I originally shared this story on my old blog in June 2017.
Like everyone who’s been through school, I’ve dealt with a variety of teachers, good and bad. I’ve had teachers who guided me in my writing career and through my chronic illness struggles, and I’ve had teachers who mistreated and disrespected students and who were terrible at actually educating. As a chronically ill person, I’ve also dealt with a variety of ableism. But the worst–or at least most ridiculous–example of both ableism and teacher misconduct that I’ve personally experienced is that of Kevin and his calculator.
One of the two colleges I attended was BYU – Idaho. My first semester there, I had a religion teacher whom I did not much like. Many of the worst teachers I’ve dealt with have been inflexible people. In general, inflexibility is a toxic trait because we are all different people with our own paths in life, our own best ways of doing things, and it’s important to accept and affirm that. With teachers, inflexibility is especially bad because education is so important and, at the same time, a one-size-fits-all system.
This religion professor may have been the most inflexible (and self-righteous) person I have ever met. He had an extremely black-and-white way of looking at things–and I say this as someone who was first diagnosed with religious OCD during this particular semester. His assignments were pedantic busy work that displayed no trust in his students’ intelligence or spiritual capacity. He said things like that we would see who was “truly righteous” by whether they chose to watch the Super Bowl on a Sunday. Another time, he said that “disabled people feel entitled.” I wish I had seen that as the warning sign it was.
During the first week of school, as is usual for disabled students, I’d had to work out a set of accommodations with the Disability Office. As was usual for the first and last weeks of school, I had been very sick. While I’d been in the Disability Office, I’d ended up in tears because of how much pain I’d been in. (They’d encouraged me then to get medical help, which had come in the form of a steroid injection in the butt–a truly delightful experience.)
The accommodation that I used most often while in school was a Kindle for my textbooks so that I wouldn’t have to carry around the too-heavy weight of physical textbooks with my fragile, exhausted body. I was allowed to use this Kindle in classes as an exception to the usual no-electronics policy. When I had given the religion professor the official letter stating that I would be using a Kindle for my texts, he had accepted that with little issue. His dislike of electronics, however, had been quite clear throughout the semester.
Also throughout the semester, we’d had open book quizzes at home on our readings in the Mormon scriptures. This required us to page through those scriptures to find direct quotes and minor details. Thinking that the professor understood I did not use physical books, I had used my Kindle for these quizzes–which, admittedly, made it easier to find those pieces of information. I’d aced all the quizzes, which was not something unusual for me. I always did well in school.
Two weeks before the end of the semester, however, the professor called me into his office.
“You’ve been getting better grades than anyone on the quizzes,” he said, “and you finish them very quickly.”
I nodded, unsure where was this was going.
“Have you been cheating?” he asked.
I was blindsided by the accusation. I’d been given hints over the years that teachers might think I was cheating, but my clear integrity and intelligence had prevented any true accusation.
“I’m sorry?” I said to the religion teacher.
“Have you been using your Kindle to take the quizzes?”
I stared at him. “Yes. They’re open book, aren’t they?”
“Yes, but that means a physical copy of the book.”
I shook my head, confused. “But I have a disability accommodation. I told you that at the beginning of the semester. I use my Kindle for my scriptures. I haven’t used anything else on the quizzes, just the scriptures.”
“The rules clearly state ‘no electronics.’ So I’m giving you a chance to correct this without going to the Honor Code Office. What do you think your grades would be if you hadn’t used electronic scriptures?”
I was not prepared for this, in part because I had been diagnosed only eleven weeks ago with a form of OCD that focused on moral and religious issues. I tended to mistrust myself and to become deeply self-hating when faced with the possibility of having done something wrong. However, I knew that what this professor was saying made no sense. My Kindle was a disability accommodation. I did not have physical scriptures. How could using electronic scriptures on an open book test be cheating?
Though we went back and forth a bit, the professor was unwavering. He showed no understanding of the unique circumstances. A part of me was almost impressed by his manipulative way of speaking to me and his insistence on posing himself as a magnanimous figure. I eventually gave in and told him that maybe I would have gotten Bs? It was impossible for me to know, but like I said, I was good at school. He accepted that, though with a suspicious look, and I stumbled away crying.
