I chose my seat carefully. Second row. I didn’t want to seem too eager even though it was hard to mask considering I had arrived 35 minutes early.
It was my first college English class. There were only 250 people in World Literature. My anxiety was mixed with shame– I felt like a petty thief sitting there when I should have been in the introduction class because my AP English score was only a 3. But my advisor had signed a form that allowed me to take a class alongside sophomores and graduating seniors looking for that one last liberal arts credit.
Everyone looked so worldly.
Even Sharla Watts.
She sat next to me and there was no one else in our row. For some reason the upperclassmen opted to sit in the back.
Sharla was a junior from Mart, Texas. Her accent was so thick I thought she was joking when she opened her mouth. She called me “Dallas” and made fun of how many notes I took during class. She always wore a maroon shirt emblazoned with the command “Gig ‘Em.”
Our first paper was due on October 8. I fretted over my typewriter wrestling with the deeper meaning of Gulliver’s Travels. “What’s the big deal, Dallas?” Sharla chided me for perseverating over my draft. (She didn’t know that the secret to good grades was worrying. Lots and lots of worrying.)
As the professor came around to collect the papers I read Sharla’s first page. I had never seen such perfect prose. She used the word “sublimely” and almost all of her sentences were complex enough for semi-colons.
Shit. I looked at my own stupid paper– nothing more complex than the word “theme.” Not a semi-colon in sight.
I’m going to fail.
I almost got up right there to withdraw from the class. My stomach hurt so bad that I couldn’t take notes during the Paradise Lost lecture.
“You don’t look so hot, Dallas,” Sharla noted after class. I was too embarrassed to face her– with her insistent school spirit and raggedy command of the English language– she was actually a scholar. I was just a poseur who was dumb enough to think she could do something as important as literature.
I cried back in my dorm room. I was too ashamed to withdraw (and too lazy to walk across campus to figure out how to do it) but accepted I would probably get a C and have to change my major to the nebulous speech communications.
On the day the papers were handed back, Sharla didn’t show up for class. I figured she was sick or out of town.
Right before the TAs walked through the aisles returning our papers, the professor stopped his lecture. “This is a reminder that plagiarism will not be tolerated and your classmate who copied Harold Bloom’s essay on Gulliver’s Travels is being disciplined. Cheating may result in expulsion.”
My grade on the paper was a modest A-.
I never saw Sharla again.