Right now, in my office, pinned to the miniscule corkboard, next to the miniscule whiteboard, wedged between my desk and my overflowing bookshelf, is a piece of paper, folded into 4, sealed with a staple. My colleague Darwin gave it to me a few weeks ago. “Don’t open it,” he said. “I just wanted someone to have the name I wrote down here, in case something happens.” Darwin’s a big guy, with long flowing white hair and a white beard; he’s been teaching for years, and he’s an elderly hippy who plays folk music in his spare time. He’s mellow and popular with his students, not the kind of guy you’d imagine would get freaked out by even the weirdest student. But there it is, that white square of folded paper, that says even the most experienced teacher can find himself wondering about his own safety.
A couple of years ago, I was doing some adjunct work, teaching a fiction class at a Catholic college. One of my students was a very strange boy, prone to odd outbursts in class. He took a lot of the stories very personally. I can still remember him railing against Dee, a character in “Everyday Use,” as story by Alice Walker. “She is a bad woman! She will be punished by God!” he exclaimed. It’s pretty hard to come back from that and keep class discussion going, let me tell you. I tried to have a talk with him about his behaviour, and also about his written work, which also tended to give me the wiggins. His response was to follow me one afternoon from my office to the train station, hectoring me about my unfairness. I tried to be diplomatic, but I was getting really scared. “You need to stop this,” I said, “this behaviour is not appropriate.” (“Not appropriate” is a professor’s orange alert; the next stage up is “I’m calling security”.)
I was fortunate; the student backed off, but he was still upset with me. I was never so happy to get on a train in my life. I reported his behaviour to the Dean, and because this was a small institution where administrators took pastoral care seriously, the Dean had a talk with the student. The result was that the student then took to following me around saying, “Sorry, sorry, sorry!” every time he saw me, which was scarcely an improvement. When he decided to drop my class after he failed the midterm, I sent up a grateful prayer to Jeebus; teaching at an institution with a religious affiliation may have its down sides, but I am willing to give credit where it is due.
Another one of my colleagues, The Mandarin, once told me a story about an essay she received from a student which was basically a description of all the people he wanted to kill, starting with his mother. “It wasn’t even remotely on topic,” she recalled indignantly (and it’s a measure of her dedication and professionalism that this did seem to be the detail of the incident that bothered her the most). She naturally felt concerned about the possible repercussions of giving the student a zero. Her Head of Department suggested she make a copy of the essay and any other relevant documentation to keep “just in case.” That was it; no suggestions about alerting security or referring the student to a Counselling or other service. The Mandarin still had to meet with the student in her office in a secluded annexe nowhere near the main area of campus. The student made her so nervous she took to cutting class discussions short and cancelling her office hours for the semester, until he finished her class, and likely went on to terrify someone else. Her story is frighteningly close to the one the Phantom Professor tells about Cho’s one-on-one English teacher.
None of the professors in these incidents come off as a stellar hero who saved a clearly trouble student from an evil fate. It’s not that we don’t care, it’s that our options are limited. Complaining about creepy students is just as likely to rebound on you as an instructor; instead of reporting behaviour, we complain to our colleagues, and in extreme cases we write notes, just in case.
Last September, I went shopping after class and came home later than usual, to find Feckless Husband a quivering heap on on the couch, watching the the news about the shooting at Dawson College in Quebec. “I just kept thinking that could have been you,” he said. I don’t like to have that kind of melodramatic reaction, but when I see emails from my institution’s President, as I did in September last year, and again yesterday morning, reiterating his commitment to making our campus secure, and reminding faculty and staff of the counselling services available to them, then it does make me think about how vulnerable I am.
I wonder if any of Cho’s teachers left sealed notes pinned to a colleague’s cork board.