“You think I cheated?” says Laura Pottsdam, college sophomore and habitual, perpetual cheater. “You think I plagiarized that paper? Me?”
Samuel nods. He’s trying to look sad about this whole situation, like when a parent has to punish a child. This hurts me more than it hurts you,is the expression he’s trying to produce, even if he does not sincerely feel it. Inside, he secretly likes when he gets to fail a student. It’s like revenge for having to teach them.
“Can I just say? Once and for all? I. Did. Not. Plagiarize. That. Paper,” Laura Pottsdam says of the paper that was almost entirely plagiarized. Samuel knows this because of the software—the truly exceptional soft-ware package subscribed to by the university that analyzes every essay completed by his students and compares them to every other essay in its massive archive of every paper ever analyzed anywhere. The software’s inner brain is made of literally millions of words written by the nation’s high-school and college students, and Samuel sometimes jokes to his colleagues that if the software ever achieved sci-fi artificial intelligence and consciousness, it would immediately go to Cancún for spring break.
The software analyzed Laura’s paper and found it to be ninety- nine percent plagiarized—everything had been stolen except for the name “Laura Pottsdam.”
(OR, “THE LOADED QUESTION”)
“I wonder what is wrong with the software?” says Laura, second- year university student out of Schaumburg, Illinois, communications and marketing major, five foot two or three, dirty-blond hair that in the greenish gloom of Samuel’s office looks a pale legal pad yellow, thin white T-shirt featuring what seems to be promotional material for a party that happened almost certainly before she was born. “I wonder why it’s malfunctioning. Is it wrong a lot?”
“You’re saying it’s a mistake?”
“It’s like so weird. I don’t get it. Why would it say that?”
Laura looks like she showered in a wind tunnel, her hair is so frazzled and disorganized. That she is wearing tiny frayed flannel shorts roughly the size of a coffee filter is impossible to ignore. Ditto her deeply bronze leg tan. On her feet, she’s wearing slippers, Muppet-fuzzy, that yellow-green color of cabbage, with a gray-brown film of dirt around the footpads from being worn too often outdoors. It strikes Samuel that she might have come to his office today literally wearing her pajamas.
“The software isn’t wrong,” he says.
“You’re saying never? It’s never wrong? You’re saying it’s infallible and perfect?”
The walls of Samuel’s office are dutifully decorated with his various diplomas, the shelves filled with books with long titles, the whole dark place affecting a generic professorialness. There’s the leather chair in which Laura currently sits lightly kicking her slippered feet. New Yorker cartoons taped to the door. Little windowsill plant that he waters with a pint-size mister. Three-hole punch. Tabletop calendar. A coffee mug with Shakespeare on it. A set of nice pens. The whole tableau. A coatrack with emergency tweed jacket. He’s sitting in his ergonomic chair. He’s briefly happy about the correct usage of the word “infallible.” The musty odor in his office might be Laura’s sleep smell, or his own smell, still lingering after staying up late playing Elfscape last night.
“According to the software,” he says, looking at the report on Laura’s paper, “this essay came from the website FreeTermPapers.com.
”“See? That’s the thing! Never heard of it.”
He’s one of those young professors who still dresses in such a manner that his students might regard as “hip.” Untucked shirts, blue jeans, a certain brand of fashionable sneaker. This is read by some people as proof of good taste, by others as a sign of internal weakness and insecurity and desperation. He also sometimes curses in class so he doesn’t seem old and square. Laura’s shorts are flannel with plaid bars of red, black, and navy blue. Her shirt is extraordinarily thin and faded, though it is difficult to tell whether this fade is from overuse or whether it was made in the factory to appear this way. She says, “Obviously I’m not gonna copy some stupid paper from the internet. It’s like, no way.”
“So you’re saying it’s a coincidence.”
“I don’t know why it said that. It’s so, you know, weird?”
Laura occasionally puts that upward phonic at the ends of her sentences so that even her declarations sound like questions. Samuel finds this, like most accents, difficult not to mimic. He also finds her ability to maintain eye contact and keep her body relaxed and unjittery through-out all this lying remarkable. She does not display any of the involuntary physical indications of deception: she breathes in a normal manner; her posture is relaxed and languid; her eyes remain fixed on Samuel’s rather than doing that up-and-to-the-right thing that indicates she’s accessing her more creative brain parts; and her face does not seem to be working unnaturally hard to show emotion, as emotions seem to flutter across her face in a well- timed and more or less natural and organic way rather than the usual liar’s face where it looks like the cheek muscles are attempting to mechanically excrete the proper expression.
