Saturday, March 10, 2012

The Student Who Scared Me

Enough time has passed, I think I can tell this.

I was about to start teaching a 6-week summer class at FAU: Advanced Exposition, one of my favorite classes to teach, a writing class focused on applying Classical Rhetoric to modern contexts, the logos in your blog post, that sort of thing.

A day or two before the term started, I got a weird email. It came in through my website's contact page, which generally attracts two parts spam to one part fan mail. The fan mail comes in for my creative writing, and is generally along the lines of, "I read your story in {X} and just wanted to send you a note telling you I loved it..." I usually reply, "thank you for reading," and, "it's gratifying to hear back from readers -- I appreciate it."

But that one summer right at the start of the term I got something weird: poetry. Creepy deathy love poetry. Very, very bad poetry. No context, no message. Was an old student sending me recent work? Was this a message intended for someone else? I had no idea. There was a return email (it contained the word "diamond" and a number), and I considered inquiring to get some context ("did you send to this to me by mistake?"), but in the end I decided to just ignore it.

Then summer classes started.

There was a man in my class who was very uncomfortable. It was really my only initial thought. He was touchy and flinchy. No matter what examples of rhetorical technique I showed them, he got angry. He would question everything. He tried to ask me catch questions "who translated that?!" but they happened to be ones I could answer ("it was translated by Theo Cuffe in 2005"). The fact that I could answer upset him visibly.

He stormed out of the room a lot, but always came back. The day we analyzed Sojourner Truth's short but effective "Ain't I a Woman?" speech, he stormed out three times, and came back after about 10 minutes each time. It was clear that a lot of his objections came from a religious and conservative place, but the origin had little to do with the objective. There was this strange energy in him, sudden and violent, and a complete discomfort in the world, like he were being nipped by little invisible alligators all the time.

The first time I had the students work in groups, he declared himself the group leader, came to a very quick, very wrong conclusion, then tried to bully the others, so completely unwilling to hear any other opinion or even allow the others to talk amongst themselves without his interference that for that group the project was pointless. He had the attitude that he was completely above this class and the material, that the other students were mere children, utterly beneath him and unworthy of voicing opinions, and yet his competence was blindingly low. He'd look at the problems, intuit a random answer, and then go forth with full confidence that the random gibberish that welled up from his subconscious was God-given genius.

I knew he would be a difficult student. But then they submitted their first assignment.

When I opened his, my gut fell through the floor. It was the same bad poetry, the same deathy love song that had appeared in my inbox before the term, only now it was pages long: "We were meant to be together" was the gist of some of it, but he didn't just mean him and me, he was talking about the whole class. According to his weird poem-essay-philosophy, all of our lives were just excuses to get us into this classroom with him right now so our true fates could begin. There was more: actually, the majority of it I truly could not decipher, because it was too incoherent.

I have never shown any of it to anyone, but I believe it's okay to provide a small taste:

Do we pass under our doorway and immediately conform to the wind, or do we harness our wind, forging an alliance, procuring a confidant. Does reason recommend acknowledging the present, or forebearing today in order to secure tomorrow? The future breathes not, its birth is contingent upon my presence.

Optimize potential,
ruminate profound,
eliminate adventure,
Sorrow Sealing Sound.

Captivate enchantment,
model purity,
sanctify existence,
snowflake Sanity.

If it weren't for the weird pre-term poem email, and if I hadn't already met him and gotten a sense of how impulsive and aggressive he could be, I wouldn't have found this anything but nonsensical, weird, and inappropriate, and certainly not what he was assigned (the assignment was to tell the straightforward narrative of an important event in your life).

But by now I was starting to find this a little scary. It's never fun telling a student that his work was unacceptable and must be done over, but in this case I didn't know what to expect. Would he blow up? He didn't. He just asked over and over what was wrong with it. I focused on the assignment and explained what the assignment was supposed to be: practice at narrating events in a clear way. He left saying he would do it over, but he didn't -- this was the last piece of writing he submitted.

He did stay in the class for two more weeks, though, struggling the whole way, getting more and more agitated. I actually asked my partner to come sit in on my class, something I'd never even considered before, but I backed out of that plan; I don't like the idea of seeming or being "weak" and bringing a man to class to sit and play police seemed like the ultimate show of weakness. Still, this student was starting to scare me.

