Charles scans his seminar group, doing a quick headcount. Fifteen. He glances towards the clock and sighs. It’s already five after. He thinks it isn’t too much to ask for all the students to at least show up for the first day. Still, it isn’t fair to keep the rest of the class waiting for just one student.
Gathering his notes, he calls the group to attention, fifteen sets of eyes immediately focusing in on him. It’s his third semester as a TA, and he still finds himself flustered under the collective gaze of his students.
The first day is always largely administrative: handing out the syllabus, going over attendance and coursework policies, letting them know the date of the exam so far in advance that it was impossible for them to claim a conflict at the end of term.
Still, he has hopes of delving into at least some of the course material, letting the students know what they’d be in for.
After thirty minutes of the same ridiculous questions about missed classes and coursework that he fields every term, Charles checks the time and grins. He still has twenty minutes.
Just as he reaches for his lecture notes, the door slams open, revealing a tall, hard-eyed boy. He doesn’t even have the decency to look ashamed as all the eyes in the room turn towards him.
“Sorry,” the boy mumbles half-heartedly. “I had—“
“Take a seat,” Charles firmly cuts him off. They always have excuses. If he accepted every one, no one would ever come to class on time. “You must be Erik Lehnsherr,” he glances down at his attendance sheet. “You’re over half an hour late, Mr. Lehnsherr. You’ve missed quite a lot of important material.”
The boy just nods, ducking his head and striding to an open desk at the back of the room, not meeting the eyes of his peers. If it wasn’t against university policy to read the thoughts of his students, Charles knows the murmur at the back of his mind would be all about the new student. Some of the students look annoyed, others simply amused, enjoying the schadenfreude. There is very little sympathy evident.
“Can someone please pass Mr. Lehnsherr a syllabus?” Charles asks, knowing there are extras floating somewhere within the group.
The boy grabs for the paper handed to him and bows his head over it. The hard, lean lines of his slender body are all the more evident in his tense posture.
“We’ve already gone over all the course policies, but most of the information is reflected on the first page of your syllabus. Do you have any questions?”
“Yeah,” the boy’s voice is deep and slightly accented. “When is the exam?”
Charles sighs, not even bothering to hide his annoyance. “I covered that at the beginning of class.”
“I just want to make sure—”
“It’s December 21st,” Charles interrupts, eyes flicking to the clock. He still has ten minutes. He might be able to squeeze in at least the intro to next week’s lecture topic. “Now, if you can all open your books…”
Lehnsherr’s raised hand looms in the air.
“I want just wondering how much attendance affects our grade?”
“Planning on missing more classes already?” Charles asks archly. One of the girls in the front row giggles.
“No, I just—“
“I think it’s unfair to make your classmates sit through this material a second time, especially since they all managed to show up on time. If you have any more questions, you can ask one of your peers, or come to my office hours.”
Lehnsherr glares, closing his mouth into a hard line.
Charles refuses to be cowed. He won’t let one insolent student ruin his first class. “Opening your books,” he repeats, “to the introduction. You’ll see that we will be studying the basic components of biology.”
As the students filter out of the room ten minutes later, Lehnsherr doesn’t even spare Charles a glance. He doesn’t look particularly inclined to ask any of his classmates to fill him in on the material he had missed, and given the hard set of his jaw as he strides past Charles’ desk, Charles is pretty sure he won’t be seeing him at his office hours, either.
Oh, well, Charles thinks, packing up his bag. Every class has one trouble student.
The next week Charles looks out over the sea of fifteen faces with a kind of grim satisfaction. No Lehnsherr.
As predicted, he hadn’t heard from the boy during the previous week, not even a quick email to confirm course policies.
Disappointment had welled up in him as he noted the small “M” next to Lehnsherr’s name on his student ledger. Mutants had fought so hard to be treated like everyone else, to get a chance to attend University and get a job and not face the kind of discrimination that had haunted their kind for decades. And Lehnsherr was throwing it all away.