“According to the software,” Samuel says, “the paper in question was also submitted three years ago to the Schaumburg Township High School.” He pauses to allow this fact to land and sink in. “Isn’t that your hometown? Isn’t that where you’re from?”
(OR, “THE CIRCULAR ARGUMENT”)
“You know,” says Laura, shifting in her seat, moving one leg under her in what might be the first outward physical sign of distress. Her shorts are so small that when she moves around in the leather chair the skin of her lower buttocks squeaks against it or pulls off with a moist little sucking sound. “I wasn’t going to say anything, but I feel really offended. By all this?”
“Um, yeeeeahh? You asking me if I cheated? It’s really, like, rude?”
Laura’s shirt, which Samuel thinks was indeed artificially faded using dyes or chemicals or perhaps UV light or harsh abrasives, says “Laguna Beach Party, Summer 1990” in bubbly vintage-looking letters with a graphic ocean scene in the middle and a rainbow.
“You shouldn’t call somebody a cheater,” she says. “It stigmatizes them. There’s been studies? The more you call someone a cheater, the bigger amount of times they cheat.”
The bigger number of times they cheat, Samuel wishes she would have said.
“Plus you shouldn’t punish someone for cheating,” Laura says, “because then they have to cheat more. To pass the class? It’s like”—her finger draws a loop into the air—“a vicious circle?”
Laura Pottsdam consistently comes to class between three minutes early and two minutes late. Her seat of choice is in the far back-left corner. Various boys in the class have slowly shifted their own desk preferences to get closer to her orbit, creeping mollusk-like from the right side of the classroom to the left over the course of the semester. Most sit next to her for a span of two or three weeks before they suddenly shoot away to the opposite side of the room. They’re like charged particles colliding and bouncing apart in what Samuel assumes is some psychosexual melodrama playing out extracurricularly.
“You never wrote this paper,” says Samuel. “You bought it in high school and then used it again in my class. That’s the only thing under discussion today.”
Laura draws both her feet under her. Her leg releases from the shiny leather with a wet pop.
APPEAL TO PITY
“This is so unfair,” she says. The way she so effortlessly and fluidly moved her legs is a sign of youthful flexibility or serious yoga training or both. “You asked for an essay on Hamlet. That’s what I gave you.”
“I asked you to write an essay on Hamlet.”
“How was I supposed to know that? It’s not my fault you have these weird rules.”
“They’re not my rules. Every school has these rules.”
“They do not. I used this paper in high school and got an A.”
“That’s too bad.”
“So I didn’t know it was wrong. How was I supposed to know it was wrong? Nobody ever taught me it was wrong.”
Of course you knew it was wrong. You were lying about it. If you didn’t think it was wrong, you wouldn’t have lied.”
“But I lie about everything. It’s what I do. I can’t help it.”
“You should try to stop that.”
“But I can’t be punished twice for the same paper. If I was punished in high school for plagiarism, I can’t be punished again now. Isn’t that, like, double jeopardy?”
“I thought you said you got an A in high school.”
“No I didn’t.”
“I’m pretty sure you did. I’m pretty sure you just said that.”
“That was a hypothetical.”
“No, I don’t believe it was.”
“I think I would know. Duh.”
“Are you lying again? Are you lying right now?”
They stare at each other for a moment like two poker players who are both bluffing. This is the most eye contact they’ve ever shared. In class, Laura almost always stares into her lap, where she hides her phone. She thinks if the phone is in her lap she has effectively concealed it. She has no idea how obvious and transparent this maneuver is. Samuel has not asked her to stop checking her phone in class, mostly so he can savage her grade at the end of the semester when he doles out “participation points.”
“At any rate,” he says, “double jeopardy doesn’t work that way. The point here is that when you submit work, there’s a basic assumption that it’s your work. Your own.”
“It is mine,” she says.
“No, you bought it.”
“I know,” she says.
“I own it. It’s mine. It’s my work.”
It strikes him that if he doesn’t think of this as “cheating” but rather as “outsourcing” then she might have a valid point.
“Plus other people do worse things than this,” says Laura. “My best friend? She pays her algebra tutor to do her homework for her. I mean, that’s way worse, right? And she doesn’t even get punished! Why should I get punished and she doesn’t?”
