Guest post from C Streetlights, author of the amazing memoir, Tea and Madness and the upcoming Black Sheep Rising, out very soon from ShadowTeams NYC!
I regretted Freshman English the moment my professor opened his mouth and asked us to call him “Chuck”. I didn’t have to be there; I had AP’d out, meaning I earned a 5 on the AP English Exam. I was known as a “Fiver” in that area of Orange County, during a time when The OC was a geographic location and not a sensationalized television show. One of the benefits of being a Fiver meant not having to take Freshman English at the junior college I attended soon after high school graduation. However I had my eye on transferring to a university, and that university would give me far more general election credits for my 5 than my junior college. I endured Chuck so that I could trade my 5 for more advanced classes later.
I would repeat that strategy to myself as being “worth it” throughout the semester whenever Chuck would assign us to attend one of his art openings at a local mall – or fail. Or whenever he would remind us of how many times students had given him perfect evaluations. And every time he would belittle a student in the classroom. Including me.
Chuck loved to question the authenticity of my 5 on the AP English Exam, something that I never divulged to him and still have no idea how he knew. He took a strange delight in highlighting every single comma splice – my weakness in writing – in my papers with a yellow marker and asking me how I managed to pass the exam let alone earn a 5 when I couldn’t write a single paper without any comma splices. I was just 17-years old at the time and ill-prepared to defend myself against such a person. Nor should I have had to.
Yet, my temper always simmered below the surface. I watched him “lecture” – always more his own personal philosophies on life rather than actual instruction – through narrowed eyes, and I refused to join his fawning crowd. I have never fallen into sycophancy well, and this was a man who collected toadies like some collect Pokeman Cards.
The course material was simple, but I didn’t complain. I completed the assigned reading and annotated my textbooks as required. I participated in group discussions, never dominating and never staying silent – the perfect balance. I had the correct answers when Chuck called on me. It infuriated that he only had comma splices on me, and even those were disappearing the more I wrote and improved my writing. It didn’t matter to him. Whenever possible Chuck reminded me that my writing was subpar, would always be nothing more than mediocre, and that I wouldn’t ever survive an English major. According to him, I just wouldn’t ever be able to keep up with the writing that is expected from someone pursuing any sort of Bachelor of Arts degree. It was a long semester.
We were assigned an analysis paper for our final exam in which we were to select a short story from a list Chuck gave us and then analyze it in some way. We had to make it seriously to avoid experiencing bombed a test in college. I also wrote an analysis paper on John Steinbeck’s story “The Chrysanthemums” from a feminist criticism and point of view.
This was the 1990s. An antiquated time with no internet and no Google. The ability to use the college’s computer to look up resources at another college was nothing short of miraculous. The card catalogue was made up of actual cards. My classmates and I had didn’t have Sparks Notes available to us. We were the Sparks Notes. It was a simpler time.
Even then I knew my paper on “The Chrysanthemums” was my best. Steinbeck’s characterization of the female protagonist and her change from being unrecognized as a woman by her husband, a woman whose passion is limited to her care and nurturing of her chrysanthemums, is written in a way can only be Steinbeck’s writing. It’s been more than 20 years since I have written that paper, but I can still remember my argument that Steinbeck uses the female protagonist to demonstrate how women are largely underappreciated as intellectual equals to men and they aren’t able to freely express their sexuality without risking emotional and physical consequences.
It was a damn good paper that earned an F from Chuck. The first F I had ever earned in anything other than PE, which is another story for another time.
He dropped my paper on my desk last on the day he returned papers to all of us. The F was, of course, written in stereotypic red ink at the top of the title page. Beneath it he wrote casually, “You must cite all your sources. It’s obvious this is not your work.” I was stunned. Chuck accused me of cheating. I could feel the tears stinging my eyes, the first in the entire semester. I endured his taunts and insults the entire time I was in his class with as much grace and dignity a 17-year old girl could be expected to withstand, but this was far too much.
My words have always been my words. And [clickToTweet tweet=”I have always respected the work of others, even if I didn’t respect the person who spoke them.” quote=”I have always respected the work of others, even if I didn’t respect the person who spoke them.”]
I was angry.
I walked up to Chuck, not caring that class was about to start. “Show me one time in this paper where I stole someone’s material,” I challenged him, throwing the paper onto his desk. He stared at me.
“The whole thing,” he said.
“You’re saying I stole the entire paper,” I said to him evenly. The entire class was watching us.
Chuck was upset that I was challenging him. “Yes,” he said, crossing his arms. “I am. I don’t believe you wrote this at all.”
