What About Sarah? 10/17/19

Reflections by Richard Bleil

Not long ago, I wrote a blog wherein I stated (and stand by) that I never had an affair with a student. Some people who know me well might be thinking to themselves, “But what about Sarah?” So, okay, let’s talk about Sarah. Whether you agree with my opinion or not, it will at the very least act as a cautionary tale about walking in the gray.

Sarah, for those of you who do not know, was my wife. Yes, the wife I’ve blogged about too many times before; the narcissist, the source of emotional abuse, the alcoholic, the one who took me when I was broken with nothing left and somehow found a way to break me further and take even the nothing I had.

Okay, so, here’s the story. Sarah was a non-traditional student (but still quite a bit younger than I), sow quite a bit older than the typical student which SHOULD have translated to more mature, but I think the alcohol took care of that. She was a student at the university where I was teaching, but was not my student, and although I was teaching a general-education science course, she was not in a major that required my course, and usually students take biology, rather than chemistry, for their general education science course.

Okay, this is gray scale. The strictly technical reason professors cannot date students is because of the potential for favoritism, that is, artificially inflating grades. If your girlfriend (or boyfriend as the case may be, albeit less commonly) wants an “A”, there is a danger the professor will simply assign this grade regardless of what was earned. Now, this should not have been a problem for me (at least not initially, but more on that later) because she was not my student.

The gray comes in partially because of the possibility that she may (and eventually did) take my course, but the more important reason that professors should not date students is because, frankly, it separates the student from her (or his) fellow students. See, if the couple is extremely discrete, the student is still hearing a side of the story that students normally don’t. Professors are human, they can be hurt by comments and actions of their students, although we try very hard not to show it. The professors girlfriend (or boyfriend) will, no doubt, hear this side of the story if they are dating the professor that could affect the way they see, and interact with, the other students. What’s more, if word gets out about their relationship (which it almost always does), the other students will be uncomfortable around this individual. Regardless of the reason, it is really unfair to the student to do this to them. As Sarah was already significantly older than most of the students at the university, she already had one strike against her. By dating her, I only made it worse. This is the sin of which I am guilty.

Sarah and I had a whirlwind romance. She was older, divorced with four boys and I was, well, old, and lonely. We married the following summer. The year after that, she did take my course, and in fact changed her major to mine.

This is a problem. Now I was responsible for teaching her in my discipline, and assessing her work. It’s not exactly common, but it does occur with fair regularity that a spouse will end up taking a course from their significant other. It’s discouraged, but, in cases like mine, if that professor is the only one in the discipline, there’s not a lot of choice in the matter. This is allowed more regularly these days as enrollment declines, and institutions become desperate for students, often encouraging faculty to enroll their spouses for classes (hopefully not the ones they teach) to get their numbers up. In my case, the institution had promised that if I got the number of students up (which I did, increasing majors from four to well over thirty and rivaling the number of majors to those in biology) then they would hire more faculty in my discipline. They never did; I was a solo act from the day I started, to the day I left. I would have insisted she take another faculty for these courses if that were, indeed, an option. But, I had additional oversight when she was taking my classes.

So, there it is. The sordid tale of how I did, indeed, end up with a wife taking my courses. Sadly, in retrospect, I do believe that it is possible that she married me just so I could help her through school. I find it difficult to fathom going so far as marriage to help with grades, but she had me readily available for help not only with chemistry, but also math, physics and even programming (yes, I am actually quite adept at programming), and asked for a divorce as soon as she was done with these courses. And I paid my price; walked out on my well paying and guaranteed job in part because of her jealousy (although there were other reasons, so I may have left anyway), lost my life savings and retirement, and ended up having a heart attack, lonely and alone. I definitely paid the price. Technically, I didn’t do anything wrong, but I did walk in the shadows. If I had to do it over again, I wouldn’t. But, some lessons have to be learned the hard way. I hope that, some day, maybe I can stop paying the bill.

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