“She’s not in my class,” Samuel says.
“How about Larry then?”
“Larry Broxton? From our class? I know for a fact that everything he gives you was written by his older brother. You don’t punish him. That’s not fair. That’s way worse.”
Samuel recalls that Larry Broxton—sophomore, major undeclared, buzz-cut hair the color of cornmeal, usually in class wearing shiny silver oversize basketball shorts and a monochromatic T-shirt featuring the gigantic logo of a clothing chain found in roughly all of America’s outlet malls— was among the boys who had crept toward and, later, bolted away from Laura Pottsdam. Larry fucking Broxton, skin as pale and sickly green as the inside of an old potato, pathetic attempts at a blond mustache and beard that looked more like his face was lightly crusted with panko bread crumbs, a kind of hunchiness and withdrawn, inward manner that for some reason reminded Samuel of a small fern that could only grow in the shade, Larry Broxton, who had never once spoken in class, whose feet had outpaced the rest of his body, growth-spurt-wise, and had resulted in a kind of floppy walk, as if his feet were two large and flat river fish, feet on which he wore these chunky black sandal things that Samuel was pretty sure were designed for use only in public showers and pools, this same Larry Broxton who during the ten minutes Samuel gave to each class for “freewriting and brainstorming” would idly and subconsciously and casually pick at his genitals, he could, almost every day, invariably, during their two-week sitting-together period, on the way out of class, make Laura Pottsdam laugh.
“I’m just saying,” continues Laura, “that if you fail me you’ll have to fail everyone. Because everyone’s doing it. And then you won’t have no one left to teach.”
“Anyone,” he says.
“You won’t have anyone left to teach. Not no one.”
Laura looks at him with an expression she might also give someone who’s speaking to her in Latin.
“It’s a double negative,” he says. “Won’t and no one.”
He knows it is a graceless and condescending thing to do, correcting someone’s spoken grammar. Like being at a party and criticizing someone for not being well-read enough, which in fact had happened to Samuel his first week on the job, at a faculty get-to-know-you dinner at the home of his boss, the dean of the college, a woman who had been a member of the English Department before bolting for her current administrative gig. She had built her academic career the typical way: by knowing everything there was to know about an extraordinarily small field (her specific niche was literature written during the plague, about the plague). At dinner, she had asked his opinion on a certain section of The Canterbury Tales, and, when he demurred, said, a little too loudly, “You haven’t read it? Oh, well, goodness.”
“Also?” Laura says. “I thought it was really unfair that you gave a quiz.”
“The quiz you gave? Yesterday? On Hamlet? I asked you if there was going to be a quiz and you said no. Then you gave a quiz anyway.”
“That’s my prerogative.”
“You lied to me,” she says, affecting this injured and aggrieved tone that sounds inherited from thousands of television family dramas.
“I didn’t lie,” he says. “I changed my mind.”
“You didn’t tell me the truth.”
“You shouldn’t have skipped class.”
What was it exactly about Larry Broxton that enraged him so much? Why the actual physical revulsion when he saw them sitting together and laughing together and walking home together? Part of it was that he found the boy worthless— his manner of dress, his casual ignorance, his prognathic face, his total wall of silence during classroom discussions, sitting there motionless, a lump of organic matter contributing nothing to the class or the world. Yes, these things angered him, and that anger was magnified at the knowledge that Laura would let this boy do things to her. Would let him touch her, would actually nuzzle up willingly to his tuberish skin, let his crusty lips press against hers, allow herself to be felt by him, his hands, his raggedly chewed fingernails that held little purplish globs of goo. That she might willingly remove his oversize basketball shorts back at his squalid dorm room that surely smelled of sweat and old pizza and body crust and urine, that she would allow all these things willingly and not suffer for them made Samuel suffer for her.
POST HOC, ERGO PROPTER HOC
“Just because I skipped class,” says Laura, “doesn’t mean I should fail. That’s really unfair.”
“That’s not why you’re failing.”
“I mean, it’s just one class. You don’t have to go so, like, nuclear about it?”
What made Samuel suffer even more was the thought that what brought Laura and Larry together was likely a mutual dislike of him. That Samuel was the glue between them. That they both found him boring and tedious, and this was enough to make small talk on, enough to fill in the gaps between the heavy petting. It was, in a way, his fault. Samuel felt responsible for the sexual catastrophe that was ongoing in his class, back row, left side.
