Four essays, three professors, over three or four months, and Jerome was beginning to think it really was a conspiracy.
Mrs. Langdon was this week’s’ opponent. She was young, and probably pretty in another life. In this one she sat across the desk from him with a mouth like she’d been chewing the essays she was supposed to grade.
“I don’t know what to tell you, Mr. Hawkins.” She had a millefiori glass paperweight on her desk, she fondled it while she spoke. “The rubric was very clear. If you don’t do the work, you can’t expect the grade.”
Jerome bit back a smile. It was really just too absurd. “Ma’am, I think you’ll find I followed the rubric to the letter. If it’s about content—”
“I said content wasn’t a factor, didn’t I? Your citations weren’t in order.”
“My citations?” Was it really going to be this easy? Garner had been careful not to give him anything concrete. “Which citations are in the wrong, if you don’t mind me asking?”
“You didn’t use the correct ones.” Langdon found a pen to tap while she looked on her desk for something.
“Which? I have parenthetical, I have the bibliography, it’s even in alphabetical order.”
“You chose the wrong style guide, Mr. Hawkins.” Now Langdon rolled the pen in her fingers, looking discomfited. She should. If she had said the sources were improperly cited, he would have had a much harder time disproving it. Now it was all Jerome could do to keep from smiling.
“Which style? I used AMA.”
“I’m afraid I called for Chicago style on this assignment, Mr. Hawkins.”
Jerome slid the rubric from his backpack and folded it to the right page. He’d highlighted the sentence calling for AMA citation.
Langdon colored unflatteringly. “I’m afraid I changed the style in a class you were absent for.”
Jerome said gently, because any other fashion would be accused of aggression, “that’s bullshit and you know it.”
Langdon let go of her pen.
“I’ve had perfect attendance, although you’ve probably overlooked me sometimes, right? By accident? Anyway, I talked to several of my classmates before this meeting. None of them mentioned a style change.”
Langdon’s mouth pressed into a dark line.
“It’s because I’m from Loretto, isn’t it?” Jerome asked casually.
This, finally, earned a direct reaction. Langdon flinched and gripped the arms of her chair.
“Mr Hawkins, I see no reason why you have to-to-politicize this—” Langdon blustered.
“It’s already politicized, ma’am.” Jerome held up a hand as he tucked his papers back in his bag. “And anyway, thank you. You’ve given me all I need to form my next step.”
Langdon looked bereft as he shouldered his bag and walked out, as if she’d been bluffed by a low hand.
Another Monday, another futile battle. Jerome would have sat this time, but the visitor’s chair had been removed in-between visits. If he asked, he was very sure he would a well thought out, rational answer. And it would be completely and patently false.
“I am sorry you feel deprived,” Langdon said icily. She was trying to compensate for last time’s failure by going on the attack. “But you cannot come to my office every time you feel dissatisfied with your low grade.”
Jerome gave her a warm smile.
“Actually, ma’am, I was coming to show you a little academic exercise I undertook. You’d find it fascinating, I’m sure.”
Langdon looked uneasy.
Jerome took his essay from his backpack. A large, red D- scarred the top of the first page. There were no other markings on the essay.
“You know I like feedback,” he said confidentially, “I want to improve, ma’am. I do. I need specific comments to do so.”
“There were no comments to give because there were no parts of the essay worth commenting on,” Langdon said, “however, you used the English language. That earns you a D instead of an F.”
Jerome laughed out loud. Langdon was unnerved now, he had her on the ropes.
“I wonder what you think of my colleague, Patrick McGillian? How did you find his essay?”
Langdon’s defenses were up now. “I cannot discuss such confidential information with another student, Mr. Hawkins.”
Jerome laughed again. “Understandable. But it’s not that confidential, Mrs. Langdon, I talked to Patrick after you handed the essays back. He got an A-. he would’ve gotten the whole A, but he fudged the bibliography a bit. Now, I have to tell you something in confidentiality.”
Jerome leaned forward. “His essay? It’s the same as mine. I don’t mean the same style or subject. I wrote both of them.”
