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My Last Witness

guest post

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.”

“OK.”

“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.

Silence.

“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-headshot

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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5 Comments

  1. Avatar
    BJW

    Wow! Amazing story. Christians like her were okay with plagiarizing? It sounds very suspicious. Did you wonder if she told a lie and hadn’t really helped Alex, but was just fishing for a reason to get a better grade?

  2. Avatar
    Karen the rock whisperer

    Students.

    I went for a BS right out of college, worked for a couple of decades, took time off to care for parents, and then went back to a different university (the commuter school where my husband and I live) for an MS in a different field. I had to take a lot of upper-division classes to fix my lack of background in my new field, so I hung around for a few years, and being middle-aged made it easy to make friends with some faculty members who themselves were navigating middle age (or who’d already done that). I heard stories. Oh, my, stories. The common theme seemed to be that students were attending college for the singular purpose of getting a job they could tolerate, in a field that paid adequately. Therefore, there was no sin/crime/misbehavior in doing whatever it took. Plagiarism, cheating on exams, perturbing lab samples to misdirect other students in curve-graded classes, stealing answer sheets from the library so other students couldn’t learn from their mistakes, on and on. Lies and more lies.

    I remember one professor who figured it was a good semester when he only had to fail two students for repeated plagiarism. My own thesis adviser created two copies of every exam in his non-majors classes, with questions in different orders, to pass out to even and odd rows in the classroom. (Majors classes rarely had more than fifteen people, so students could simply be spaced out enough to make cheating difficult.) Some students argued every grade on every assignment or exam, though rarely with any justification. I finally finished my thesis and graduated, having learned far more than I wanted to know about my fellow students.

  3. Avatar
    Darcy Walker

    She flirts with a male professor AND name-drops Jesus? Gosh, WWJD, huh?
    Yeah, I also thought she could be lying about helping the other student.

  4. Avatar
    MJ Lisbeth

    BJW and Darcy—Almost immediately after she left the room, I suspected she was lying. (I came to be all but certain she was.) That is why I didn’t report her: If she recanted, it would have given her an opening to fabricate something else, possibly about me.

    During the first year or two I lived as a woman, more female students tried to charm me—including one who wanted me to convince a male professor to change her grade in his course—than at any time before or since. For a time, a few male students tried to do the same. Thankfully, it’s been a while since anyone has tried.

    Karen—I could write a book about students’ stunts. I could write a longer (and possibly better) book about the shenanigans of academic administrators.

    Obstacle—“I’m too pretty to get a ticket.” Who knows what other situations she’s navigated —or “souls” she’s “won”—by leaning and batting her eyelashes?

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Bruce Gerencser