“I’ll tell you what,” says Laura, sitting up straight now and leaning toward him. “I can admit I was wrong about copying the paper, if you can admit you were wrong about giving the quiz.”
“So as a compromise, I’ll rewrite the paper, and you’ll give me a makeup quiz. Everybody’s happy.” She lifts her hands, palms up, and smiles.
“Voilà,” she says.
“How is that a compromise?”
“I think we need to get beyond the conversation of ‘did Laura cheat’ and toward the conversation of ‘how do we move forward.’ ”
“It’s not a compromise if you get everything you want.”
“But you get what you want too. I’ll take full responsibility for my actions.”
“By saying it. Saying that”—and here she puts her fingers in the air to indicate quotation marks—“I take full responsibility for my actions”—end air quotes.
“You take responsibility for your actions by facing the consequences for them.”
“You mean failing.”
“I mean, yes, failing.”
“That’s so not fair! I shouldn’t have to fail the class and take full responsibility for my actions. It should be one or the other. That’s how it works. And you know what else?”
“I don’t even need this class. I shouldn’t even be in this class. When am I ever going to need this in real life? When is anyone ever going to ask if I know Hamlet? When is that going to be essential information? Can you tell me that? Huh? Tell me, when am I ever going to need to know this?”
“That is not relevant.”
“No, it’s very relevant. It’s like the most relevant thing ever. Because you can’t do it. You can’t tell me when I’m going to need this information. Because you want to know why? Because the answer is I won’t.”
Samuel knows this is probably true. Asking students to examine Hamlet in terms of logical fallacies seems pretty stupid. But ever since a certain provost came to power who is obsessed with teaching hard sciences and mathematics in every class (the reason being that we have to funnel our students into these disciplines to effectively compete with the Chinese, or something), Samuel has had to show on his annual reports how he promotes mathematics in his literature classes. Teaching logic is a gesture in this direction, and one that he now wishes he taught more thoroughly, as Laura has used, by his internal count, maybe ten logical fallacies in their conversation so far.
“Look,” he says, “I didn’t make you take the class. Nobody’s forcing you to be here.”
“Yes you are! You’re all forcing me to be here reading dumb Hamlet, which I’m never going to need for the rest of my life!”
“You can drop the class whenever you like.”
“No, I can’t!”
“I cannot fail this class because I need it to satisfy a humanities credit so I have room in my fall schedule to take statistics and micro so I can be ahead for the next summer when I’ll need to get internship credit so I can still graduate in three and a half years, which I have to do because my parents’ college fund won’t cover four full years even though there used to be plenty of money in it but they had to use it for the divorce lawyer and they explained to me that ‘everyone in the family has to make sacrifices in this difficult time’ and mine would be either taking out a loan for my last semester in college or busting my butt to finish early and so if I have to repeat this class it’ll screw up the whole plan. And my mom wasn’t doing very good post-divorce anyway but now they’ve found a tumor? In her uterus? And they’re operating next week to take it out? And I have to keep going home once a week to quote-unquote be there for her even though all we do is play Bunco with her stupid friends. And my grandmother who’s all alone now after Grandpa died gets confused a lot about which medications to take on which days and it’s my responsibility to take care of her and fill her weekly pill cases with the right drugs or she could go into a coma or something, and I don’t know who’s gonna take care of Gramma next week when I have to serve my three days of community service, which is so stupid because everyone else at that party drank just as much as I did and yet I was the one arrested for public intoxication and the next day I asked the cop on what grounds could he possibly arrest me for public intoxication and he said I was standing in the middle of the street yelling ‘I am so drunk!’ which I totally do not remember doing. And on top of all this my roommate’s a total pig and a total slob and she keeps stealing my Diet Pepsi and not even paying me back or saying thank you and I’ll look in the fridge and there’s one more Diet Pepsi missing and she leaves her stuff everywhere and tries to give me advice about eating healthy even though she’s like two hundred and fifty pounds but she thinks she’s some diet genius because she used to be three hundred and fifty pounds and she’s all like Have you ever lost a hundred pounds? and I’m like I never needed to, but she goes on and on about her triple-digit weight loss and how she totally changed her life since she began her weight-loss journey and blah blah blah weight-loss journey this