Photo by Grendl (flickr.com/photos/grendl)
NOTE: I teach Spanish at a California college. What you are about to read is true, but does not apply to one and only one individual. I include this post here at soulbank.org because the topic includes by its very nature questions pertaining to the human spirit.
Nearly every semester there is someone: usually between 18 and 22 years old, male, and dressed in baggy sweatshirts with hoods that hide their face from me. He will sit in the back of the class, as far away from me and everyone else as possible. Typically, he sits in the row nearest the door. He doesn’t ever—or very rarely–volunteer to answer a question or participate in the general conversation. He is angry and sullen, withdrawn and isolated by choice. Sometimes I can rouse him to utter a few words in Spanish with gentle prompting; sometimes not.
This last semester, a student in one of my classes added a few twists to the stereotype. He refused to work in groups at all; I would ask, but he would pin me with a cold, direct stare and smile with only half his mouth. He never said ‘no,’ but he didn’t need to. All I had to do was look at him and feel his hatred and condescension in order to comprehend the danger of pushing him to do anything. The one time he agreed to ‘work with others’ was during a game of Spanish Scrabble. It quickly became apparent that the three women on his team were very, very unhappy. At first, they attempted to protest his questionable maneuvers. Soon he became vocal and ugly in his quest to rack up points. I knew something potentially explosive was building in him, but I didn’t know what to do. I tried to ignore the situation for as long as possible, wandering to the other tables to help students who needed it. Everyone, however, was aware that Student X was becoming progressively louder and more out of control. At one point, I looked over to their table and my students caught my glance. I will never forget the look on their faces. They were scared.
Sometimes, I can communicate something important to my students without uttering a word. In this case, the message I sent was non-verbal but clear: don’t do anything to upset him. Let him win. They, however, had already figured that out. They hadn’t said a word in some time. Student X continued to slam his tiles on the board, insulting and belittling them, caught up in a grandiose, narcissistic high. He hated his teammates, the other students and most especially, me. We were all beneath him. We didn’t deserve to win; we didn’t even deserve to play. The ladies grimly allowed the game to wind itself down and class ended. They ran out.
I had considered calling the Sheriff, but I decided that was risky. If this student had seen me calling someone on my phone, it might have set him off. My instinct also told me not to leave my classroom. I stayed at my post. I also understood that I had no concrete accusation against this student besides ill behavior and threatening body language. Later in the semester, the number of incidents climbed, and I started to let class out early and feel nauseous on the days I taught that class. I did my best to keep the other students in the dark about the looming threat skulking around the corners of that room, and for the most part, I was successful. One day during break, however, Student X changed the game.
He caught up with me during break. He was both agitated and sluggish. “I want to ask you a question,” he declared, then waited a few seconds before continuing. “But you’ll probably lie to me.” I went into survival mode and behaved so naturally that no one looking at the scene would have ever guessed that I was about to pass out. “What have they told you about me?” He let the question hang. “Who?” I replied; “You know, the other teachers. What have they told you about me?” The sky was darkening, and I felt very, very alone. “Nothing. I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Then, the first honest thing I was able to say to him: “You’re scaring me.” He smiled. “I hope you’re not lying to me.” He walked away, very slowly.
Somehow, I finished that class, but only because Student X had fallen asleep—again—in the back seat of the back row. I notified the Sheriff the next day that there was something very bad going on with a student in my class. I told a very nice cadet that I was afraid for myself and for my students. I informed him of the conversation during the break. However, my student had no previous complaints on record. He had done nothing overtly threatening; there was no assault, no battery, nothing they could act on. They took note of my reservations, and the case was closed.
After that, I was often too sick to finish class. On the days Student X didn’t show up, we put in our full 2.5 hours, plus. On the days he was there, glowering in the corner, my head would explode in pain and my stomach turned. When I arrived home, I would eat dinner and collapse on the sofa in a stupor. Finally, I made the last three weeks of class optional, hoping that he wouldn’t show up; the plan worked, mostly. When he did show up, he would leave at break. Gradually, the hold he had on me waned. On exams, he was mostly earning 90+; but for every question he missed, he confronted me with clenched fist. I explained the problem, and if he couldn’t find a way to argue with me or coerce me into changing my mind, he would walk away without further incident. This was the third time he had taken this class at my college. He could not take it again. He was not going to accept anything less than an ‘A’.
