Friday, May 7, 2010

May 7

Briggs struck again the very next day. I didn’t want to attend his Tuesday morning lecture to the undergrads, but I really had no choice since I am the TA for the course. I needed to hear what Briggs would tell the students about their final exam.

Although I usually sat in the front of the classroom, today I sat in the back so that I could leave as soon as class was over, thus avoiding any conversation with Briggs. But he sought me out just before class began. “Oh, Jonathan,” he said, as if nothing had happened yesterday, “I forgot to bring the course evaluation forms that the students always fill out during the last class session. Could you run back and get them for me? I think they’re in my departmental mail box. And get one of the secretaries to lend you a bunch of pencils for students to fill in the answer grids. They always prepare batches of them for these occasions. I’ll get started with the lecture, but won’t talk about the final until after you get back.”

I had to do it, of course. It took longer than expected because the envelope with the evaluation forms was not in his mail box. After handing me a batch of small pencils bound together by a rubber band, one of the secretaries grudgingly agreed to accompany me to Briggs’s office with the department master key to see if the evaluation forms were there. A fat elderly woman, she walked very slowly. When we finally got to his office, we found that Angie was there working in it. “You could have saved me a trip if you had just checked here first!” the secretary said accusingly.

We quickly found the envelope with the course evaluations on the corner of his desk. “That’s strange,” said Angie. “I thought I reminded him to take these to class this morning.” As the secretary began her slow trek back to the department office, Angie told me that she and Briggs were almost finished with the index. It had taken them longer than it should have, she said, because Barry kept thinking of more things to add, which meant, of course, that they had to find them.

“I heard about what happened yesterday, Jonathan,” said Angie when the secretary was out of earshot. “I’m really sorry.”

I was so upset still that I felt tears well up in my eyes and a lump form in my throat. I was afraid I’d burst out crying if I tried to say anything.

Apparently sensing my distress, Angie stood up from her chair and came over to me. “Just hang on, Jonathan,” she said quietly. “We’re going to hit back at him. And by the way, I’ll probably move into your place either Thursday or Friday.”

“That’s great,” I managed to say. “But I’ve got to get back to class.” I practically ran from her. I don’t know why, but I felt more emotional about everything that was happening to me around her.

“There he is!” Briggs said sarcastically as I came back into the classroom. “I was beginning to think that you had gotten lost, Jonathan!” The undergrads all laughed at this. There were a lot more of them here than usual. I guess all those who didn’t like the grades they had received on either the midterm or the book review decided it might be worth their while to learn about the final.

After handing the envelope with the evaluations along with the pencils to Briggs, I took a seat down front after all. Briggs carried on with his lecture. This he ended earlier than usual to first discuss the final exam and then allow time for the students to fill out the course evaluations. After doing the former, he called upon a student volunteer to administer the evaluations (since neither the professor nor the TA were supposed to be in the room when students were filling them out). From the half dozen or so students who raised their hands, Briggs chose the African-American student who had been the defendant at yesterday’s honor code committee hearing.

“You will be evaluating both my performance as a professor and Jonathan’s performance as a TA,” Briggs explained to the class. “As per university regulations, both of us will leave the room before the evaluations are passed out. Someone seems to think our being here might intimidate you!” Although not a particularly amusing observation, half the students laughed anyway.

Briggs then reminded the African-American student (whose name I am still protecting, even after what happened yesterday) to seal all the evaluations back up in the envelope, take it to the designated repository in the Student Union, and return the pencils to the department office. When the young man’s expression indicated that this was more work than he had bargained for, Shivvy volunteered to share one of these errands.

“I’ll see you all—and those that weren’t here today, hopefully—at the final,” said Briggs to the class. “But Jonathan, of course, will be holding both his discussion section and his office hours as usual this afternoon.” The two of us then left the room, and I parted company with him almost immediately thereafter.

That afternoon, I went to the classroom where I held my discussion section. Although attendance had been extremely low these past few weeks, I was surprised to find that absolutely nobody had showed up today. I waited twenty minutes, but no one came. There was no point in staying, so I decided I may as well go back to my office. I had to go there anyway for my office hours.