and weight-loss journey that and she’s so incredibly annoying about it and even has this giant weight-loss calendar on the wall so I can’t even put up any of my posters but I can’t say anything because I’m supposed to be like part of her support network? And it’s like my job to ask her if she’s hit her calorie burns for the day and congratulate her when she does and not tempt her by bringing in quote-unquote self-destructive food and I’m not sure why I’m the one who gets punished for what is in reality her problem but still I go along with it and I don’t buy Doritos or Pop Tarts or those individually wrapped Zebra Cakes even though I love them because I want to be a good supportive roommate and the only thing I allow myself and like my only pleasure in life is my Diet Pepsi, which technically she’s not even supposed to have anyway because she says carbonated beverages were one of her food crutches before she began her weight- loss journey, but I say Diet Pepsi has like two calories so she can deal with it. And—oh, yeah—my dad was stabbed at a foam party last week. And even though he’s doing fine now I’m finding it hard to concentrate on school because he was stabbed and also what the fuck was he doing at a foam party anyway, which is a question he completely refuses to answer and when I start asking about it he just tunes me out like I’m Mom. And my boyfriend went to college in Ohio and he constantly wants me to send him dirty pictures of me because he says it takes his mind off all the pretty girls out there so I’m afraid if I don’t do it he’ll sleep with some Ohio slut and it’ll be my fault, so I take the pictures and I know he likes it if girls are shaved and I’m okay with doing that for him but I get all these little red bumps that are really itchy and ugly and one got infected and imagine having to explain to some ninety-year-old nurse at student health that you need an ointment because you cut yourself shaving your pubes. And besides all of this now I have a flat tire on my bike and one sink in our kitchenette is plugged up and my roommate’s gross hair is always all over the shower and sticking to my lavender bar soap and my mom had to give away our beagle because she cannot deal with that level of responsibility right now and there’s all these low-fat ham cubes in our refrigerator that are like three weeks old and starting to smell and my best friend had an abortion and my internet’s broken.”
APPEAL TO EMOTION
It goes without saying that Laura Pottsdam is now crying.
“I’m gonna have to drop out of school!” Laura howls. Her words are coming out in a weeping monotone all smashed together. “If I get an F I’m going to lose my financial aid and won’t be able to afford college and I’ll have to drop out!”
The problem here is that whenever Samuel sees someone else crying, he needs to cry too. He’s been this way as long as he can remember. He’s like a baby in a nursery crying out of sympathy for the other babies. He feels like crying is such an exposed and vulnerable thing to do in front of other people that he’s ashamed and embarrassed for the person doing it, and this triggers his own feelings of shame and embarrassment, all the layers of childhood self-loathing that accumulated while growing up as a huge crybaby. All the sessions with counselors, all the childhood mortifications, they come rushing back at Samuel when he sees someone crying. It’s like his body becomes a big open wound that even a slight breeze would physically hurt.
Laura’s crying is not restrained. She does not fight the crying but instead seems to wrap herself up in it. It is a full-on eye-and-nose-discharge cry accompanied by the typical sniffles and hiccupy breathing and facial contractions that tighten her cheeks and lips into a grotesque frown. Her eyes are red and her cheeks shining and wet and there’s one small pellet of snot that has crawled terribly out of her left nostril. Her shoulders are hunched and she’s slouching and looking at the floor. Samuel feels like he’s about ten seconds away from doing the same thing. He cannot bear to see someone else crying. This is why the weddings of work colleagues or distant relatives are a disaster for him, because he weeps totally out of proportion to his closeness level with the bride and groom. Sad films at movie theaters present a similar problem, where even if he can’t see people crying he can hear their little sniffles and blown noses and fitful breathing and can then extrapolate their particular kind of crying from his vast inner archive of crying episodes and sort of “try it on” for himself, a problem magnified if he happens to be on a date and is thus hyperalert and aware of his date’s emotional tenor and mortified that she might lean in for some kind of crying comfort only to discover that he is weeping like ten times worse than she is.
“And I’ll have to pay back all my scholarships!” Laura half shouts. “If I fail I’ll have to pay them all back and my family will be broke and we’ll be out in the streets and going hungry!”
