I have seen some shady shit as a student and educator over the years. Between my middle school and high school magnet programs in Money Earnin’ Mount Vernon, my four years as an undergrad at the University of Pittsburgh, my three years of grad school course work at Pitt and at Carnegie Mellon, and my years of contingent teaching, I have seen students do everything short of killing me or killing their classmates for a higher grade.
This semester provided some new wrinkles (really, old wrinkles I haven’t seen since my Humanities days in the 1980s) that actually shocked me. All as I taught my 77th, 78th, 79th, and 80th classes in my roller-coaster of a teaching career. I have felt a certain way toward some of my most demanding, hold-my-hand-for-an-A, spoiled-brat students over the years. This semester, I found myself actually despising three in particular across two universities and four classes. By no means does my grading reflect what I think of them, as I assigned each of them the grades they earned. But really, there is no letter in the alphabet low enough for them that I could assign. At least, one in which I would ever feel fully satisfied. And that is all because they all made the decision to be cut-throat, toward me and toward their peers.
I fully understand the compulsion. Six years in a magnet program that was one part Benetton commercial and three parts Death Race — the Jason Statham version from 2008 — showed me George Orwell’s Animal Farm as a live-action drama set from 1981 to 1987. Students giving each other incorrect notes from which to study. Classmates telling each other they were going to fail a final, or that they didn’t belong in Humanities. One Class of ’87 star making sure to say to another that they were only getting into an elite school because they were Black.
Hazing, bullying, torture, ostracism, denigration were all part of my experience, and that was before we started taking AP courses! I even snickered when our valedictorian received a 67 on an English essay in 11th grade because she failed to underline the title of a James Baldwin book (either Go Tell It on the Mountain or The Fire Next Time, who can remember such mundanity nearly 34 years later). We became good friends for a while after high school — go figure!
So, it’s not like I couldn’t conceive of setting up a classmate to fail, using someone else’s better words to substitute for my gross and imperfect writing, or spending money to hire a tutor to study for an AP exam. I could’ve really done it, if I had the will and/or the wealth. I just wouldn’t do it. You know, “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.” It’s in Matthews, the first book of the Gospels in the New Testament. It’s one of the few tenets that I have tried hard to follow in all my years as a human being and as a Christian. (The tenets I follow consistently are universal ones, so please do not get your atheistic drawers all twisted.)
But not always. During finals week my second semester at Pitt, at the end of April 1988, I put that Golden Rule aside, and for good reason. During our two-hour, multiple-choice final exam in Roman History, I noticed him. A skinny, geeky White yinzer with dirty blond hair sitting behind me in the Cathedral of Learning lecture hall on the ground floor. I noticed him because I heard him, somewhere around the question 70 mark. The only time his pencil made a noise was after I had filled in a bubble with an answer. By question 75, I knew the dumb mf was cheating off my answer sheet.
So I did what my years in Mount Vernon and in Humanities had trained me for. I proceeded to answer the next 25 questions on this 100-question exam incorrectly on purpose. It was rich and dripping with caramel-chocolate-on-ripe-strawberries revenge! I knew every correct answer and just kept bubbling in one wrong one after another. And as sure as dog-shit peppering dirty snow piles on Manhattan’s Upper West Side in February, Mr. Yinzer bubbled in his answers right after mine.
Then, I stopped. I paused for a half-minute after bubbling in question 100. I picked up my big eraser, and frantically rubbed out my incorrect answers to each of those last 25 questions. Then I turned around, and gave the yinzer a “Gotcha!” look. He was pissed and scared, his face the pale color of white pastel paint mixed with water. I turned back around, and carefully bubbled in my correct answers for the last quarter of the exam.
After I got up to submit my exam to the professor, I walked up the steps toward the back of the lecture hall, passing Mr. Yinzer along the way. He shot me a look, one where he knew he was caught, like a rat in an old-style trap, about to die from the pain of asphyxiation and a broken neck. I rolled my eyes with the thought, That’s what you get, dumb muthafucka!
I am not proud of that moment. Sure, the yinzer deserved it. But, I could’ve reported it to the professor. I could have just covered my answer sheet up better. I could have confronted the student directly. I could have even let the student ride my coattails toward an A on his final exam. Instead, I went all cut-throat and ensured that this student failed his final. In what way am I really better than him when I helped an academically drowning classmate swallow more water while holding his head down?
I know. What I did may seem milquetoast on the scale between blatant cheating and the viral slut-shaming of a peer with whom you are in academic competition. But that’s the point. None of this should be acceptable. My A in the course would not have changed, and Mr. Yinzer would still have struggled academically even if had succeeded at cheating on this one exam.
At just 10 days before I turn 50, I have figured out what I hate, actually hate, about other humans. I hate habitual liars, especially the ones who regularly lie to themselves while telling me their lies. I hate elitist assholery, even from those whom I admire, even from among my friends. I hate cheating, and those who think they can get away with it. I hate brown-nosing, as I smell this shit from a mile away. Now, I despise those who would eat A’s and A-‘s for their three squares a day before recognizing that education is about much more than a high grade an a job to pay off their student loans. Education is about freedom, having and making good choices, and finding yourself a crew that you can rely on and can rely on you long after graduation. Those who think otherwise are as lost as Dr. Manhattan caught in a quantum vortex.