Charles starts class at the hour, on the dot. No point in waiting for a student that doesn’t seem to care whether he even knows where to hand in his coursework.
Fifteen minutes into Charles’ introduction to basic biological principles, Erik Lehnsherr slips into the room, at least trying to be less conspicuous than the previous week.
Charles barely resists the urge to roll his eyes as the boy slides quietly into the seat nearest to the door, arranging himself as if to project the idea that he had been there all along.
“Nice of you to join us, Mr. Lehnsherr,” Charles says.
His colleagues often chided him for being too lenient with the students, too sympathetic to their myriad problems and plights, but the absolute indifference in Lehnsherr’s eyes does nothing to endear him to Charles, and he finds himself being almost hard on the boy.
“And only fifteen minutes into class,” he continues, pointedly looking towards the clock above the door. “Maybe next week you’ll actually be on time.”
Any other student would have flushed at his words, at being so publicly shamed. But Lehnsherr just stares back, face passive, blue eyes hard.
Charles looks away first.
“As I was saying,” he pointedly focuses on the other students, the ones who had been there on time. “DNA and RNA are the initial concepts you must grasp, to understand the biological sciences.”
Out of the corner of his eye, he sees Lehnsherr dutifully taking out his book. Well, at least he’s going to pay attention while he’s here, Charles thinks. It was a small consolation.
Not five minutes later, however, he sees Lehnsherr’s hands disappear under his desk, the telltale signs of a student texting.
He grits his teeth against the annoyance flaring up within him. It was one thing to try and fire off a few discreet texts in a lecture hall of hundreds of students. But in a sixteen-person seminar group? Did he really think Charles wouldn’t notice?
Charles abruptly stops his lecture, turning his eyes to fix firmly on Lehnsherr. The rest of the students follow his gaze, but the boy doesn’t even seem to notice, his head bent over his phone.
“Mr. Lehnsherr,” Charles says pointedly. The kid freezes, his posture stiffening, before he slowly raises his head. “No texting in class. Maybe if you hadn’t missed my discussion of class rules last week, you would know that.”
The kid’s eyes narrow ever so slightly. “Sorry,” he says gruffly. “Won’t happen again.”
“Nevertheless, I think I’ll take your phone for the rest of the class period. Just to be sure.”
Charles has never confiscated a phone before, but he knows he’s well within his rights. The no texting policy is quite firmly enforced.
Rather than handing the device over, however, Lehnsherr’s hand clenches tightly around it. “You can’t.”
Charles knows he’s gaping a bit stupidly, but he isn’t used to open defiance. Students were always trying to see what they could get away with, but they back down when challenged, suddenly appearing apologetic and contrite. He has never had one talk back to him before.
“I most certainly can,” he says firmly, moving out from behind his desk and approaching the boy. He stretches out a hand. “Now, hand it over.”
“It’s an emergency,” Lehnsherr says, the phone still firmly in his grasp.
Charles snorts. An emergency would have someone running from the room, not exchanging texts. “A texting emergency? I don’t think so. Now, either hand over the phone, or leave the classroom.”
Hand still extended, it takes Charles a moment to realize that Lehnsherr is packing up his bag.
“Well then,” Charles says, letting his hand fall back to his side. The boy gives him a sharp look, and then leaves the room, head held high.
Charles turns back to the rest of the class, who look as incredulous as Charles feels. “I do apologize for the number of interruptions today,” he tells the remaining fifteen. “Hopefully next week will go more smoothly.”
It does, but only because Lehnsherr doesn’t turn up at all. Charles draws a large X next to the boy’s name in his ledger, and finds himself enjoying it. He mentally scolds himself. He shouldn’t let a student get to him like this.
Even with a few semesters under his belt, Charles finds it strange, not immediately seeking out the thoughts of those around him. His colleagues speculate that it’s what has made him soft; without knowing for a fact that the students are lying to him, he is inclined to believe even the flimsiest of their excuses.
