The Betty Incident

My alma mater, Brigham Young University, is famous for having a strict Honor Code. It pops up frequently in news stories, as when BYU is suspending its football players for “Honor Code violations,” which means they were drinking and committing sexual felonies. You drink and commit sexual felonies, you’re going to be in violation of the Honor Code, I don’t care how you spin it.

Of course, most universities have honor codes, usually covering the basics of ethical conduct: Don’t cheat on tests, don’t plagiarize, that sort of thing. Even party schools like San Diego State and UNLV have honor codes. (“Students shall refrain from pilfering other guys’ chicks, because dude, that’s not cool.”) But BYU’s is noteworthy for going further than just prohibiting basic dishonest behavior. Since it’s a privately owned religious institution, it can require its students to follow strict guidelines even in their personal, non-academic lives. The BYU Honor Code, therefore, has a lengthy list of things that are forbidden if one is to continue being a student at BYU.

Which brings us to the story of the time I got in trouble for violating the Honor Code.

I will tell you up front that I was guilty of the thing I was accused of. This separates me from most of the students who deal with the Honor Code Office, as they usually insist they are innocent. If you are their friends, you are required to believe them and become indignant that the Honor Code Office is hounding them so relentlessly, and then, when you find out later that your friends actually HAD done what they were accused of and simply didn’t want to admit it to you, you are allowed to be a little cheesed off. Or so I’m told.

Here is what happened to me. Picture it: Provo, 1998. I was in the middle of one of my occasional phases where I lift weights in an attempt to re-shape my body into something more pleasing and less resembling a bag of zucchini. My friend Rob and I were working out three times a week in BYU’s weight-room facilities, each pestering the other into showing up so that neither of us could weasel out of it.

One day, we approached the preacher curl station (though BYU calls them “bishop curls”) only to find a woman occupying it, sort of. She was really just standing near it, working with free weights, and her towel was on the preacher curl bench. We wondered if perhaps she was attempting to be in two places at once, to stand there with her free weights, and also to do preacher curls. Perhaps she meant for her towel to “save” the bench for her, the way coats can save seats at the movies. Perhaps the towel was doing its own exercises. We had seen the woman here before. She was a Cuban gal in her early 40s, out of place among the college-aged caucasians who generally populated the gym, and we later learned that she was the wife of a faculty member. I asked her if the towel was hers, and she said no. So we moved the owner-less towel and began using the preacher curl bench.

Now, in the process, we kind of had to squeeze past the woman, as she was standing very near the bench, not close enough to be using it, just close enough to be in the way. In the process of squeezing past her, Rob said, “Excuse me,” such as a civilized person would say in a situation such as this. Most people, were they in the woman’s shoes, would have thought, “Oh. I am too close to this piece of equipment. I will take one step in the opposite direction so as to give these attractive, sweaty young men more space.”

This evidently did not occur to the woman, whose name we later learned was Betty. Instead, Betty began to harass us about how we had invaded her space. When I, as the spokesman for Rob and myself, tried to explain that we weren’t in her way, and that she would not feel crowded if she would simply move away from the equipment that she was not using, she responded with even more hysterical verbal hectoring. She told us that she was old enough to be our mother, and that we ought to be more respectful, and that we ought to wait until she was done before we started using the equipment (the equipment that she wasn’t using anyway, I am obliged to point out). She flatly refused to take one step backward and thus be away from us; in fact, we had to move the curl bench ourselves so that we could use it, and so that she could continue standing in the area she had designated as Betty’s Spot.

All the while, she kept going on and on, quite angrily. She wouldn’t let us get a word in edge-wise, and edge-wise is usually the way I am best able to get words in. I tried to tell her that we had not been rude, and that Rob had even said “excuse me,” and her response was that he had NOT said “excuse me.” I told her he had; she insisted he hadn’t.

I’m afraid that was my breaking point. I am a great lover of truth and fact and concrete evidence. I suppose an insane Cuban woman could construe our behavior — the polite “excuse me,” the calm responses to her angry badgering, and so forth — to have been rude. Rudeness is subjective. Perhaps in her native land “excuse me” and unemotional conversation are the very height of impudence. I don’t know. But Rob having said “excuse me” was not an issue for debate. He HAD said it, very clearly, and no amount of paranoia or persecution-complex behavior could change that fact.

Seeing that she was going to fight me on this issue — this very black-and-white, clear-cut issue — I became frustrated, knowing now that there would never be an end to her ranting and raving. And so my brain conjured the following message: “Shut up.” Except somewhere between my brain and my mouth, the message was altered so that it came out this way: “Shut the hell up.”

Well. I might just as well have smacked her in the face with an anvil. Shut the hell up she did, let me tell you! Her eyes widened, her mouth fell open, and she dropped her weights to the floor. Now so enraged she could barely speak — a state I was surprised to learn she had the capacity for — she stormed over to the attendant’s booth. She made it clear she wanted to make a federal case of my extremely mild profanity, saying she was going to call the Honor Code and the university police, which she did. Meanwhile, Rob and I continued doing our preacher curls, trying to be as nonchalant as possible, that heightened sense of self-awareness flooding over us the way it does after you’ve been part of a public spectacle. I said to Rob, by way of explanation, “I’m as surprised as you are. I just meant to say ‘Shut up.'”