The classes he opted to miss took their toll, however. He slept through the final exam; the other students had learned to pretend not to notice. Everyone gradually finished, turned in their exam, wished me Happy Holidays, and filtered out of the classroom one by one, until Student X and I were alone. He woke up half an hour before the final was to end. I am obligated to give all students the full two hours to complete the final exam, and he hadn’t done anything that warranted action on my part. So, I sat there and graded papers, nervous, wondering if the Sheriff was on speed dial.
He was staring at the exam without seeing it. He hadn’t moved in a very long time. I asked if I could help him, or if he needed anything; as I said it, I knew I shouldn’t have. He didn’t respond. He was in a world of his own. I don’t know if he couldn’t hear me or was refusing to. I continued to grade papers. He stared blankly at his paper. Finally, when the two hours were up, he stood up and walked to the desk. He let the exam drop on the table with a gesture of contempt. He fixed me with that look of death, the hatred reserved for someone who has ruined your life. He walked out, very slowly. I wished him a good vacation. He slammed the door. I had survived 16 weeks with him and now he was, thank God, vanishing into the darkness.
His story isn’t over, however. There are many like him. The vast majority will never hurt anyone but themselves; but do we really know at what point people like Student X will decide to start planning their revenge on all of us who make them feel inferior, stupid, or worthless? My student couldn’t take any responsibility for his isolation, his anger, his resentment or his failures. All of us had conspired to victimize him; his deep and abiding rage was caused by us . . . by me and everyone like me. At some point, he might decide that we deserve to die. Every year, I wonder if I have someone in a class who has arrived at that turning point, who is at a stage in the planning process that will lead him to take action. Then the only questions are: how will he do it? When? Does he own a gun? Could he get one if he wanted to? Of course he could.
I am not politicizing this issue, nor have I taken any public positions on gun control. Almost as bad as Student X was Student Y, in an incident that had nothing to do with guns. One day in my office, I informed him that he was failing my class. His eyes were cold and empty. He wasn’t angry. It was something far worse. He picked up a hammer from my desk and caressed it in classic bad-guy style, like something he had seen in the movies. “You shouldn’t leave these lying around. Someone could pick it up and beat you to death with it.” I let that statement float in the air for awhile. “That sounds like a threat,” I said, calm. “Oh no,” he replied, smiling, “but you need to be very careful who you allow into your office.”
This is the same student who boasted of his ties to the Zetas, the worst drug cartel in Mexico. I followed the familiar protocol: visit the Sheriff, make a report, and find out yet again that they can’t do anything, because this kid committed no crime. In fact, he didn’t officially exist at my college. He was dropped from my class before it had started. He was not enrolled in any other course. I mentioned this to him before class one day, and then I never saw him again.
There are many young men like this at my college. They usually fade away after a few weeks of total isolation and non participation in my classes. I never know what ultimately happens to them; they simply disappear. I have no grand statement on the kind of person who kills others, and I doubt that any of my students will ever arrive at that point. However, in many ways they fit the profile of the mass shooter. I realize that no one can predict who will and who will not decide to wreak havoc on the lives of others. I stop far short of accusing anyone in any of my classes of planning a terrible crime.
What I will say, however, is the following: there are some supremely lonely, angry young men that wander into our classes and spend their time drawing violent cartoons while everyone else is talking, working, learning. There are some people who behave as if there were a slowly ticking bomb in their brains, and I don’t know what to do for them. They spend hours playing Black Ops, and they don’t live in the world with the rest of us. They carry huge burdens of hatred, shame and pain, and I can’t help. All I can do is notify the police and the college authorities that someone is walking around with dead eyes and a vendetta against all those who have what they think they deserve.
Should I start handing out ‘As’ to these sad and sinister characters? Should I pretend that they are succeeding when they are not? Should I allow them to skip as many classes as they want with no penalty, simply because I’m scared to oppose them? Is this the point we have now arrived, as educators? I don’t want to end up beaten to death with my own hammer, or forced to cower in my classroom as Student X clings to a semi-automatic weapon, searching for victims, seeking to exact revenge. Can anyone reassure me that that is not going to happen?
No. Another semester starts on February 4th, and I don’t feel safe. As long as I’m a teacher, a professor, I suppose I never will.
–Kirsten A. Thorne, PhD
Associate Professor of Spanish