But the other end of the stick was that he has no way of understanding behavior that is completely incomprehensible to him. He can’t understand why someone like Lehnsherr would waste his education this way, paying for classes he couldn’t even be bothered to show up for. He has taken a space from another student who, while perhaps less qualified, might have made more of the opportunities at hand. Without his powers, Charles can’t muster up any sympathy for actions he finds impossible to understand.
He sighs, closing his ledger and gathering his belongings. Class should have been interruption free that day, but it seemed that all the students kept one eye on the door the entire hour, certain that Lehnsherr would walk in any moment. Charles has to admit that he had turned at the slightest sound from the hall, certain that the boy was finally going to put in an appearance.
Trust him to disrupt my class without even showing up, Charles thinks with a huff.
Lehnsherr had been getting a pass on attendance, because he technically hadn’t missed a class. Just large chunks of them. But now he had a strike against him. Two more times, and Charles would have to report him to the dean, and dock his grade in the bargain.
He wonders if he’ll enjoy that moment when it inevitably comes.
“I just don’t understand,” Charles whines, slumped over in the graduate student lounge. “Why bother signing up for the course if you’re not even going to show up?”
Moira looks at him sympathetically over her coffee. “Maybe he’s one of those arrogant ones who think seminar group is just repeating the material for the slower students. I mean, he attends lecture, right?”
Charles frowns. “I don’t know, actually.” He thinks back to the last few lectures, trying to remember if he spotted the boy or not. But the lecture hall is normally just a sea of faces to him, not to mention the fact that he sits unapproachably in the front row with the other TAs. “I don’t think I’ve seen him, but, well…” he shrugs and Moira nods. They both know how hard it is to keep track of students outside of class. She was approached by a student in the hall once, and, as she later related to Charles, would have sworn on penalty of death that she had never seen the kid before. Turned out he was in two of her seminar groups; he had been crushed to have to explain who he was, and Moira said he had been unusually quiet in every class since.
“Well, look out for him next week. If he’s coming to lecture, it probably means he’s an arrogant prick, but at least you’ll know he’s not entirely blowing off the course.”
“I did tell them right at the beginning that there would be new material covered in seminar, but then again, he wasn’t there for that.”
Moira laughs. “He’ll learn to come to seminar groups when he sees his final grade docked by fifteen percent,” she says pragmatically.
Charles slumps slightly. “Yeah, and that B or C might be enough to put him off Biology entirely.”
Moira reaches out and pats him on the shoulder. “You can’t convert them all, Charles. Some of them will even end up being, horror of horrors, humanities majors.”
At that, Charles has to laugh along. There were always a handful of Freshman bio majors with dreams of being doctors who didn’t realize there’d be quite so much science involved. The TAs kept bets over whether they’d end up being English or Art History majors instead.
“Well, he won’t end up a communications major, at least,” Charles says, thinking of Lehnsherr’s mouth, drawn into a hard, firm line, walking out of class without a word. No, communication obviously wasn’t the student’s strong suite.
Although the other TAs, and even the professors, joked about it, it hurt Charles every time to lose one to another major. He likes to think that he’s inspiring enthusiasm, and even love for the subject in all of his students, and to see them running off for the Humanities department with their tails between their legs is always disheartening. Even if he privately sympathizes with the difficulty they find in organic chemistry.
Even though it feels like term had only just begun, midterms are looming on the horizon, and Charles’ students are showing signs of first-semester nerves. He takes them through the structure of the exam patiently, trying to give as many hints as possible about content without actually cheating.
Lehnsherr’s in class, thank god, so Charles doesn’t have to worry about the inevitable cycle of guilt and frustration that would have come as he decided whether to email the absent student the material he had missed. He hates to leave his students underprepared for an exam, but it is their own responsibility to come to class.
He’s spared the decision, though, with Lehnsherr’s quiet presence in the back of the room. Unlike the other students, he doesn’t ask any questions. He barely takes notes.