Samuel senses this is a lie because scholarships don’t really work that way, but he can’t open his mouth because he’s trying to stuff back his own crying. It’s in his throat now and tightening around his Adam’s apple and all of those devastating childhood weeping fits start rushing back at him now, the birthday parties he ruined, the family dinners stopped halfway through, the classrooms sitting in stunned silence watching him run out the door, the loud exasperated sighs from teachers and principals and most especially his mother—oh how his mother wanted him to stop crying, standing there trying to soothe him and rubbing his shoulders during one of his fits and saying “It’s okay, it’s all okay” in her gentlest voice, not understanding that it was exactly her attention to the crying and acknowledgment of the crying that made the crying worse. And he can feel it pushing up on his larynx now and so he’s holding his breath and repeating in his head “I am in control, I am in control,” and this is for the most part effective until his lungs start burning for oxygen and his eyes feel like pressed olives and so his two choices are either to burst out with a naked weeping sob right here in front of Laura Pottsdam— which is just unthinkably awful and embarrassing and exposed—or perform the laughing trick, which was taught to him by a junior- high counselor who said “The opposite of crying is laughing, so when you feel like crying try to laugh instead and they’ll cancel each other out,” a technique that sounded really stupid at the time but proved weirdly effective in last- ditch situations. It is, he knows, the only way to avoid a devastating blubber-fest right now. He’s not really thinking about what it would mean to laugh at this moment, simply that anything else would be a million percent better than crying, and so when poor Laura—all hunched over and weeping and vulnerable and broken—says through her wet gurgles “I won’t be able to come back to school next year and I won’t have any money and no place to go and I don’t know what I’ll do with my life,” Samuel’s response is “Hah-hah-hah-hah-hah-hah-hah-hah- haaaaah!”
This was, perhaps, a miscalculation.He can see already the effect of his laugh registering on Laura’s face, first as a ripple of amazement and surprise, but then quickly hardening into anger and maybe disgust. The way he laughed— so aggressively and insincerely, like a mad evil genius in an action movie—was, he could see now, cruel. Laura’s posture has become rigid and on guard and erect, her face cold, any hint of her crying erased. It cannot be emphasized enough how quickly this happens. Samuel thinks of a phrase he’s seen on bags of vegetables in the grocery store: flash frozen.
“Why did you do that?” she says, her voice now unnaturally calm and even. It is an eerie, barely contained composure with a dangerous edge, like a mob hit man.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to.”
She studies his face for a painfully long moment. The snot pellet from her nose has disappeared. It’s really a remarkable transformation, all evidence of her actually physically crying has vanished. Even her cheeks are dry.
“You laughed at me,” she says.
“Yes,” he says. “Yes I did.”
“Why did you laugh at me?”
“I’m sorry,” he says. “That was wrong. I shouldn’t have.”
“Why do you hate me so much?”
“I don’t hate you. Really, Laura, I don’t.”
“Why does everyone hate me? What did I do?”
“Nothing. It’s nothing. It’s not your fault. Everyone likes you.”
“They do not.”
“You’re very likable. Everyone likes you. I like you.”
“You do? You like me?”
“Yes. Very much. I like you very much.”
“Of course I do. I’m sorry.”
The good news is that Samuel no longer feels in danger of crying, and so his body relaxes and he gives Laura this feeble little smile and he feels so good that the whole situation has calmed down and seems to be at an emotionally even and neutral level now, and he has this feeling that the two of them have just navigated some seriously treacherous shit together, like war buddies or the stranger next to you on an airplane after going through really bad turbulence. He feels that camaraderie with Laura now, so he smiles and nods and maybe winks at her. He feels so free at this moment that he actually winks.
“Oh,” says Laura. “Oh, I get it.” And she crosses her legs and leans back in the leather chair. “You have a crush on me.”
“I should have known. Of course.”
“No. I think you’ve misunderstood— ”
“It’s okay. It’s not like the first time a teacher’s fallen in love with me. It’s cute.”
“No, really, you’ve got it wrong.”
“You like me very much. That’s what you just said.”
“Yes, but I didn’t mean it that way,” he says.
“I know what comes next. Either I sleep with you or I fail. Right?”
“That is not at all right,” he says.
“That was the plan from the beginning. This whole thing is just to get into my pants.”
“No!” he says, and he feels the sting of this accusation, how when you’re accused of something it makes you feel—even if you’re innocent—a little bit guilty. He stands up and walks past Laura and opens his office door and says, “It’s time for you to leave. We’re done now.”
“You know you can’t fail me,” says Laura, who is definitely not getting up to leave. “You can’t fail me because it’s the law.”