The last day I saw him he was as uncomfortable as he'd been in my class. He stormed out a lot. He barked out a lot of inappropriate questions. I had to address him directly and explain that we were focusing on a certain subject today, and that we had to stay on that subject. At one point a fellow student of his, who I believe was also a youth minister, went after him to counsel him. According to that student, he didn't even know why he was upset, he just was.

At the end of that class period several students wanted to talk to me, and the angry student just sat and waited. I realized he wanted to get me alone. He'd been getting angrier and angrier for all of a three hour class period. I should have had my partner come sit in the class with me, I thought with a sinking stomach. And then, when the last student left the room and it was just him and me, he did the scariest thing he'd done all semester: he smiled.

His personality changed like the closing classroom door had flipped a switch. Suddenly he wanted to flatter me and make small talk. Then he started revealing that he knew details about my life: "so you went to school in Fayetteville? How did you like it there?" I tried to keep it light. I answered his questions. I told him Fayetteville was peaceful, that if you liked peaceful places, you'd like it there. That seemed to stop him and make him think. He started talking about peace and how he liked that. I got all my stuff together and moved towards the door. He had a few more things to say, and followed me to the stairs. When it looked like he was going down the stairs too, I faked left and said I needed to get something from my office. 

When I got to my office my heart was pounding. It was a few days before the mid-term drop date, so I sat down right there and sent him an email suggesting that, since he'd turned in no work, he should withdraw. The weekend ticked by. I was scared at home, now. I was sitting on my couch watching TV, but I wasn't thinking about Mythbusters: I was looking at the windows. Could he be out there, watching me? Ready to do something crazy? I decided that if he didn't drop the class before the W date, I was going to have to talk to someone: ask someone to come and sit in my class, do something.

But the next week came, and he was gone. After class I checked: he showed up on my roster as withdrawn -- welcome news. But I was still feeling the fear, especially when I was home alone. The things he'd said and written seemed so personal -- he'd looked up where I'd gone to school! And he was so impulsive, so angry, so unhappy and uncomfortable. Everything in me said this is the kind of guy who snaps and "does" something. So even though he wasn't in my class anymore, I was still nervous. Finally the last week of class came. My students finished up their final projects and I went online to register their final grades.

His name was still on the roster -- that's normal, it should have had a "W" next to it. But it didn't. Next to his name it said, DECEASED.

I immediately googled his name. This student had a very unusual name, so the news story about his death popped up right away. Apparently, right after I'd spoken to him, he'd hitch-hiked north to Fayetteville North Carolina (the school I went to was in Fayetteville Arkansas, but a lot of people get them mixed up). The police just outside of Fayetteville NC found him in a roadside ditch, injured and dehydrated. It's possible someone attacked him, or that he was thrown (or jumped) from a car.

They took him to the local hospital, and when he regained consciousness, he attacked the doctors and nurses and ran to the nearest window -- probably not realizing that it was 7 stories up. He forced the window open (it was supposed to stop at 1 inch, but he busted it way past that), and jumped to his death. His body landed right in front of the hospital's main entrance: they had to close it off for some time.

I read the story, and I was overwhelmed with relief. Yes, that sounds awful, I'm sure, but it's true. I'd been in a constant low-level state of fear for weeks. Death is tragic. The self-inflicted death of a troubled soul is perhaps more tragic. But knowing that he didn't take anyone with him? That's not tragic, that's something else. Weeks and weeks of tension slipped from my body. I was so grateful! He was troubled and unhappy and he clearly needed help that he could not get -- but he didn't take anyone with him. This seemed to me like a small, precious miracle.


Sandy Longhorn said...

Wow. Thanks for writing about this. Sending you lots of love.

Mary said...

I've had an alarming student too, although maybe not quite as alarming as yours, and I had to constantly coach myself that it wasn't "crazy" for me to tell my principal that the student wasn't welcome in my classroom. Of course, my principal ultimately pushed him back in there, and I allowed it to happen-- weakness on my part. Another story for another day.

Something that is often left out of the dialogue about how America's teachers are incompetent is the fact of how much danger we are often in, locked in rooms with a wide cross-section of the public. Being unnerved by a threatening student every day-- with little to no recourse-- will definitely bring down a teacher's job performance!