Charles eyes him speculatively; the kid has dark circles under heavy eyes. Hungover, Charles thinks with a sigh. He’s seen students like this before—so caught up in the freedom university offers them that they drink their first year away, never making it to a class before noon, and barely keeping their eyes open during exams. Final grades were a harsh wakeup call for a lot of students—and, more importantly, their parents. Chastised and contrite, they file into Charles’ second-year courses, back on track, or not there at all.
He wonders which group Lehnsherr will fall into.
His attention doesn’t linger on the boy for long, however. The rest of the class are in a predictable panic about the approaching exam, worth thirty percent of their grade. Charles ducks his head to conceal a smile. They don’t yet know how easy they have it. Fifteen percent on attendance, fifteen on coursework, thirty on the midterm and forty for the final exam gives them all a good chance of passing the course, even the worst of the students. After this year there will be a lot less hand-holding, and they’ll find themselves faced with finals worth seventy-five or ninety percent of their total grade. Pass or fail in one two hour sitting.
But that’s not something they have to worry about right now, and so Charles kindly answers all their questions, soothing nerves, and directing them to the relevant chapters to study. He knows they’ll all mostly likely wait to cram the night before the exam, but he does his best to make sure they’ll at least pass.
A few will even do well, he thinks, looking out over the group. Those are the ones that make being a TA—and eventually a professor, he hopes—worth it.
Another glance at Lehnsherr, whose head is dropping over his notebook, has him frowning. And then there are the students like Lehnsherr…
Charles glances down at his attendance ledger, and then back up at the clock. It’s two minutes to the start of the exam, two minutes until they shut the doors and bar anyone entrance until the testing period is over. Two minutes until Lehnsherr practically guarantees himself a failing grade.
Charles rubs his temple exhaustedly. He wants to cast his mind out, to see if his errant student is at least close, at least making an effort to show up, but all he’s allowed to do is step out of the open door of the lecture hall and peer down the corridor, listening intently for the of footsteps.
A minute has ticked by, and Lehnsherr still isn’t there.
It’s one thing to miss seminar group, Charles frowns. But skipping an exam is irresponsible to the highest degree. It will have to be reported to Lehnsherr’s advisor, who will then be responsible for sorting out the problem. Charles wonders if it’s drink, or even worse, drugs. Or does the kid really just not care?
Twenty seconds to pulling the door shut, Charles catches the echo of running feet.
“Wait!” he says, catching the hand of his fellow TA, about to swing the door shut.
Lehnsherr rounds the bend and pounds down the hall, running full speed.
“It’s one of mine,” Charles explains to his exasperated colleague.
“Fine,” Azazel huffs. “But you should speak to him about investing in a watch.”
Charles gives the man a grateful smile, wondering why he’s putting himself out for Lehnsherr’s sake.
The kid bolts into the room, one minute past the hour, and takes the exam paper from Charles without a word.
He’s panting as he takes a seat in the front row, bending immediately over the test.
“Alright, everyone,” Professor McCone says. “You have two hours. If you want to leave the room, you must submit your exam. That means no bathroom breaks. If you leave, you’re not coming back in. Everyone got it? All notebooks, books and phones must stay in your bag for the duration of the exam. If I see a phone, you automatically fail.” The man gives them an incongruously encouraging smile, given the nature of his pre-exam speech. “Good luck, everyone. You may begin.”
Charles and the other TAs are there to answer any questions, to hand out extra pencils to the foolish students who have come without, and to keep an eye out for signs of cheating.
Charles watches Lehnsherr.
It’s not that he thinks the boy will cheat, not really. But the kid hasn’t proven to be a stickler for rules. He waits to see him twitch towards his bag, to see a flash of phone hidden under the desk.
But Lehnsherr just remains bent over his exam, pencil flying furiously over the paper.
Charles moves around the room, fielding innocent questions from the students, and listening to the murmur of pages turning, pencil scratching over paper, and the frustrated sighs of people who don’t know the answer.
Invigilating exams is desperately boring; he wishes they were allowed to bring a book, but that would rather defeat the purpose of having them there in the first place.