Langdon turned almost puce. He’d never seen a human do that before. “That’s academic fraud.”
Jerome’s good cheer fell away. “No, ma’am. Fraud is marking a paper identical to another with a different grade. You didn’t even look at the inside this time, did you?”
“I will not stand for these accusations in my own office—”
“But you’ll stand for them,” Jerome said softly, “somewhere, somehow, you’ll stand.”
He stacked the essay neatly with the rubric he hadn’t even had to use this time and shoved them in his bag.
“Where do you think you’re going, young man? We aren’t finished.”
Young man? She was five years his senior if she was a day.
Jerome looked at her. “Hey, how about a joke?”
“What’s the difference between a pancake and a person from Loretto?”
Langdon’s mouth fell open.
“The pancake’s done on both sides,” Jerome said as he opened the door with his heel. The horror on Langdon’s face was worth whatever would come afterwards.
“—we want to make sure that every student feels academically fulfilled,” Garner said. He’d been filibustering for ten minutes now. He spread his mass like cake batter all over the single desk chair. Langdon looked uncomfortable standing. Jerome would have preferred standing. They had brought back a chair, but it was an ADA chair and too short for him. He practically folded in half to fit in it.
“If there has been any hint of foul play, we want to remedy that. Riiiight?” Garner smiled.
He’d been doing this throughout the whole speech. Breaking off to make Jerome agree with him on some minor point, as if aggregating enough of those would negate his complaint.
Garner smiled, showing the odd black setting of his dentures. “We take any student complaint very seriously, very, very seriously. Academic fulfillment is the chief goal of our department, more than even test numbers.”
Another tactic, reiterating the same points, only worded differently. If it had been a paper, Jerome would have marked it down for that.
He was stuck. If he looked off to the side at all, he wasn’t serious about his school career. If he interrupted, he was aggressive and not prone to reason. If he got up at all, then the complaint was dead before it could reach any source that cared.
“And so I want to make sure, before we go any further, that this complaint is grounded in legitimate grievance and not just a misunderstanding. Right, riiight?”
Jerome said, “I want to know what your problem is with me.”
Langdon looked uneasy. Garner rushed for a breath to fill the gap, but Jerome filled it for him.
“What is it? Is it just that I come from Loretto? Do you think there’s something wrong with me? That I’m going to flip out and get violent? Do you think I’m just going to keel over and die? I mean, what the hell have I actually done?”
Garner wisely kept his mouth shut. He had one of Langdon’s pens in hand, now he was shuffling it through his crusty fingers. Langdon noticed and grimaced. Jerome liked her then, just a little.
“I don’t get it. At all. If you didn’t want me, why not just say ‘no?’ Why pretend like you’ll give me a chance? To look good? ‘Cause I guarantee, this thing gets out? You aren’t going to look too good at all.”
“Have been lobbed at my back all semester,” Jerome continued. “You think I don’t see? Think you’re so fucking clever the way you go about things? You’re like a bunch of children forming a club. ‘No, Jerome, it’s not because we hate you, it’s because your name begins with J. Stay out of our clubhouse.’ That’s what I hear, every time you pull another excuse out of your ass.”
“If I may finish—” Garner pulled out the public speaking voice, all thunder and lightning.
“You’re never finished,” Jerome said quietly, calmly. “And you never get to the point. I bet you talk yourself to sleep at night.”
He stood up and shouldered his bag. He looked from one face to another.
“You think I’m scared of you?” he asked, “you think I even care? I was in Loretto, I was there when it went down. You only wish you could affect people like that.”
He opened the door. Neither professor rose or tried to call him back.
“Watch me now,” he said, “watch me walk down the hall. I’ll change, you see. I’ll turn into something horrible. I’ll be a real monster, then you can call that rent-a-cop from the south hall and he can call someone to blow my brains out. Are you watching?”
Jerome turned and walked down the hall, footsteps echoing in the empty. He didn’t change, he remained the same long after the door swung shut behind him.