I have often fretted about telling such small stories as I have lived or seen. I have wondered what right I have to relay events to such audiences as find me, to speak of others in my life, to write what I have heard and may well misremember. Occasionally, though, discussion will turn such that a story comes out, and, once it’s out, I might as well keep it that way.

Unicorn Horn Stock Photos, Pictures & Royalty-Free Images - iStock
Close, but not quite.
Image taken from iStock, used for commentary.

One such that recently came up hearkens back to my days in the classroom–somehow, many of my stories move that way–when I was teaching several sections of first-semester composition. It’s a common enough class for adjuncts to teach–and, whatever my “formal” title might have been, I was an adjunct, working on a term-limited contract that hinted at but never promised renewal. As happened from time to time, I had my students read a short story from The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, which I then devoted class time to discussing. That is, I gave them the story on a Friday, telling them that they would do well to look at some historical context for the character types in the story, and be ready to discuss it on Monday and Wednesday in advance of a writing exercise to come on the following Friday. I believe I was going to be away at a conference that day, and I needed something for them to do while I had somebody else cover my class.

One of the students, whom I’ll call Chuck(lefuck), spent the class meetings on Monday and Wednesday with his head turned to the side and his jaws flapping–a common enough occurrence, really, and easily visible in the small-but-still-overenrolled class I was teaching. Another, whose name was something like Mary, had a really good few questions when she came in, though; she’d clearly taken my recommendation to heart, which is always flattering, and she’d clearly thought about what she’d read, which is always good to see. And, when I read over and assessed the writing exercises my students had done on the Friday, I was generally pleased with what I saw; Mary earned an A or an A+, and Chuck…didn’t.

I thought nothing more about it until the next semester started. When I got back to campus–because the break between semesters was a break for me, too–I got called into the composition director’s office. Evidently, Chuck was unsatisfied with the grade he got–a D–and complained to Daddy, telling him that I had been “pushing a gay agenda” in the class and “called [him] out repeatedly” because he “stuck to his beliefs.” Daddy was a golfing buddy of the provost’s, so Daddy complained to him. The provost called my department chair, who, to his credit, reminded the provost that the institution had a grade appeal policy for a reason and invited Chuck to follow school policy.

I have the distinct impression that Chuck, faced with that invitation, wanted to decline. I also have the distinct impression that Daddy demanded he not. And I learned that Chuck talked to the composition director–I was evidently considered hostile–who denied the grade change. Chuck went to the department chair, who also denied the grade change. Chuck went to the dean, who denied the grade change. And Chuck went then to the academic appeals committee, the ostensible institutional final word on the matter.

It was at that point I became involved in the matter again; the committee summoned me to appear before it. But I was not a stranger to academic bureaucracy at that point, having already completed my doctorate and having taught at more than one school previously. I knew that, because it was an internal institutional matter, FERPA protections did not apply; they could not, with Chuck’s performance being, indeed, the very matter being discussed. So I made sure to bring copies–printed from the institution’s learning management system, through which all the students’ papers had been submitted and returned with comments–of Chuck’s work, and I dressed to impress, it still being a time when it was the seams at my shoulders that strained, rather than the seams at my waistband.

The committee called me in just after sending Chuck out of the room; again, I was evidently considered hostile to him. The members told me that Chuck had complained that his grade was issued because I was discriminating against him based on his beliefs, and that I had “made him uncomfortable” through forcing discussion of practices he found morally repugnant, namely the story “Billy and the Unicorn.”

I couldn’t help it; I laughed. And I told them what had happened with that story, that I’d assigned it as a reading to inform an in-class writing exercise, that a student–who’d looked into unicorns and noted that, historically, they are attracted to virgins–had asked if she ought to read the unicorn as homosexual, that I’d noted it as one way to regard the character, and that I’d asked the class if and how it changed their reading to look at the unicorn in that way. The members seemed to agree it was an appropriate thing for me to have done in a college classroom, and they agreed that, in a class of under twenty students, one student persistently having his head turned to the side with his jaws flapping out to be called out every now and again. And they agreed, when I presented them the copies of Chuck’s papers, including my comments on drafts and notes on final submissions that the comments had not received attention, that the student’s grade was an appropriate one.

Now, the story came up in another discussion, one involving a number of people who still teach at the college level, as well as people who have completed degrees, about student complaints. I certainly earned enough such things in my years at the front of the classroom, and it is probably for the better that I am no longer there; I was in the wrong more than once. But I was not always so.

Whether I am in this, though, I am not sure.

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