Monday, December 17, 2012

Notes from My Classroom

Last Friday, I woke up early, nursed the baby, and rushed to get ready for my final day in the classroom. That morning, I couldn’t shake the feeling that something bad was going to happen that day, and when I think of “something bad” and my job, my mind goes quickly to classroom shootings. But it was the final exam, so I kissed the baby and my husband extra, extra and went on my way. As I proctored my exam, I kept an eye on my door and alternated between feeling uneasy and feeling silly. Class ended and I packed up my finals and drove away from campus. By then, I was positively chastising myself for being a fool. Then I turned on the radio and heard what happened in Connecticut.

I’m an educator who has had to deal with mentally ill students in the past, and now I’m a parent. I’m thankful Georgia is too little to be aware of any of this. I'm thankful I'm not struggling either to keep this information hidden from her or trying to help her make sense of senseless things (but here's some good guidance if that's what you're working with: Talking to Young Children about Terrible Things.) I'm thankful I have her to hold in my arms. I can't stop thinking of those parents who had their children taken from them. 

There are so many angles to this. Will we struggle with this complex problem in a complex way? No bumper sticker slogan is going to fix this. I laughed bitterly when I heard a call for every teacher to be armed-- weren't teachers too incompetent, too highly paid and too lazy just a few weeks ago? Regardless, as we look for answers, we can cross "more guns" off the list. Anyone packing heat in a school environment needs to be highly trained and have an almost innate sense of when and how to use their weapon in a building full of innocents. In the Tucson shooting of Gabrielle Giffords, a man legally carrying a concealed Glock nearly shot the wrong person in all of the chaos. Even police officers and soldiers make mistakes when using their guns. It's disrespectful and naive to suggest this as a sincere solution to this problem.

(Full disclosure-- I grew up around guns and believe that we need better, not more, gun control and then we need to enforce it. We need sensible gun control reform, led by people who know, use and above all respect firearms. Who these people are, I wish I knew, but it sure as shit isn't the NRA.)

I'm sure many of you have read one mom's struggles to find meaningful help for her violent, mentally-ill son. While my struggle is in no way on the same level as a parent, as a teacher who has had to deal with mentally-ill students, I've been struck by the same lack of real help.

A few years ago, I was teaching a night course in writing that met once a week for several hours. I used to love night courses. They were a nice mix of traditional students and professional adults. My professional students were determined as hell, working during the day and taking a course or two at night. This mix was ideal and I like to think we all learned a lot by having a nice time. I like for my courses to have a playful yet focused feeling, and we laughed a lot as we worked our tails off. I especially enjoyed the work and presence of John*, a young ex-soldier who sat in the front row of class. He was always early to class, had a quick smile, and wrote lively, creative essays.

Around the midterm, I noticed a decline in John's work. The mechanics of his writing were fine but it seemed like he stopped reading the instructions for each assignment. Instead, he was writing long stories about his dog and his father. I tried to talk to him about it and he said he was tired, he was sick, he would get it right the next time. Then he stopped turning in work. He still attended class, still wearing a big smile, paying close attention to the lecture and laughing frequently. A few class meetings went by and I noticed John muttering to himself often when there were lags in class activity and he left the room during group assignments.

On night, he arrived much earlier to class than usual. He sat with a big smile on his face and nothing on his desk. As I began the lecture, John began to talk to himself. As I spoke, he spoke louder. When I stopped, he stopped. The class was shifting in their seats, uncertain about what was happening. I skipped to the group portion of our class and stepped outside to call the only department that was available on campus at that time of night-- security.

"Oh, John is in your class? An officer was supposed to come by your class and let you know John isn't taking his medication and to ask if he's being disruptive. I'll send an officer out now."

John had left the classroom and my students were happily working together grading a sample essay. The officer arrived just as John returned and without any discussion with me, he asked John to gather his things and come talk to him in the hallway. A few minutes later, the officer returned to tell me the young man had been ordered off campus and would return the next day for a meeting with some deans and a counselor.

Once he was gone, a sick feeling I'd been pushing away washed over me. I couldn't stop trembling. The students were done with their group activity and it was time for me to lead things again and I couldn't. I sent everyone home instead.

