“Plagiarism will not be tolerated in this class. Do it again and you’re out of here with a failing grade.” My online English professor was cold, snooty, filled with righteous indignation and the special scorn of those who are convinced of their own superiority.
“I did not plagiarize that material!” I ached with the outrage of the falsely accused and my throat grew tight with the threat of tears. “I wrote from my own knowledge of that subject. I’ve been interested in hand fishing for years. Researched the laws and regulations. Done it with my own hands.”
“I think you pulled this material from a website or took it from a book. It doesn’t make sense that someone like you would be interested in ‘noodling’.” His voice held a contemptuous tone. “You couldn’t possibly have written this paper. The writing is well above your level of expertise. Plus it’s an odd hobby for a young lady to pursue. No, Ms. Pitchman, I know plagiarized material when I see it. This will get you kicked out of my class faster than anything else.”
“But, I have a scrapbook of my fishing trips. I can prove it. I can send you photos.” The acid dripped into my stomach, that old familiar sick feeling. If he only had questioned me before leveling the accusation, he could have determined to his satisfaction that I did indeed know the topic and produced the paper myself. But he jumped the gun, went off half-cocked.
“No, no. That won’t be necessary,” he said, backing down now, but not turning loose of his attitude. “I’ll take your word for it. But just don’t do it again.”
Don’t do what again? Write a good paper? I wanted to scream at the injustice. I suddenly realized I know this man even though I had never met him before today. He’s familiar. All my life, throughout my school years, I have encountered him with different faces and different names, different disguises. But I know him. He’s the same one who made my elementary school years miserable. He’s the same one who helped turn my high school days into long hours of agony I couldn’t wait to escape.
I shook my head trying to clear it. The tears filled my eyes as the old familiar flush of undeserved shame crawled over my skin.
Later, after I had calmed down, I scanned and emailed him photos of me fishing, pulling big cats from under a bank by hand. I assumed I would receive an apology, which I was prepared to accept with graciousness. But, of course, I didn’t receive an apology. I had entered the adult world, but apparently the institution of public academia had not followed suit. It was still self-absorbed, childish, and wrapped up in its own elite brand of arrogance and narrow-minded ignorance.
Oh, yes. I knew this professor. Sometimes he was a woman, sometimes a man, at times a counselor; other times a teacher, principal, or administrator. Always the same negative abrasive character living in different fleshy forms, passing scathing judgments on my abilities, discouraging me from trying, expecting the lowest of the low from me, and crushing to death any spark of desire I might feel for learning.
And teachers’ unions want sympathy? I have none to give them. I sympathize with their victims. As a child, I just wanted a normal life. I wanted to be able to go to school like other kids without nausea digging at my guts and a cold sweat on my back.
I thought back to my last day in high school. I was sixteen and couldn’t wait to quit. My dad couldn’t wait either. He had fought the good fight for many years, but finally accepted that he would not win this one. He would rather have his daughter out of the system altogether than watch her health and mental state deteriorate and her self-image and confidence destroyed. Years of accumulated negative test results hunched on my shoulders like a fat vulture, the weight of preconceived notions pulling me down into the dirt. Years of being the smallest and most vulnerable member of my class. Years of being told how ‘different’ I was. Years of being bullied by gullible students who were quick mimic the attitudes of my teachers.
Most of my years of school had been spent in hopelessness, fear, and knowing I could never measure up no matter what I did. Did I have any good teachers? Yes, a couple here and there. But the vast majority of them were talentless grubs who preferred to slide by without really working, teachers who couldn’t handle the challenge of any student who didn’t fit perfectly into their preconceived template; teachers who liked to form their opinions of me based on an encyclopedia of biased test results. Teachers that loved to slap a label on each student. In fact, it seemed the teachers were baffled by anyone without a label. It confused them, made them uncomfortable.
I apparently was difficult to label, not that they didn’t try. They told my father I had disabilities that were “not readily apparent”. They were driven by some internal obsession to isolate and tag these so-called “disabilities”. Hours and hours of my school days were devoted to finding appropriate labels for me. At times, this effort on the part of my educators actually absorbed more of their time and energy than did my regular instruction. I have been tested more times in more different ways in one year than most students in a lifetime. I knew these tests were for the purpose of finding something wrong with me, some new flaw, some previously undetected defect. I hated this negative scrutiny. I hated it so much that I continue to have test anxiety to this day. I’m not sure how to overcome it, or if I ever will.
