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When good professors go bad

My young colleague leaves the office for class every morning with a cheery “I’m off to change lives!” As I approach retirement, I wonder how many lives I’ve transformed in 35 years of college teaching. As luck would have it, my students are only too happy to tell me.

The 8 a.m. crowd is aggrieved that class begins at eight and not four hours later when they prefer to roll out of their nests. In protest, they stagger in late wearing pajamas and slippers, periodically collapsing face-down. Snoring is rare, but not unheard of. God help me if I dim the lights.

The afternoon students are livelier, checking their smartphones every quarter-minute lest they miss the latest viral meme or pithy text such as “Dude!” I make the polite request that they turn off electronic devices — an invitation they consider tantamount to asking them to gouge out their own eyes.

My high academic standards take a frightening toll on students’ physical health. While writing essays in class, my young scholars massage their palms to maintain blood flow lest their hands spontaneously sever from their arms. During tests, they contort their faces and clutch their foreheads to signal that an aneurysm rupture is imminent.

Their mental health does not get by unscathed, either. Students who neglected to read (or sometimes even purchase) the textbook send me late-night emails beginning with the words “I’m freaking out!” This is followed by a series of questions that I have answered many times in class. One student who, coincidentally, did none of the assigned work insisted that I was “ruining his marriage.” I always imagined being a homewrecker would be more fun.

Over the years, several students have accused me of destroying their GPAs, jeopardizing their athletic eligibility, or tanking their chances for graduate school. Sometimes, I hit the trifecta and do all three. It’s a wonder I sleep at night with all this devastation in my wake. Clearly, I don’t deserve to.

By far, the most disastrous part of my legacy is triggering the demise of many students’ beloved grandmothers by scheduling final exams for their grandchildren. I had no idea of the power I wielded, but that’s the only conclusion I can draw from the disproportionate number of funerals held during final exam week. When a student struggles, it’s only a matter of time until a faltering granny flat-lines, sometimes more than once in her grandchild’s career. The more dire the students’ grades, the more likely they will feel compelled to sit vigil with Meemaw for days before she passes, and then stay an extra week while the rest of the relatives gather. Obviously, exams are out of the question.

University teaching is a noble profession. When I aspired to change lives through sharing my passion, I could never have imagined killing all those sweet innocent women. It’s more than my conscience can bear. For the sake of any Nanas still standing, I think it may be time for me to go.

— Mary Kay Fleming

Mary Kay Fleming is a psychology professor at Mount St. Joseph University in Cincinnati. Her personal essays appear in two anthologies: These Summer Months edited by Anne Born, and In Celebration of Sisters edited by Trisha Faye. Her humorous essays have been honored at the 2016 Erma Bombeck Writing Competition and published at HumorWriters.org.

Reflections of Erma