I felt afraid but mostly guilty. Here was someone who was obviously sick and the only "help" I had given him was kicking him out of my classroom. From reading his essays that semester, I knew he didn't have much and he'd told me on several occasions how much he enjoyed our class and how he looked forward to it every week.

The next day, the campus contacted me to let me know John wouldn't be allowed back until he addressed his issues and was taking his medication again. They were doubtful this would happen. He was barely coherent in the meeting and his family denied his schizophrenia altogether.

The next week, I entered my class and there was John in his usual seat.

(One of the number of things that sticks in my memory is that he was eating the most delicious looking and smelling burrito.)

I turned around and walked out. I walked away from the building to call security again. They told me they'd be right there. I walked back to my classroom to wait for them by the door but John was outside. 

He knew he wasn't supposed to be on campus but he wanted to come to class, he wanted to learn, he liked our class, he was sorry he scared me because he really liked me and it was so confusing, so confusing. He felt like God was telling him things and he was so confused because he could see my rings and he didn't know why but he felt like God was telling him we were supposed to be together.

Security arrived at that moment and that was the last time I saw John.

Of course, I didn't know that then. In the coming weeks, my classroom was moved and I had a security officer outside of my door. I had cell phone numbers for all kinds of deans and presidents programmed in my phone. I didn't have a restraining order-- filing one would have meant revealing my address, so the police recommended against it. John was banned from campus, though how that ban could be practically applied, I had no idea. I'd always been sort of bad at sleeping but I became a full-on insomniac at that point, getting out of bed several times a night to make sure all the doors were locked and all the blinds were drawn. When I drove away from campus, I wondered if I was being followed. I gave up teaching night classes. I started to question every grade my students earned, wondering if the F, D or even C I recorded for them would push buttons I didn't know existed.

I've wondered for a long time whatever happened to John. I suspect he's homeless now. What else could have happened to him? I feel better imagining him on the street instead of in jail.

As the years have passed, I've had more and more interactions with students who need help. All I've been able to do is tell someone higher up and hope they'll get help. Usually, the response to this kind of behavior is punitive and a student who acts up is eventually "asked" to leave. Honestly, what can schools like mine do when we don't have the funds to even keep the library open adequately?

But here I am. I'm a part of something, is it a something that could help? I'm too small to make that possible but if others gather with me, perhaps we could change and start addressing mental illness in a serious way. 

*I've changed his name for privacy's sake.


  1. Great story. Sad. Way different issues when I was teaching, but I do remember many times feeling that there was little real help available for any child with mental issues other than counseling once a week, if there was any room in the schedule.

    Enjoyed reading your blogs today while H is napping. Need to get a few things done now while she's not up and about. =)

  2. That's so scary, Natty. I'm really glad that you are writing about this. It's heartening to know that your campus took action in a serious and timely manner, but it's just a terrible situation.

    I am a big proponent of more AND better gun control laws. Most blatantly, I can't see any good reason a person would need to have large capacity magazines. It doesn't make any sense to me.

    You know I've been in a similar situation, being threatened with bodily harm by a mentally ill student (while I was in an administrative roll) just the week after Virginia Tech. He was also a veteran but also homeless. I reported my incident and it took a week of refusing to go to work and the backup of my union before the threat was taken seriously. There are so many regulations protecting student rights and privacy (rightly so) that it sometimes becomes difficult to navigate around it to take action in a meaningful way. That makes it hard for everyone involved. It's such a shame that there are so few approachable widespread mental health resources available, and even moreso, to veterans specifically. It's a clusterfuck and I don't have the answers, but I'm glad there is dialogue going on.

  3. As a teacher, I understand completely. I've had mentally ill students whose parents refused to acknowledge they had issues and would not seek help. I've had other parents desperately try to get help only to be told there was none available unless their child was an immediate threat to him/herself or someone else. There is precious little we can do until the needs of those who can't help themselves become more important than the other items in the line of budget, but based on the constant and continuous cuts to education and services... that's not happening any time soon.