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Staphylococcus, Streptococcus... most people just called them germs. But to pass my nursing course I had to learn the scientific names for the infections we were studying. That wasn’t easy to do while babysitting a house full of kids.
“He’s hitting me!” the oldest boy called from a rug on the floor where the two little boys were playing.
“Leave your brother alone,” I scolded. “Or I might not let you watch your cartoons.”
The boys quieted down. Their baby sister was thankfully asleep. But for how long?
As crazy as these three children could get, I was nothing but grateful for the job. I’d budgeted my years in nursing school down to the penny. Then at the end of the spring semester, 1973, I’d learned I needed to take a summer course on microbiology.
I had no idea how I was going to pay for the fall term until, on the very first day of my summer course, the professor made an announcement.
“As some of you may know, my wife recently passed away. Now it looks like I’m losing my summer babysitting help. I don’t know how to prepare for this class if I can’t find someone to look after my kids.”
I certainly sympathized with his situation. Time for my own studying was at a premium. I couldn’t imagine how hard it was with three children. Especially when he’d just lost his wife. That poor family! I volunteered that very day for the job.
“How about a snack?” I asked the boys. “Peanut butter sound good?”
They raced each other to the kitchen. “I win!” they both shouted when they got there.
“Shh,” I said before they could start fighting in earnest. “Your sister is napping.”
I’d grown to love my job. Some days, instead of going to class, I was allowed to go to Professor Gain’s house, where I was free to study as long as the kids didn’t need my attention. I fixed the boys a snack, put the baby down for her nap, popped in a load of laundry and hit the books.
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Once, on the day of a quiz, I turned on some cartoons for the boys, locked my textbook in the trunk of my car, set the oven timer for 20 minutes and got to work. Professor Gain graded my test when he got home—a perfect score!
As the weeks went by I learned more of Professor Gain’s history. His wife died of an infection right after the baby was born—the very same kinds of infections I was studying. That made me more determined to be the best student I could be.
But that wasn’t always easy with a busy house like this. As the boys finished their snack one day, I heard the baby stirring. I took her into the living room and held her on my lap with my textbook beside us. I had an exam coming up and I wanted to ace it. So far I had a solid A average in class.
The baby squirmed on my lap and knocked my textbook sideways. “Maybe you can help me study these germs,” I said.
I wiggled her fingers and sang, “Pata- cake, pat-a-cake, baker’s man, let’s wash your hands as fast as we can; Staphylococcus, Streptococcus, not for me, scrub those awful germs and watch them flee!”
The baby giggled. Maybe I’ll learn these names after all, I thought.
I was confident when I arrived at Professor Gain’s house that morning, my textbook locked safely away in the trunk of my car again. He’d left the exam on the kitchen counter, along with a note that the baby was running a fever.
She was a little warm when I touched her cheek—nothing serious, but she was sure to be cranky. Out in the living room the boys started quarrelling. “You spilled grape juice on the carpet!”
“Nuh-uh! You did! I’m going to tell!”
I blotted up the spill as best I could and ordered them to settle down. “I’ve got a test to take,” I said. “I need to concentrate.”
I stomped back into the kitchen with the soggy paper towels. I heard a quiet voice behind me. “Things are always getting broken since Mama left,” one of the boys said.
Suddenly my exam didn’t seem so important. “I’ll fix you some more grape juice,” I said. “Why don’t you see what’s on TV? Or we could play catch outside?”
The day flew by. When I wasn’t cheering up the boys, I was comforting their cranky sister. Finally I could put it off no longer. I gave myself two hours and started my exam.
Right away the phone rang with a message for Professor Gain. Then a salesman appeared at the door. I’d barely sat back down when the phone rang again. The baby started to cry.
Ringing phones, crying babies, doorbells...it all swirled around in my head blocking out anything about infections. Clostridium perfringens? I read off my exam when I got back to the kitchen table. I tried to answer an easier question, pressed too hard and snapped the point off my pencil. Great, I thought.
I could see my A average slipping away. All that studying for nothing. It wasn’t fair! The other students were being tested in a quiet classroom.
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I marched into Professor Gain’s office in search of another pencil. I spotted one on the desk, right next to...
The class textbook. Everything I needed to ace my test was right there. Clostridium perfringens? The textbook could tell me what it was.
I stepped closer to the book, then looked quickly over my shoulder. I was sure I’d felt someone come in the room. But there was no one there. Nobody was watching. Nobody would know if I took just a peek.
I turned back to the textbook and stared. Spread out over the cover I was sure I could see the outline of a bright, glistening hand. The hand pressed the book shut so I couldn’t open it and a voice seemed to speak to my heart, “You must take this test on your own, Roberta.”
Shaken, I went back to the kitchen. I finished the test as best I could on my own. That evening I called Professor Gain for the results. “You missed an A by two points, but you’ll get a B-plus for the course,” he said.
I banged my fist against my knee. Darn that clostridium perfringens! “It’s not fair!” I said. “I couldn’t think straight! And there was a textbook in the next room. I could have cheated!”
My hand flew to my mouth. Had I just told my professor I was thinking of cheating? Professor Gain took a while to reply.
“Of course you could have cheated,” he said. “But you didn’t, Roberta. That’s called integrity.”
Forty years later, I never think about that B-plus. But I went on to specialize in infection prevention, teaching hospital staff the importance of washing their hands—even when no one is watching to make sure they do it.
Professor Gain said it was integrity that kept me from cheating that day. But I know I have an angel to thank too.
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