While waiting for law-enforcement to arrive, Betty stomped back over to me and Rob, demanding to know our names. We declined to reveal this information, as Betty’s temper was hot enough that, for all we knew, she would show up at our apartments and murder us, or at the very least subject us to further haranguing. She stormed away and made some more phone calls, probably to the National Guard.

The situation was now way out of hand, so Rob and I approached her and apologized. I told her I had lost my temper and that I was sorry. (I’m pretty sure I would not do this today, if the person truly needed shutting up the way Betty did. This was long ago, in 1998, when I was meeker.) But Betty said she would not accept our apology unless Rob admitted to and apologized for pushing her — which, I hasten to point out, he had not done. He had brushed past her, perhaps, but he had not pushed her. Heavens, Rob was a strong man. If he had pushed her, she’d have been doing all her shouting from the floor. But since Rob would not apologize for the thing he had not done, Betty would not accept our apology and continued making phone calls to dignitaries and law-enforcement agencies.

The university police eventually arrived, at which point Betty suddenly dropped her claim that Rob had pushed her (which, had it been true, would have been the only semi-crime we’d been guilty of). So the police just sort of talked to us for a minute and left. Rob went on to work for them, and he is now a police officer himself.

But the Honor Code Office was a different story. They deal frequently in things that are not illegal but that are nonetheless morally questionable, things like dressing immodestly, or shoplifting. Since Betty filed a complaint against me with them, they were obligated to follow through on it, to see if any punishment was warranted. Someone from the office called me and set up an appointment, and I ventured into the storied halls of the Honor Code Office.

I met with a slight, bespectacled man who looked like an accountant. I pictured him hunched over his desk, calculating numbers of Honor Code infractions on an adding machine. He read Betty’s complaint to me, and I offered clarifications of her wild exaggerations and outright lies. For example, in her official report, which was replete with revisionist history that made her look sane and us abusive, her reason for not accepting our apology was not because Rob wouldn’t admit to pushing her, but because we wouldn’t tell her our names. (She did not indicate why we didn’t accept HER apology for being a screeching maniac in the first place; it was because she never offered one.) Her version of things also conspicuously omitted how good I looked in my P.E.-issue shorts.

Now, as strict as the BYU Honor Code is, the only thing I had done that was an actual violation of it was the swearing — when I had told her to “shut the hell up.” So the Honor Code man asked me if that part was true. I told him it was. He said, in a tone that suggested he was tired of frivolous complaints made by every self-righteous, easily offended student at BYU, but nonetheless was resigned to dealing with them, “You know that sort of language is inappropriate, right?” I said, “Hell yeah.”

Just kidding. I wish I had said that! Man, that would have been awesome. I actually just said, “Yeah.” He said, “So don’t do it anymore, OK?” I told him I wouldn’t — though I will confess, now that I have safely graduated, that in fact I went on to tell a number of people to shut the H-word up, though few as deserving as Betty was.

Post-script: Betty also filed a report with the P.E. department, and I had to meet with the department chair — well, the guy who occupied it, not just the chair itself — to assure him that such confrontations were not common in my life and that it would not happen again, at least not as far as I was concerned; I couldn’t speak for Betty, who of course had provoked the whole thing in the first place with her screaming, irrational rudeness. Betty also sent a letter to the faculty adviser of BYU’s Daily Universe, where I was a columnist, suggesting that a person of my low moral standing should not be given a position where students might look up to him. The adviser told her that any student looking for guidance from a guy who writes a humor column in a student newspaper probably deserves whatever misdirection he gets. And that, I suppose, probably shut her up again.

Rob and I still occasionally mention The Betty Incident, recalling it with great fondness and bemusement. We wonder: Was the towel on the bench hers after all? Had she, in fact, been using the equipment, and we simply hadn't seen her doing it? That would explain why she was so put out, though it still wouldn't explain why she didn't just SAY that, instead of screaming at us.

While browsing through my old files, recently I came across the "Statement of Facts" that I had to write for the Honor Code Office, explaining my side of things. It was a response to Betty's "Statement of Facts," which was full of non-facts and which I felt needed a response, and reading it made me think perhaps I should share the story with everyone. A few sentences from this column came directly from my report, though for the most part the report was fairly dry and did not lend itself to transmission as a "humor column."

One of the perks of this particular column: coming up with synonyms for "harass." I like "hector" and "harangue," both of which also start with "H," as does the word that was the key to the whole incident. I shudder to think what might have happened if I'd taken my command to Betty a step further, profanity-wise. Luckily, words worse than "hell" weren't in my regular vocabulary, so none were in danger of slipping out unbidden. Let that be a lesson to you!