After processing what had happened, with the help of a typical I-have-a-problem-and-no-one-here-to-ask call to my mom, I decided that I needed to push back more. Now that I was away from the immediate shock and could express myself via writing, maybe I could explain in a way the professor would understand. I sent an email to him, my mother, and the Disability Office that I hoped would straighten things out.
Instead, I received a flurry of berating replies. As my mom and I tried to work things out with the Disability Office, the professor repeatedly threatened me with the Honor Code Office, called me a cheater and a liar, and wrote things like, “the guilty taketh the truth to be hard” and “you and God and I know the truth.” I could hardly believe that a fully grown man was speaking this way to one of his students.
I would have given up sooner, especially since I still had an A in the class, but my counselor and my mom encouraged me to continue. Even my dad called the professor “a disconsolate ass,” which was oddly heartening, since my family didn’t allow cursing. We all agreed that what the professor was doing was wrong, and other students needed protection from that kind of behavior. So I continued sending emails throughout the week.
The Disability Office, however, proved to be exceptionally unhelpful, stating that it had been my responsibility to communicate to the professor about my accommodations. Since we had never explicitly agreed that I would be using my Kindle on tests, they couldn’t do anything. Perhaps that was true, but they had to see how inappropriate this all was, didn’t they? I had forwarded all of the professor’s emails to them.
Without structural support, and with my mental health quickly degrading under the stress of this, I finally decided to let the issue go. I sent an email to everyone stating so, though I again pointed out the unique circumstances and the importance of supporting disabled students. The professor replied thanking me for owning up to my cheating and doing the right thing, having clearly not understood any of my points.
I thought it was over. But the next day, in our first religion class during the very last week of school, the professor went off-syllabus with an unexpected case study. He projected it up on the board. It read something like this:
Then the professor had the entire class discuss “Kevin” and his cheating ways.
As I sat there, listening to everyone talk about how “Kevin” was a terrible person for refusing to admit his wrongs in using a “calculator,” I had no words. To set aside one of the last class periods to target me, using my unsuspecting peers, and again without acknowledging that teeny tiny detail of my disability accommodation, right after I had let the complaint go, was astounding. Part of me wanted to cry, but things had drifted so far from logical reality that I mostly wanted to laugh. The immaturity! The manipulativeness! The utter audacity!
The professor brought up the issue again briefly the next class period, and then, the semester was over. I considered filing a complaint higher up, but I honestly didn’t want to waste more time, effort, and mental health on a man who, I now saw, was incapable of seeing shades of grey. No matter what I tried, he wasn’t going to acknowledge my point. I knew the truth, and that would have to be enough.
Me and God, but apparently, not him.
After that semester, I was sure to use Rate My Professors before signing up for any classes. In a later year, I came across the professor with his latest religion class, which included a blind student, and I winced. I could only pray that the student would make it through without too much struggle.
This professor is still teaching religion at BYU – Idaho to this day.
In retrospect, I wish I’d had the resources, emotionally and externally, to continue fighting his mistreatment and apparent ableism. It hurts to think of all the students who are under his power, possibly being manipulated and degraded like I was. But this all happened in 2014, and I don’t have the emails anymore. Perhaps the school does. I don’t know. I suspect that all I can do is hope that either this professor has significantly changed or a future student who does have the resources will succeed at pushing back.
One of the most important lessons I learned that semester is that rules on their own have no meaning. To follow rules, without question, is to ignore the fact that each rule should stem from an underlying principle.
The principle is what has meaning. Too often, we ignore that principle and let ourselves be controlled by the rule instead, even when it becomes arbitrary or hurtful. When you look at the rules, you see black and white. When you look at the principles, you begin to understand in true color, and then, you are enabled to follow the rules with greater purpose. You become a better, more educated person. You learn how to balance justice and mercy.
There was none of that balance in how this professor treated me.
Images via trustedreviews.com, pedro_wroclaw on Pixabay, and my own files.