I'm starting to get freaked about Halloween. Because last year on Halloween, I flipped my lid and engaged in the most dangerous road rage of my life, then got a (thankfully) unrelated but expensive speeding ticket. All this happened while I was rushing home to wait for a phone call from the university vet clinic to hear how Hankie had done with his first radiation treatment for cancer of the jaw. And yes, I did get radiation for my cat. 6 relatively simple treatments that I'm still paying off, and probably will be after he's gone. I don't care. He's still with us.
OK. Where was I? Oh yes. Last Halloween was rotten to the core of the razor-bladed apple.
Today. Halloween again.
Here is the condensed version of what happened.
I scheduled individual meetings with about 30 students from 2 classes, to offer them a chance to revise their hideously written research papers. I don't often do such a thing. But in my quest for mental self-preservation, I wanted what could be my final semester of teaching ever, to end peacefully, and not with a bunch of grimacing students who would get D's and F's in the class. Also, part of me suspected that I didn't hit the various pieces of the assignment hard enough. So I bit the bullet and readied myself for a day full of blindingly repetitive meetings. I felt like Carol Channing performing her 74,000th matinee of "Hello Dolly!"
What I did not ready myself for was a student I will call The Dark Abyss.
A bit of background:
From the beginning of the semester, The Abyss has been lacking in class participation (worth 20% of the semester grade) in my course. What I ask of my students is for them to be fully "present" by joining in on class discussions, by becoming involved with in-class group writing projects, and by actively showing an interest in the class. Or at least feigning interest.
The Abyss's lack of participation goes beyond just not speaking. She sits in such a way that I can only describe as trying to make herself as small as possible. She rarely looks up. There is no eye contact, no visible sign that she is engaged in the class at all. During small group peer workshops, when students are required to read their essay drafts aloud to three other students, she slouches over the paper and whispers it.
All my usual clever “tricks” for engaging shy, quiet students in conversation failed with a resounding thud. She was, at least for me, unreachable.
2 weeks ago, I informed the 2 classes that some of them were not doing well with class participation and attendance. I had decided their participation grade for mid-semester, and would let them know what it was if they came up after class and asked. I also told them that it was not too late to rise to the occasion and change their score.
The Abyss did not ask for her score. I discreetly pulled her aside in the hallway after class and told her I’d like to see her do better with class participation. “Is there anything I can do to help?” I asked. “I don’t see you getting involved with the group work. Are you just shy about participating?”
She became angry. “I participate in group activities!”
“Well, I don’t see that,” I said. “And you have never spoken during class discussions.”
“Yes I have!”
“OK,” I said, giving up. “I’m just letting you know that you have a chance to raise your grade. It’s up to you.”
Jump ahead to today's meeting. The Abyss showed up, and after the initial greetings, she sat down with me and got out her paper, which had received a D. The D was generous. At least 80% of her paper was completely incoherent to the point of being gibberish. Most of her papers have this problem, but not quite as bad as this one. I started out on the first page.
Candy: OK, let’s look at this sentence. It’s not quite making sense to me. Can you help me understand what the main point is?
Abyss: I got it from a source. I cited it. So I can’t do anything about that.
Candy: OK. It’s from a source. Maybe it’s out of context? Could you put it in your own words for me so we can make it clear?
Candy: Do you understand why the sentence doesn’t make sense?
Abyss (angry): What. Do I need a semi-colon?
Candy: No, it’s not about a semi-colon. It’s about restructuring the sentence. Let’s look at the rest of this paragraph and see if we can make the writing a little clearer.
Abyss (angry): I told you I got it from a source. I don’t know what you expect me to do. I didn’t write it. It’s not my fault!
Candy: Abyss, when I’ve tried to talk to you to help you this semester, you’ve gotten very defensive with me. When I spoke to you about class participation you got really angry. And I don’t know what that’s about.
Abyss (very angry): So I’ve got problems! Leave. It. Alone.
Candy: I’m not trying to get into personal things here. I just don’t know how to work with you on this paper if you’re going to be angry.
Abyss (very angry): I’m forced to take this class again because I did so bad last time and then all you do is nag me!
