always another level. The saving grace was the mother's speech--the movie didn't let Plecki off the hook there. When he tries to justify his behavior to his mother and uses his father's mistreatment at work as an excuse, she says, 'No, Jerry, you're their teacher. You're their leader. You had to tell them, no, we don't do this.'"
That line got the biggest applause of the night. The second largest ovation went to a tag line at the end of the film--not long after the scandal, school board president D. Sharon Grant was jailed for income tax evasion.
See? Everyone cheats.
Valentin brings up the last scene in the movie, with the student walking across the college campus. "She's portrayed by this really hot, really hip actress, and you get the impression that she's a success because of her ability to cheat. She's on her way to a great career as a teacher or a civil rights lawyer. But that's not the truth. The ending is completely dishonest. Whether she knows it or not, her ability to cheat has not served her well. Sure, she'd do it all over again because that was the coolest time of her life. Now she's just a mom working in a mall, but it doesn't say that in the movie."
Cheaters takes a slap at the magnet school program, but it doesn't offer any answers. If it weren't for the magnets, would the city's school system be simply mediocre? Would even more middle-class families have fled? Or would concerned parents have finally rebelled on their own, forcing the city to provide a decent school system that serves everyone equally? Today we have half a system--it helps those who can get into the Whitney Youngs and leaves the rest twisting in the wind.
The movie shows the final meeting of the Steinmetz academic decathlon team. The students present Plecki with an inscribed copy of Paradise Lost. The inscription reads, "You were the best teacher we ever had." It's the saddest line in the story.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jim Newberry/AP--Wide World Photo.