“This meeting is over.”
“You can’t fail me because I have a learning disability.”
“You do not have a learning disability.”
“I do. I have trouble paying attention and keeping deadlines and reading and also I don’t make friends.”
“That’s not true.”
“It is true. You can check. It’s documented.”
“What is the name of your learning disability?”
“They don’t have a name for it yet.”
“You are required by the Americans with Disabilities Act to provide special accommodations to all students with documented learning disabilities.”
“You do not have trouble making friends, Laura.”
“I do. I don’t make any friends.”
“I see you with friends all the time.”
“They are not lasting.”
Samuel has to acknowledge this is true. He is right now trying to come up with something mean to say to her. Some insult that would equal in rhetorical weight her accusation that he has a crush on her. If he hurts Laura’s feelings deep enough, if he insults her hard enough, he would be exonerated. It would prove that he does not have a crush on her if he says something really mean, is his logic.
“What accommodations,” he says, “do you feel entitled to?”
“To pass the class.”
“You think the Americans with Disabilities Act was written to protect cheaters?”
“To rewrite the paper then.”
“What specific learning disability do you have?”
“I told you, they haven’t named it yet.”
“And they don’t know what it is.”
“And what are its symptoms?”
“Oh, they’re really terrible. Every day is, like, a living hell?”
“Specifically, what are its symptoms?”
“Okay, well, I stop paying attention in most of my classes after like three minutes and I usually don’t follow directions at all and I never take notes and I can’t remember people’s names and sometimes I’ll read all the way to the end of a page and have no idea what I just read. I lose my place while reading all the time and skip like four lines and don’t even know it, and most charts and graphs make absolutely no sense to me, and I’m terrible at puzzles, and sometimes I’ll say one thing even though I totally mean something else. Oh, and my handwriting is really sloppy, and I’ve never been able to spell the word aluminum, and sometimes I tell my roommate that I will definitely clean my side of the room even though I have no intention of ever doing this. I have a hard time judging distance when I’m outside. I totally could not tell you where cardinal north is. I hear people say ‘A bird in hand is worth two in the bush’ and I have no idea what that means. I’ve lost my phone like eight times in the last year. I’ve been in ten car accidents. And whenever I play volleyball the ball sometimes hits me in the face even though I totally do not want it to.”
“Laura,” says Samuel, who senses his moment now, who feels the insult coalescing and bubbling up, “you do not have a learning disability.”
“Yes, I do.”
“No,” he says, and he pauses dramatically, and he’s sure to pronounce these next words slowly and carefully so that they’re fully heard and comprehended: “You’re just not very smart.”
ARGUMENTUM AD BACULUM
(OR, “APPEALS TO THREATS”)
“I can’t believe you said that!” says Laura, who’s now standing with her bag in hand ready to indignantly walk out of his office.
“It’s true,” says Samuel. “You’re not very smart, and you’re not a very good person either.”
“You cannot say that!”
“You don’t have a learning disability.”
“I could get you fired for that!”
“You need to know this. Somebody needs to tell you.”
“You are so rude!”
And now Samuel notices that the other professors have become aware of all the shouting. Down the corridor, doors are opening, heads are popping out. Three students sitting on the floor surrounded by book bags who might have been working on some group project are now staring at him. His shame-aversion instincts kick in and he does not feel at all as brave as he did a moment ago. When he talks now, his voice is about thirty decibels lower and a little mousey.
“I think it’s time for you to go,” he says.
ARGUMENTUM AD CRUMENAM
(OR, “APPEALS TO WEALTH”)
Laura stomps out of his office and into the hallway, then pivots and yells at him: “I pay tuition here! I pay good money! I pay your salary and you can’t treat me like this! My father gives lots of money to this school! Like more than you make in a year! He’s a lawyer and he’s going to sue you! You just took this to a whole nother level! I am going to own you!”
And with that she pivots again and stomps away and turns the corner and disappears.
Samuel closes his door. Sits down. Stares at his potted windowsill plant—a pleasant little gardenia that’s presently looking droopy. He picks up the mister and squirts the plant a few times, the squirting making this slight honking noise like a small duck.
What is he thinking? He’s thinking that he’s likely going to cry now. And Laura Pottsdam will probably indeed get him fired. And there’s still an odor in his office. And he’s wasted his life. And oh how he hates that word nother.