Candy (trying to maintain composure): Look. You come to class and you’re obviously hurting and freaked out and something is bothering you. You don’t need to talk to me about it. But I care about what happens to you and it might be a good idea to talk to someone in the counseling center. Do you know where it is? They’re really good over there...
Abyss (very angry): Just tell me what to do with this paper!
Candy: I’ll help you with this paper, but first you need to calm down.
Abyss (enraged): I don’t have to calm down! You just need to stop criticizing me!
Candy (angry): You know what? I don’t mean to sound like a bitch here, Abyss, but when I’m trying my best to help you, and am trying to keep you from flunking the class, and you snap at me like this, it comes across as one big “F. you, Candy.” Do you realize this is how your attitude is coming across to me?
Abyss (enraged): Do you want me to call my lawyer?!
Candy: OK. You know what? We’re done here.
Candy: We're done. Get out.
I slid her paper across the desk, and stood up. She got up and started for the door, yelling: “I’m going to report you! And I’m going to drop your class and THEN I’m going to SUE YOU!”
Candy: OK. Do that.
Right then, my next three students came in as The Abyss was stomping out, and they looked shocked. I told them I would have to talk to them about their papers another day, and that I needed to go see the Dean of Students.
What followed were several painful meetings. One with the department chair, one with the dean, one with the head of security, another with the department chair. Then another 14 meetings with students. Those 14 students lucked out: I was so grateful for their normalcy that I practically threw them each a ticker-tape parade when they walked in.
Within half an hour after the confrontation with The Abyss, she had filed a grievance with my department head, and written 2 full pages of this scary, cramped, agitated handwriting that included "she can't control her classroom, she let's students use bad profane language" and "she needs to be a better role model" and "she needs to stop criticizing my work" and "she cussed me out."
(First of all, let me say here that if I had cussed this girl out, she would have been unable to hold a pen to write her manifesto. Her face would have melted and she'd have been carried from the room in a bucket. Because, believe it or not, when Candy loses her temper, she can, unfortunately, outcuss a sailor who has been set aflame.)
((Secondly, yes. Occasionally some "profanity" slips out of the mouths of college students in a classroom. My teaching philosophy does not include stopping class when a 26-year-old navy veteran says the word “shit.” I am not the scolding mother at the front of the room. I’m the one hired to teach the students on my roster to write papers.))
The department head met with her. The Abyss said she never, ever yelled, and no, she certainly did not threaten to sue me! Etc. etc. Also, though, she was so incredibly timid and quiet that he could barely hear her until he suggested that perhaps she was dealing with some sort of problem...BOOM. Loud girl. "YES I HAVE A PROBLEM I CAN'T TALK ABOUT."
It is part of the official process for me to respond, in writing, to her grievance. So that's what I did tonight. While listening to deeply annoying neighborhood children ring the doorbell 6 times in a row, then, when I ignored them, start beating on the door (and yes, at this point I wished I had baked 8 dozen delicious Ex-Lax cookies) I had to spend time writing my official "here is what I have to say about the crazy person's list of bitches."
And I am exhausted. And by Monday, The Abyss will have been contacted and told not to come back to class. I refuse to deal with her, and the dean found that refusal appropriate. On Monday morning, campus security will station someone outside my classroom. She's just a girl. A timid girl. With explosive anger. So why all the fuss?
Because something isn't right. As I wrote in my response, which will go to the dean:
"I feel it necessary to state this privately to you. I have never, in 12 years of teaching at Big Giant University and the Other Big Giant University, seen such an angry, volatile student as I saw today. This student’s behavior perfectly matches the general description of the Virginia Tech shooter: sullen, angry, no eye contact, no warmth, visibly disturbed, easily enraged. She is going to explode. Please get her help."
And why did I name her The Abyss? Not for the sake of sarcasm. I called her that because that's what I saw when I looked into her eyes. Not the dead, shark eyes of the V-Tech killer. She may be just as damaged, but in a different way. Hers are the eyes of someone drowning, someone who is too far gone in the drowning to even look toward the shore again. There is only anger.
Warmth offered to her by me, by the department chair, and, I'm guessing, by others, is like a stream of scalding water. Someone has done something unspeakable to her, and she can't find a way out.
Tonight I despise her and I ache for her. And I'm still very spooked.