It’s a strange story. Well, not that I won the prize for a story that will be published online with an audio version as well, but the story behind the story, the one about how it came to be. Enough to make anyone believe in Karma.
I was in my last year of teaching at a Los Angeles private university where my Dean had a serious dislike for me for reasons never stated. It started almost the first semester she was put in place as my boss. I won’t list the humiliating accusations she leveled against me from the start always a brouhaha signifying nothing. Threats by this dean were always aimed at causing me panic, but they were never about anything real.
I enrolled at my own expense in an online writing class at Stanford, a short story course taught by the novelist Lewis Robinson. It was fairly expensive for a part time instructor, but I was excited about hearing what this young new novelist had to teach me about my craft. The class lasted 10 weeks and about seventeen of us, were visited weekly by Robinson via Skype. On the last day of the class, it was my turn to hear his evaluation of the work I had produced during the semester.
It was my day off, and since I did not have WiFi in my little Hollywood apartment, I brought my laptop to my cubby hole cubicle and was at my desk totally engaged awaiting my turn for final discussion of my stories. The instructor filled the Skype window with a strip of “live” students across the top. At the very moment when my turn came, the Dean barged into my little spot, her assistant dean close behind, saying in an excited and angry tone, “You are in serious trouble!” Despite my begging her to allow me to continue my last online class on my own time on my day off, she continued to berate me and told me I was to be at a meeting at 7:30 the next morning where I would be faced with a committee of faculty and the student who said I wrongly accused her of plagiarizing her final paper for a class, and that she was bringing an advocate, an “alum” to speak on her behalf and I was in real trouble. This played out in front of eighteen witnesses watching my tongue-lashing threats- on my laptop. Needless to say, the distress and embarrassment this caused me set my heart racing, and that was the end of my interaction with Lewis Robinson. It was a distressing, frustrating, inconclusive ending to the class.
I had never in over forty years of teaching been brought before a grievance committee, and the first meeting the following morning was an ad hoc meeting with the accusing student, her advocate, (a former student I had once failed for plagiarism), the Supervisor of the English Department, the Dean, Assistant Dean, and other faculty I cannot remember due to the anxiety I felt in the hot seat at a conference table. The two students were allowed to stand and harangue me, insult, and threaten me with petitioning my termination, saying they were going to the dorm after the meeting to get student signatures to “swear” I was prejudiced (the students were Hispanic. I am not.) and berated me for being a bad teacher and worse than that a “bad person.” The personal diatribe went on so long that eventually my supervisor felt it had gone too far and stopped the meeting. It was without a doubt the most horrible experience of my long career as a teacher with many awards, e.g., Future Teachers of America for encouragement and support, Faculty of the Year award by students from two campuses, and an ISAE award for service to students.
In the grievance committee meeting the following week. I was interrogated by the head of the committee and the Art Department, and one other faculty member from yet another department; my immediate supervisor was present although when asked said nothing in my defense. I felt so much anxiety and sharp pains in my chest that I knew I had to rush to the hospital immediately when the ordeal was over.
The irate accusing student had said in the first meeting with her advocate that I had not checked her paper on Turnitin (a corporation that checks electronically for plagiarism), or any other technology and therefore had no proof it was plagiarized. So, I agreed, in the Grievance meeting to allow them to put the paper through the Turnitin site for an electronic check. The committee sent it to the IT specialist who managed Turnitin at the university and it came back 99 % plagiarized. I was vindicated. It was all another much ado about nothing accusation against a veteran teacher who could, by now, tell a student’s authentic voice.
I drove to the hospital immediately out of the meeting to have an MRI that proved I would have been dead in a short while had I not gone to the doctor. It was not my heart, but a silent thyroid growth that was about to choke off my windpipe. The physician told me if I had not come in that day I would have died very soon with a sudden inability to get my breath.. So, the whole trial saved my life. The student received an F for the course. Her advocate was exposed as a graduate who couldn’t get a job in her field after being fired because she could not write proper English. Not only was I exonerated, the dean was dismissed from administrative duties and sent back to teaching, and my life was saved.I retired.
As for the unhappy ending of the Stanford writing course, I don’t remember the prompt that resulted in the short story I sent off to Fiction Southeast Literary Journal. The judge was the young writer,David Galef. There were five finalists. He picked my story, “The Night Packet.” This year I am the winner of the Ernest Hemingway Prize in Short Fiction. I have another short story online at Foliate Oak, a student run literary journal in Arkansas, and a poem coming up in May in Orchards Poetry Journal, and on April 24th a professional theater group directed by Dr. Sharon Carnicke of USC is giving me a lovely honor, presenting an evening of three of my one act plays on April 24th in Los Angeles.
Sometimes it just works out that justice is served! I am happily retired from a plethora of “bosses” and run my own silent retreats and seminars high in the California alpine village of Crestline where we never have more than 6 writers at a time. We also take mindfulness walks down by my lake in the forest with gluten-free, vegan brown bag lunches on sunny days of anxiety-free creative writing.
Check it out! No pressure, not one mean person in sight. Only peace, quiet, and creativity.
http://www.foliateoak.com “A Pigeon’s Life” Flash fiction (February)
http://www.scribeaway.org Summit Seminars
Later this month First place Ernest Hemingway Prize https://fictionsoutheast.org
In May: a poem, “Grief” hhtps://orchardspoetry.com
An Evening of Joan Eyles Johnson: “Odile” “Dancing to the Epistle”and Hislop’s Fables” Three one act plays. The Stanislavsky Studio in Echo Park.