I remember my father’s decision to remove me from special education. Being teased and tormented by other students for being in a Learning Disabled class was taking a toll on me. They called me the Living Dead, got quite a kick out of it at my expense, tripped me, threw things at me, taunted me. Teachers turned a blind eye, ignored my distress, refused to intervene. I became introverted, shy. I dreaded school, hated it with a bitter passion. This upset my father as much as discovering that I had almost no basic math skills and could only read at a first grade level. He was sick with the knowledge that my time in class had been so wasted and it broke his heart to learn about the bullying.
I was too young to understand the politics of education and the financial boon to schools offered by special education. Schools had a vested interest in labeling students “learning disabled.” I didn’t know about these things, but my father did. When he informed the school counselor that he wanted me returned to regular classes, the man made a personal visit to our home to discuss it.
He came armed with test results that he felt proved his point that I was defective, and he sat at the kitchen table with my father with scores and DAP results, ready to excoriate my intellect. My father challenged him.
“So I see here that you asked my daughter what we breathe and she said ‘oxygen’. You counted that as a wrong answer.” My dad glared at the counselor.
“Of course it’s wrong. The answer should have been ‘air’,” the counselor replied. He pasted on his reasonable face and took his reasonable tone, sighing with longsuffering patience.
“What is air made of?” my father asked him. He didn’t immediately answer, so my father continued, “I am sure you know it’s made mostly of nitrogen and oxygen.”
“Sure, yes. So what?” The counselor rolled his eyes.
“So which part of that mix is transferred in the lungs to the blood stream?” My dad asked.
“I know what you’re trying to do here.” Offended now, he shoved his glasses higher on his nose.
“Just answer the question. Which part is transferred to the blood stream?” My father frowned at him. “I guess you don’t want to admit it’s oxygen, so I’ll say it for you. We breathe oxygen. Maggie had the answer right, but you counted it wrong. Are you that desperate for special education funding that you have to distort her test results? Do you realize you are also skewing my daughter’s future, and all for the almighty buck? If that doesn’t matter to you, then you have no place in education.”
The counselor’s face turned red and he struggled to contain his temper.
“I want my daughter out of your LD class and into regular class starting right now.” My dad put his foot down. “Whatever goes on in that LD room, it isn’t teaching. She doesn’t know basic math and is behind in reading. I want her back in a regular classroom.”
“Let’s discuss her other tests before you make up your mind,” the counselor put forth. “There are psychological considerations with Maggie, too.” He pulled a drawing I had made of a person. “Look at her Draw A Person test. It’s obvious from the skinny legs that she feels a lack of support and stability in her life and needs the protected environment of the LD room.”
“You’ve got to be kidding me!” Dad gave the man a look of amazement. “You think you can tell all that from a kid’s drawing? You’re really reaching now, aren’t you? That’s pretty pathetic.”
“Fine.” The counselor gathered his papers in a huff. “You can take her out of LD but even if she passes, we will fail her. We’ll hold her back. It’s in her best interests to do so. She can’t compete in a regular classroom.”
“If she can’t compete, it’s because your school hasn’t prepared her to compete.”
I could fill volumes with examples of this type of attitude on the part of my teachers, counselors and administrators. From the principal who wouldn’t stop a bully from slamming me around because ‘I don’t want to take a chance on depriving her of an important stage in her social development’ to the testers who marked my answers wrong because, even though they were technically correct, they ‘just aren’t what I’m looking for in an answer’.
So, happy as I was to be out of the classroom with the smelly obese LD teacher who made me mindlessly copy the dictionary for hours on end, and the rowdy kids with behavior problems, and the poor girl who sat nearly comatose in her wheelchair the entire day; I was also a little afraid. I wondered if the kids in regular class would keep picking on me. They did.
The work in regular class was confusing. All the other kids knew things I had never been taught. Although my dad patiently sat with me through hours of homework every night, it was so difficult to try and catch up on all I had missed. I had never worked so hard in my life as I did that semester. At the end of the year, I passed all my subjects. But true to his word, the spiteful counselor had me held back anyway.
Before school started again that fall, my dad had me tutored. Then he enrolled me in a private school where I enjoyed some academic success for the first time in my life. Unfortunately, we moved shortly after that and I found myself back in the public system, meeting and butting heads with the same vapid ‘educators’ who once again tried to find appropriate labels for me. They had access to my old school records, and my past followed me around like a disease.
