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To the Professor Who Told Me to ‘Pay More Attention’


I never thought I would go to university. I just didn’t think it was in the cards for me. I went straight from school to work, and from one job into the next, until I eventually found myself the age of 22, in a high-stress job, weighed down by stress, pressure, and depression. Not how I expected my twenties to go!

So, I did the only thing I could think to do. I signed up for a university degree course. I had always loved reading and getting lost in a world of fiction was something that had made my childhood a safe and comforting place to be, so an English Literature degree seemed like a natural choice, not to mention an easy one — being able to study books?! That’s the dream, right?

I should’ve realized that life didn’t want to make it quite that easy for me, and within months of starting my course I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia. Learning to balance my symptoms and appointments with my coursework and assignments was a challenge I hadn’t anticipated, and not one I was particularly pleased about. (Who would be?) But there was a glimmer of sunshine in this rainstorm — leaving the job that was slowly sucking the life out of me, because my health was deteriorating. Fibromyalgia has taken a lot from me over the years, but in that one area, it may well have saved me.

My coursework continued, and each year brought new challenges. No matter how many extensive disability profiles I completed, or how many emails I sent out, I just couldn’t seem to get the across to my professors about just how severe fibromyalgia could be. I kept up with my coursework, and for the most part hit my deadlines, thankfully my complete lack of social life (another fibro symptom) made it easier to pace myself and time these things.

But as the years went on and the work got harder it just got more and more difficult to keep up with those deadlines. Because the thing is, there were just so many words. So many in fact, that my brain in the end stopped processing them. Every year I updated that disability profile, and I informed my professors at the beginning of the year of my disabilities — not to get them to make allowances for me, but so that hopefully they’d understand that if there’s a small oversight here or there, that it’s not just carelessness.

None of my professors have truly appreciated what it’s like to study with fibromyalgia, but for the most part they have accommodated it and accepted it. Which is all we can really ask for, after all, without actually experiencing the illness it’s impossible to really appreciate it.

Nobody should have to study with fibromyalgia. Nobody should have to suffer from it, full stop — but studying with it seems like extra torment. But those who do study with it deserve all the support they can get. That’s the very least that we deserve.

Opening assignment feedback is something that always makes me nervous, maybe even more nervous than opening my marks, because this is someone actually critiquing my work. But nothing could’ve prepared me for the punch-in-the-gut feeling I received the day that my professor told me I should “pay more attention” to my work and assignment prep. It took all the strength I had in me not to cry. Those three little words had the power to crush.

Because, professor, what you didn’t know is that I read the assignment prep all the way through, five times. I also spent an entire week doing nothing but eating, sleeping, and breathing that assignment. That 2,000-word essay that you’ve underlined and criticized, questioned and dismissed, that work took an entire week’s strength.

I know that for you, the essay sat in front of you is just one of over a dozen.

I know that you’ve got a sheet of criteria to look for, and maybe this time I just missed that. But what you don’t know is that I prioritized this essay over self-care. I made no-cook meals because trying to cook and study would’ve just been too damn much.

You see, I’ve not just sacrificed, I’ve worked hard. I’ve pulled my hair out — literally — because I couldn’t work out what to write. I’ve cried for hours, because I’ve felt like I was failing, and I don’t do failure. I have made this course the focal point of the last four years of my life, and you’re telling me to pay more attention?!?!

I guess professor, the point of this, is to thank you. Because you made me realize that the work I’m pushing for and fighting for, it’s not for you — it’s for me. And if it’s for me, then the only opinion that really matters is my own…and if I was happy enough to submit that work sat in front of you, then it must be pretty damn OK by my books.

I know you’ll likely never see this, but part of me hopes you will. Because if you do, I truly hope that’ll mean the next time you have someone with a chronic illness in your class, that you
might take their disability into consideration, before writing something so tactless.

I hope that you might realize, that a throwaway comment to you, can cruelly cut someone else to their core. So yeah, I hope you’ll see this. And I hope you’ll pay more attention.

Photo credit: SeventyFour/Getty Images