Even more, he wishes he were allowed to read the students’ minds. It’s an strange feeling, one he’s not sure he’ll ever get used to, of having so many people in the same room as him, and yet no voice in his head but his own. He had to prove to the administration that he had mastered shielding to even be offered the role of a TA, and his mental wall is high, thick and stifling.
He privately thinks his power would be quite useful in this setting. He’d know who was cheating immediately, without having to worry that he missed the ink on the inside of someone’s arm, or an exchanged whisper here or there.
But no, he’s forced to do things the old fashioned way.
He’s drifting about the room, his mind on his own research, when he sees movement out of the corner of his eye. He turns quickly, in time to see Lehnsherr reaching for his bag.
Of course he would be the student trying to pull something, Charles thinks with anger. He starts off towards him, but then stops as he realizes the kid isn’t trying to be surreptitious, isn’t trying to sneak something out. He’s merely throwing his pencil into his backpack and standing up. Charles glances at the clock and hurries to the front of the room, in time for Lehnsherr to hand him his exam paper with a curt nod.
“Are you sure?” Charles hisses.
The boy stops, surprised.
“It’s only been thirty-five minutes,” Charles whispers. “You haven’t left yet, you could take your paper back. At least go over your answers a few more times?”
The test is designed to take the full two hours. A few students will obviously finish before that, but not this early.
The only way to finish this early is if the kid didn’t know any of the answers. Charles glances down at the paper in his hands. The questions haven’t been left blank, at least, but that doesn’t mean that Lehnsherr hasn’t just bullshitted his way through.
“No,” Lehnsherr tells him with a puzzled frown. “I’m finished.”
Charles sighs. “Alright, then. See you in class.”
The kid doesn’t respond, just turns and walks out of the room. Charles hates having failing grades in his group of students. It’s so disheartening.
He drops the paper off on McCones’ desk and goes back to his patrol.
Charles rubs his temple, depositing the last of the exams in the increasingly messy ‘graded’ pile and glancing at the clock. Only one in the morning; he’s certainly had worse. Still, it is an utter relief to have finished. He sends a momentary thanks to whatever deity might be listening that he teaches biology, and can merely grade on a basis of “right” or “not right.” The notion of trying to grade fifty philosophical essays gives him a migraine. Biology is straightforward; at least when it comes to Freshman year midterms.
He enters the last grade into his excel spreadsheet and sends the document off to McCone. He grades blind, but he’ll get to see his own students’ results tomorrow. It’s always a nerve-wracking time, waiting to see how they did, and, in consequence, how he did teaching them.
He thinks back to Lehnsherr’s early exit from the exam and droops.
Time for bed before he becomes maudlin about not being able to reach every student, he decides, easing out of his chair with a crack of his back and shuffling off to his bedroom. There’s no point dwelling on the ones that don’t want to learn, he tells himself firmly.
His students’ results don’t come through until the late afternoon. The grades won’t be posted for the students for at least another few days, but McCone likes to keep his TAs abreast of how the students are doing, the various successes and failures. Charles has been caught up in his own research, but stops what he’s doing when the email pops up in his inbox. He opens the document and scans the numbers, a smile forming on his face. Several high Bs, only one D, no Fs…
That’s a surprise. He looks back over the document, seeking out Lehnsherr’s name.
Charles blinks, completely astonished.
It’s a good grade. Not just decent, but towards the top of the class. There was one A recorded in his group, but on the whole, Lehnsherr had performed very well.
And in only thirty-five minutes.
Charles actually doesn’t know how the student managed, and if he hadn’t spent most of those thirty-five minutes watching the kid, he would worry that Lehnsherr had cheated.
As it is, he’s forced to re-evaluate his assessment of the boy.
Clearly he’s been paying more attention than Charles gave him credit for—at least in the lectures, which Charles has to assume he shows up for. Charles had thought he just didn’t care about biology. But it seems more likely that he just doesn’t care about Charles’ class.
Which suggests Moira was right in calling the boy arrogant. Perhaps he thinks he’s too bright to need seminar group.
Charles frowns. He’ll have to show Lehnsherr he’s wrong, somehow.