I determined to give it my best effort, but early on realized that my best effort is not what they wanted. Not only were most of my teachers extremely negative, but they tried very hard to push me into a box, some invisible construct they used to define ‘normal’. Rarely did any of them offer encouragement or even guidance when I had a question. I learned not to ask questions. I learned if I did a very good job, I would be accused of cheating. If I did a poor job, I would be labeled stupid. I never seemed to get the knack of doing a mediocre job so I would be left alone.
My dad was consumed with remorse. “I’m so sorry, angel,” he told me. “It’s my fault for putting you into school too early. If I would’ve given it one more year, you would have done just fine. Then these special ed goons wouldn’t have gotten their hands on you.”
I knew why he put me in school early. Money. I didn’t blame him. Daycare was expensive and a single parent doesn’t always have a lot of options.
By middle school, I crept around in an oversized jacket, shoulders hunched and hair hanging in front of my face, trying to be invisible. I had no confidence at all, which is like blood in the water for the sharks. The taunting from my peers became more vitriolic and my misery more intense. My schoolwork, already bordering on unacceptable, disintegrated. At times, I wanted to die.
I still see those teachers and counselors from my past as greed-filled ghouls rubbing their hands in avaricious delight as they scored my tests, salivating over the prospect of identifying (or manufacturing, if necessary) profitable defects in me that would bring special ed dollars rolling into their district. Never mind that they were saddling me with negative labels that would haunt me until adulthood, destroying my self-image, and setting me up as a target for abuse by the ‘normal’ students. None of that seemed to matter to them. I don’t know which excited them more, being able to justify their self-centered and undeserved feelings of superiority, or the fact that my humiliation would line their coffers.
Once I turned eighteen, I obtained my GED and gratefully put school behind me forever. I am through being made to feel bad about myself. I thought it would be a cold day in Hell before I put myself through that kind of torture again. Years of bullying. Years of constant scrutiny and having my every word or move analyzed. Years of being made to feel stupid. Years of low expectations and learned helplessness. Years of being coached in the self-fulfilling prophesy of failure. No, there was little chance I would ever voluntarily walk into a school again.
A decade later, however, I had a change of heart. I decided I wanted to better my life. From a mature perspective, I realized I need a degree to get a decent job. I determined I would give college a chance.
“College is not like elementary school, or even high school for that matter.” My father encouraged me. “You’ll like it. College professors want their students to succeed. They really try to help you, don’t put you down.” I became excited at the prospect of academic success. I wanted to know what it felt like.
So here I was, now faced with another snotty academic who denigrated my abilities and lorded his attitude over me. Those old lessons of shame, embarrassment, and sadness flared up in me again. The next paper I did for this pompous ass was one not nearly as good as the previous one. I was intimidated by the man now, nervous and worried about how to write in a way he would approve. I did a less than perfect job, not because I wanted a bad grade, but because I was insecure. I not only experienced the old test anxiety, but the student/teacher relationship with this professor seemed irreversibly poisoned. I could live with a B or even a C, I guessed. I reasoned if I didn’t try very hard, he couldn’t possibly accuse me of plagiarism this time.
He didn’t. Instead what he did was give me a D on the paper. I could have wept from disappointment and frustration. His assessment of my paper was so scathing, it nearly took my breath away. Good thing this professor didn’t go into medicine. His patients would probably die from the sheer affront of his caustic bedside manner and the negativity that dripped from him like a toxin.
That aside, I had gone in a few short weeks from an A to a D. My college experience was beginning to feel a lot like my early school experiences.
This same English professor handed out a class schedule and syllabus at the beginning of the year. Interestingly, this paragon of English excellence failed to proofread his own writing. It was rife with typos and errors, which I found ironic, and I was tempted to point them out to him. However, I knew that would only result in even more animosity from the man. I couldn’t sacrifice my future for the momentary satisfaction of pointing out his mistakes. He could fail me out of spite. It had happened to me before.
Once again, someone else held power over me, rendering me helpless.
My hopes for college have been pretty well dashed upon the rocks of a bad teacher’s ego. Tenure keeps this failure of a human being employed in a position where he can do immeasurable damage to the scores of students who have the misfortune to pass through his classes.
Tenure. You know what tenure is? Tenure is this: Just act nice for a few years, and then you can be an ass for the rest of your life and still keep your job. Not too many regular people can get a deal like that.
I am discouraged enough that I want to quit. But I won’t quit; I will succeed. I will see my name on a college diploma someday, I promise myself.
However, when this does happen, it won’t be because of my teachers. It will have to be in spite of them.
While this story is fictional, it is based on sickening realities in our public school system.