As I approached Case Hall, I noticed that there was an unusually large number of people milling around near the entrance. “There he is!” I heard someone shout as I drew closer.

The milling crowd quickly formed into a line. “Down with racist TA’s! Down with racist TA’s!” they chanted.

I couldn’t believe this was happening. I wanted to proclaim that I was no racist, that I was innocent. But I knew that there was no point. I could see from the expressions on their faces that most of the demonstrators really believed that I was a racist and that what they were doing was absolutely right.

Briggs was there in the middle of the crowd. Right beside him was the African-American student whom I had caught cheating as well as Professor Asquith. Shivvy and Michael were also there; they seemed to have worked themselves up into an especially rabid frenzy. I also recognized many of the undergrads who had complained about the grades I had given them on the midterm or the book review. The chair of the honor code committee and several of its members were also there.

I understood now what had happened. Briggs made use of the time I was away from his lecture section to organize this little demonstration. He deliberately misled me as to where the evaluations were so that he would have more time to do so. Knowing him, though, he didn’t actually do it himself. Instead, he had probably arranged in advance to yield the floor as soon as I had left the room to a student (probably the African-American male I had caught cheating) who announced the purpose of the demonstration to the class and invited it to participate. Briggs himself may have indicated that he himself would attend.

Not everyone who had been in class that day came to the demonstration. Nobody, though, had had the decency to warn me about what was going to happen. Nobody.

After listening to the crowd spew its venom at me for a short while, I realized that I had probably better move away. I started to go into Case Hall, the entrance to which was being kept clear by some campus police officers. Before I could get to the door, however, Professor Trizenko came out through it. “I see that you and Danielle have the same friends!” he said brightly. “Isn’t that nice?”

“Come on,” he said, taking me by the arm. “This isn’t going to end if you go into this building. You’ve got to move away from it.” As we moved quickly past the demonstrators, they stopped chanting and began cheering. As far as they were concerned, they had won a great victory against racism.

If only I had been his TA, I told him, none of this would have ever happened. I told him the whole story about Shivvy, Briggs, and me.

I suddenly remembered how I had participated in the demonstration against Danielle last fall. I asked Professor Trizenko to tell her how sorry I was and that I now knew how awful she must have felt. I also asked him whether it was true that the two of them would soon be married, and conveyed my congratulations when he confirmed this.

He walked me back to my apartment building. He insisted that I take his cell phone number in case I needed any help from him, and that I give him mine so that he could check up on me. I thanked him for everything and went inside.

But Briggs’s campaign against me had not ended. The rest of it, though, was anti-climactic.

On Wednesday, there was an e-mail from Briggs to all the undergraduates in his class saying that, due to the depth of unhappiness that they had expressed during Tuesday’s demonstration about my fairness in grading as well as sensitivity toward students from “diverse backgrounds,” Briggs himself would grade their final exams. “Let me assure you that Mr. Jonathan Vining will not even see them.”

I got this message because Briggs had put my address on the “cc” line—along with that of the department chair, Professor Stavros.

I was actually quite relieved not to have to grade any finals. I laughed upon seeing his statement that he would grade the finals himself. I was certain that he’d get somebody else to do it for him, like Michael or even Angie.

On Thursday afternoon, I found an official looking envelope in my departmental mail box. It was a letter from Prof. Stavros stating that the faculty had decided not to renew my funding next semester.

This morning (Friday), I handed a letter I wrote for Prof. Stavros to his secretary announcing my withdrawal from Charles University after finishing up my work for the semester next week. I certainly wasn’t going to go into debt to stay here.
I’m writing this in my office where I have come to clear out my few possessions and take them home. Since Briggs has relieved me of my duties as a TA, there is no reason for me to return here during finals next week.

Briggs has vanquished me completely. There is nothing at all I can do about it. And despite what she told me, Angie can’t either.

If she’s really going to move in to my apartment, she had better do so soon. Now that I’m withdrawing from the university, I’ll have to move out myself shortly after the end of finals.

I hope she comes soon. I feel truly alone. It would be nice just to have her company.

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