Guest Post by MJ Lisbeth
In previous essays, I’ve talked about sexual abuse by a priest and other misfortunes that were related, directly or tangentially, to the Roman Catholicism in which I was raised and the Evangelical Christianity of my early adulthood. Still, in some ways, I’m lucky: It’s been a while since anyone has made a full-on effort at “witnessing,” proselytizing, or converting me to any system of belief.
One of the last real attempts was made by a student during my first year of living and working as a woman. As far as anyone knew, I was the first faculty member to make such a “transition” (which I now call my affirmation) and within seconds, or so it seemed, of announcing my intention, everyone in the college knew about it. Some saw me as a novelty; others, I felt, were genuinely supportive; still others said all the right things to my face. And a few, maybe more, thought I’d see the “error” of my ways.
Two in the latter category were waiting for me to end my “experiment:” a gay male professor and a gay male student who were convinced that I would realize that I was really one of them. But I was in my mid-forties and had been through more than a few “experiments” in my time—including, I am ashamed to say, a marriage—which, if nothing else, taught me what I’m not. Others included a female faculty member whose flirtation I’d reciprocated during the previous year, even though, naturally, I had no intention of pursuing anything else with her.
Oh, and there were a few female students who tried to appeal to the twilight of my maleness. When I taught as a man, more than a few students—mostly female, but a few males—tried to pique my interest, shall we say. Now, I don’t think I was, or am, particularly attractive, though in those days, I was in really good shape. (Cycling!) A few students, I know, were trying to appeal to me, if subliminally, in a sexual way to win my sympathy, an extension on a deadline or a higher grade. Others, though, saw me as the male figure they’d never had in their lives. “You’re the first man who really listened to me” said a night student in a job and marriage that exploited her. Still another interrupted the advice I was giving her about her essay to exclaim, “You’re looking into my eyes!” I apologized. “No, it’s OK,” she explained. “Most men look at my body, at my breasts.”
Years later, I would glance into Glenda’s eyes — by which, I must say, I could see why more than a few people were mesmerized. (Think of Gigi Hadid.) We were discussing one of her assignments and she noticed, as many other people have, that I make a fair amount of eye contact, mostly to gauge how, or whether, someone has received what I’ve said or conveyed. (People have also noticed that I pay attention to facial expressions and body language, which may be a result of some of my experiences.) But if I was looking for a gateway to Glenda’s mind, she was seeing my glance as an opening.
“You know, the enemy is deceiving you.”
I asked her to explain.
“You know, The Enemy.”
It was 2004: The Cold War was more than a decade past and China wasn’t on most people’s radar. “Who do you mean?”
She sighed. “Satan.”
I politely explained that, as our relationship was professional and we were working in a state-sponsored secular educational institution, I couldn’t discuss religious beliefs. (Truth is, I didn’t want to.) Trying to make her condescension seem like concern, she intoned, “Don’t let him fool you.’
Over the course of the semester, I met with her several times. Her work was average, maybe a bit better, but she was consistent and diligent. And she made as much use as anyone has of my office hours. She made a lot of eye contact, most of it, I realized, not instigated by me. She leaned on my desk and, I noticed that over the course of the semester her attire had become, shall we say, more tailored. During our discussions of her work, she dropped in comments about “the Lord,” “my Savior” and “Jesus.”
At the end of our last class, she barged in front of me and flashed her final paper. “I have to talk to you about this.”
“I deserve a better grade.” (She got a C-)
“All right. Tell me why. Did I miss something?”
“I know I should have gotten a better grade.”
Mustering my patience, I asked her to kindly explain herself.
“I know I should get a better grade.”
“Please, tell me why.”
A long silence.
“I know I’m not perfect. Tell me what you think I missed.”
Another silence. “Look, I’ve graded hundreds, maybe thousands, of papers and assignments. Nobody could be right every single time. Nor could I. So, perhaps, I was wrong. But I’m not seeing it. I was hoping you could explain.”
Still another silence. “I just know I deserve better grade.”
Once again, I politely asked her to explain.
“Alex (not his real name) got a B.”
He’d struggled early and I wondered whether he’d make it through the semester. But I saw gradual improvement that could have been explained by sessions in the college’s writing center or other extra effort. I said as much to Glenda.
I saw a tear roll from the corner of her left eye. I tried to soften my tone as I said, “Well, his hard work is showing some results.”
“I helped him,” she blurted.
“W-what do you mean?”
“I helped him.”
“How did he get a better grade than you?”
“I wrote his paper.”
“OK. Maybe I’m not the smartest person in the world. I don’t understand. How did he get a better grade than you?”
Her faucet opened. “I was just trying to help him like God wanted me to!” she wailed.
“God wanted you to cheat?”
“No, the Lord wanted me to help him. When I finished his paper, I didn’t have enough time to finish my paper.”
I waited for her to ask for a chance to revise her work. Thankfully, she didn’t. I was about to order her out of the room. Thankfully, I didn’t have to: she left. I never heard from her — nor about The Enemy or her Lord — again.
Bruce Gerencser, 65, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 44 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.
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