Edmonton high school teacher Lynden Dorval has been suspended for going against his school's no-zero policy. Under that policy, a student who completed only six of 15 assignments was only graded for what he did - and got a 63% average.
Lynden Dorval tried to talk himself out of it. He understood the stakes.
You push back against school administrators, swim against school policy and you become a marked man, an "insubordinate" problem teacher with a bull's eye on your back.
But the problem was the more he thought about it, the more Mr. Dorval, a physics teacher at Ross Sheppard High School in Edmonton with 35 years' experience, became convinced of what he had to do – even if it cost him his job.
"I knew it was going to be a lot of stress," he says. "But I just couldn't talk myself out of it. It was the right thing to do."
What he did, over the past 18 months, was what he had done for over three decades when a student didn't submit an assignment, skipped a test or missed an exam: he pulled out his red marking pen and gave them a zero.
It was a lesson in consequences, one contrary to the school's no-zero policy, an official dictum Mr. Dorval willfully ignored.
After repeated warnings from the principal to toe the line, the renegade was hauled before a school board hearing. Three days later, on May 18, he received a letter informing him he had been suspended indefinitely. He suffered the consequences.
Mr. Dorval fully expects to be fired in the coming months.
"It was against my principles not to give zeros," the 61-year-old says. "Through experience, I found that giving a zero – a temporary zero; the students could come to me to make arrangements to do something to erase that mark – was the most effective way to get students to do the work.
"It put the onus on them. I could see some other method working with younger kids. But these are high school students. They are becoming adults. They are getting ready to step out into the real world and it is time for them to start taking responsibility for their own actions."
The anti-zero argument goes something like this: Getting a goose egg discourages students. Zeros are not a measure of intelligence but a matter of behaviour. Kids should only be graded for what they do – not for what they don't do.
So - why do anything?
Mr. Dorval gives the example of a student who transferred to his class from a nonzero class. The student completed six of 15 assignments for his previous teacher and, since he was only graded for what he did, had a 63% average. Mr. Dorval made it clear to the boy that missed work meant zeros on his watch.
"With me, he did seven of seven assignments," he says. "It is right there in black and white."
Other teachers at Ross Sheppard expressed support for Captain Zero, telling him they wished they had the courage to do what he did.
And he understood why they didn't. Being younger, they had a career to think about. After 35 years, his career was nearing its end.
Ron Bradley, principal of Ross Sheppard and the man responsible for adopting the No Zero Rule, declined to take my phone call Friday. A school secretary directed me to the local school board. The board did not return messages.
In the vacuum, however, is the voice of common sense. We all have it, those of us who somehow survived high school. And we all know the voice speaks the truth: Life is about consequences.
It is a series of tests.
Don't submit the job application and you won't get the job. You get a zero. Skip work, tell the boss to shove it, neglect to file your taxes, miss a mortgage payment, bounce a cheque or get a speeding ticket, and what happens? You pay for it.
It is Newton's Law: for every action there is an opposite and equal reaction. Unless, of course, you are a student at Ross Sheppard high or some other institution where every missed assignment is met with an excuse.
And not from the kids, but from an apologist administration that encourages serial irresponsibility by offering second, third, fourth – and 10th chances – but not zeroes, never a zero.
Lynden Dorval knew it was wrong. He had had enough. So he picked up his red marking pen and stayed true to his conscience. It is a choice, he says, he would make again.
"When I was a student it never occurred to me that if you did not do something that you wouldn't get a zero," he says.
"Things like exams – I would never think about not writing an exam. I would never think about asking a teacher to write it later.
"It was just assumed, even if you were sick, that you went to school and wrote the exam. You went to school and you did the work."