The costs of whistleblowing

Published November 27, 2019

By Tom Campbell

I have great empathy with the Ukrainian whistleblower. I was a whistleblower… and paid a price for it.

It was in tenth grade Chemistry. After we learned about the periodic tables I was lost. Who knew chemistry was all about math? Our teacher, Mr. Nicholson, was a good man but not-so-good teacher. He taught, pretty much in a monotone, straight from the textbook, assigning homework from the accompanying workbook.

The authors of the text and workbook provided prepared tests, furnishing masters that could be run off on a spirit duplicator. You’re not from my generation if you can’t remember the smell of those old spirit duplicator machines. 

Mr. Nicholson would duplicate the tests and hand them out to students. He was also the high school teacher who graded on a curve, meaning he would take the highest score, add enough points to it to make sure that student received an “A,” then add that same number of points to everyone’s scores. Even grading on the curve didn’t help me. At best I got “Ds;” more often, the failing grades I deserved. 

During lunch one test day I went back to my homeroom to get my chemistry book for some last-minute cramming. When I walked past the chemistry classroom, the senior boys were huddled around the trash can. They had found the master for that day’s test and were working together to figure out the answers. 

Now generally I didn’t care what score anyone else made but knowing that Mr. Nicholson was going to grade on the curve, I instinctively knew my grade would be adversely affected. Besides, it violated my sense of right and wrong. After school I went to the chemistry teacher to report what I had seen. His lack of genuine concern told me he wasn’t going to do anything. Wrong response, Mr. Nick.

So, I went to the principal and told him the story. He promised to talk with the teacher. Several days later Mr. Nicholson informed our class he would no longer be using the tests provided by the textbook authors. The looks on the senior boys’ faces said they knew their scheme was over.

Somebody must have told that I blew the whistle. A week later I woke up on Saturday morning to discover the tires on my 1954 Pontiac Chieftain had been deflated, the radio antenna was broken, raw eggs had been thrown on the car and my seat covers were cut. I had worked and saved to buy this old clunker and it made me angry, but I got their message.

Would I do it again? You betcha. Looking back at experiences that have shaped me, this whistleblowing incident stands out. I learned there may be a price paid for doing the right thing, but not doing it is far more costly.

Mark Twain once said, “Do the right thing. It will gratify some people and astonish the rest.” That might appear sarcastic but remains true today. If we want good governments, good workplaces, good communities or anything good we must have people who will do the right thing, who have the integrity and courage to blow the whistle when they see wrong being done. If not, the whistles will go silent and we all suffer the costs. 


PS – I passed chemistry on my own. Just barely.