I called his bluff. “Prove it. Pull up all the sources I listed in the works cited page and compare them to what I’ve written. Prove I stole it.”
“I am sure you copied it from another source other than what you listed in the back,” Chuck said.
“So you’re saying that I went through the trouble of finding some other source to copy, then listed another set of sources in my works cited page, and then made sure that the direct quotes I used in my paper were also in the same source I copied and also in my works cited page.” The ridiculous idea sounded even more absurd when I said it out loud. “I’ve kept every paper written in this class, Mr. W,” refusing to call him Chuck. “I earned an A or B on all of them. All of them were cited correctly. Why would I suddenly plagiarise the final paper?”
He wouldn’t answer but his eyes were furious. I didn’t care. I was so tired of his bullying not only me but also my classmates. I thought of the lady whose period started and had to leave class early, and how Chuck made fun of her after she left. I thought of the guy who had to miss class one day because he was in jail – something none of us needed to know but something Chuck made sure we all did.
I left my paper on the table in front of him. “I expect a fair grade by next class.” I sat back down thinking of how my dad would kill me if he knew what I just did. He always told me to not rock the boat, and sometimes I just have to jump through the hoops. I was surprised when he said just one word to me after I broke the news to him in case I failed Freshman English, “Good.”
Surprisingly I learned a lot from Chuck. I learned that when it mattered most I would stand up for myself. I learned that sticking with something could sometimes be worth it – when I transferred to the university of my choice taking Freshman English allowed me to use my AP for almost 15 other credits while studying there. I also learned that there while there are times to go ahead and jump the hoop or not rock the boat, there were other times to burn the bridge and refuse to go along with something.
I also improved on comma splices, so there’s that.
After writing and illustrating her first bestseller in second grade, “The Lovely Unicorn”, C. Streetlights took twenty years to decide if she wanted to continue writing. In the time known as growing up she became a teacher, a wife, and mother. Retired from teaching, C. Streetlights now lives with her family in the mountains along with their dog that eats Kleenex. Her new memoir, Tea and Madness is now available.
You can follow C. Streetlights on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, and Goodreads.
Purchase Broken Pieces and Broken Places on Amazon now! Learn more about all of Rachel’s books here. Connect with Rachel for social media services on BadRedheadMedia.com.
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Melissa Flickinger saysMay 21, 2016 at 8:20 am
Great post, C!
C. Streetlights saysMay 21, 2016 at 4:58 pm
Thanks Melissa! xo
Mary Rowen saysMay 21, 2016 at 3:10 pm
This is awesome, C. You rock for standing up to Chuck.And also for recognizing him for what he was when you were so young. I feel bad for the kids who can’t see through people like that.
C. Streetlights saysMay 21, 2016 at 5:00 pm
Thank you, Mary. Chuck was a ding dong and unbelievably he’s still teaching there, so I guess his art career hasn’t quite taken off yet. I still haven’t mastered the whole “sucking up” thing but I’m okay with that 😉
Kim saysMay 23, 2016 at 3:56 am
C. Streetlights saysMay 23, 2016 at 7:10 pm
Thank you for visiting! I was glad to say adios! to Chuck, that’s for sure.
Juli Monroe saysMay 23, 2016 at 9:34 am
Wow. Great story, and awesome that you stood up to the oaf!
I have my own tale of a similar situation where I wrote a paper using my father (who was an expert in the field in question) as a primary source. I made certain to cite him correctly and used other sources. I didn’t get an F (a B, I think), but at the top of my paper he wrote, “Did you write this or did your father?”
The last lecture of the class proceeded to show his ignorance as he discussed information several decades out of date where my paper was absolutely current. It was my first and last Poli Sci class. My parents were disappointed, but the experience totally soured me on the subject.
C. Streetlights saysMay 23, 2016 at 7:15 pm
And isn’t that unfortunate? Teachers — and even professors — should be excited at the prospect of a student having access to such an awesome primary source. How often can that possibly be the case? That should have been acknowledged and even encouraged. Instead, teachers are threatened by students having opportunities to engage with an outside source that can be considered more knowledgeable than they are. I came across this all the time when I taught at a university; my colleagues enjoyed having students thinking they were the “experts” in the field. That soured me on teaching at the university level.
Barbara Radisavljevic saysNovember 15, 2016 at 12:15 am
I felt every bit of this with you as I read it. You had to have been burning inside with the injustice of the accusation. But I’ve got to know. Did he ever change your grade?