Candy Rant

"I killed a rat with a stick once."

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Sh*tstorm

Today just absolutely blew.

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?

(silence)

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.

Abyss: WHAT?!

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."

OK.

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.

Halloween, 2007.

28 Comments:

  • At 10:41 PM, Anonymous futuresis said…

    This is probably one of the scariest Halloween stories I have ever heard. Because it is real. And it is happening to you.

     
  • At 11:09 PM, Blogger Candy Rant said…

    Yeah, the real stuff is always scarier than the Stephen King stuff.

     
  • At 7:15 AM, Anonymous mljohnson72@mac.com said…

    What a psycho! Sue you? At least the higher-ups are standing by you. *shudder*. Sounds like teachers need danger pay now.

     
  • At 7:20 AM, Blogger prairie biker said…

    Poor kid. I hope someone can find a way to help her.

     
  • At 7:27 AM, Blogger Jerry said…

    I don't want to sound like a racist, but I have to ask if this student was an African-American?
    I never worked with a female patient who seemed capable of serial murder except one, and she was an African-American. It seems the racial strife compounds the individual issues.

    Having worked in psychiatry, I know exactly what those eyes look like. And yes, you feel terror; and yes, you feel compassion. But foremost, you should feel the need to protect yourself and others, and that you have done.

    Kudos for doing what should have been done at Va Tech., and taking the time to try to help someone who is obviously in need of it.

     
  • At 10:11 AM, Blogger Carin said…

    Scary stuff. Sounds like you took all the appropriate steps.

    Can you carry down there?

     
  • At 10:46 AM, Blogger Domhan said…

    Discussions I've had with instructors and professors in my department this year support the idea that this kind of behavior is becoming more common. I've often wondered how some students even get into college--how do they muster up the motivation to fill out the college application? If this behavior is consistent with their pre-college behavior, how did they make high enough scores in high school to be accepted into college?

    What I have discovered is that some students decide that their college life is a newlife (so far, so good--it IS a new life). They don't have to be that "old" Hillary or Tiffany or Jason who used to take [fill in the medication name] anymore. They can be the "new and improved" version of themselves, and they suddenly think they don't need that medication that previously made life bearable.

    Then, the suddenly off-medication student begins writing sentences at the jr. high school level (if that advanced), barking like a dog, making inappropriate comments, being disruptive (or sullen) in class, and exploding at the (to the rest of us) tiniest acts.

    Of course, this does not seem to explain the behavior of THIS student at all. There's something deeply, darkly troubling going on here.

    You did good, Candy. I hope this girl finds her way.

     
  • At 11:37 AM, Blogger Citlali said…

    Yeah, woah. I truly felt so deeply saddened by this story. It's impossible not to feel that deep devastation that this girl is obviously feeling and dealing with -- on your time, unfortunately. Almost made me cry. I really feel for YOU, most of all, having to navigate that horribly thin balance between what you have to do and what you want to do for you and for her. So much danger and sickness in this "damned if you do and damned if you don't" world. The ultimate somber head-shaker... I'm SO glad those dipshits in administration are doing something right and backing you up. wow. I'll be thinking positive thoughts for you that this resolves itself --peacefully. = ]

     
  • At 11:47 AM, Blogger Candy Rant said…

    Mel, Yeah, the "I'll sue you" part was extraordinarily lame. Which is one reason I finally cracked. But I know from talking to my dept. head yesterday that parents try to sue the community college all the time. Is this the only future they can find for their kid who lives in the sub-basement of the motivation house?

     
  • At 11:48 AM, Blogger Candy Rant said…

    PB, I doubt that she will get help, honestly. They can't force her into counseling (same thing they said at Virginia Tech) so she will probably just get angrier. I don't want to be there for that.

    I keep wondering if she's gone off on any other teachers before. I do seem to, for good or bad, get right to the core of my students. Usually that happened in my creative writing classes (and in most creative writing classes). Not so much for freshman comp.

     
  • At 11:50 AM, Blogger Candy Rant said…

    Jerry, nope. She's white. There are very very few black kids at this school.

     
  • At 11:51 AM, Blogger Candy Rant said…

    Carin, everybody can carry down here. It's still the Wild West in Arizona. This is not a comforting thing.
    If I had a gun, I'd absolutely be so klutzy and scared of it that I'd shoot off all my toes the first day.

     
  • At 11:54 AM, Blogger Candy Rant said…

    Domhan, therein lies the problem with the community college. There is NO screening. No grade requirement. No anything. Literally any human can sign up for and come to class.

    I had a variety of problems over the years with students at the Big Giant Universities. But no specimen like this girl would have gotten in, even if based only on her inability to write a coherent sentence. And I don't mean the lame sentences you and I have both gotten from freshman. I mean GIBBERISH.

    My dept. chair lamented the problems with the "open door policy." And I don't care if I sound like a snob...the community college is not for me.

     
  • At 11:56 AM, Blogger Candy Rant said…

    Citlali...I hated putting up such a downer of a post. I couldn't write anything else and I was sort of coming here to lick my wounds.

    Thanks for reading it.

    I'm not sure how much confidence I have yet in how well I will be backed up in this situation. The community college caves under pressure. If somehow the parents decide to SUE me, I would probably be twisting in the wind.

     
  • At 12:52 PM, Blogger Citlali said…

    You're right, for sure. I feel so angry and hurt for you right now. Let's hope that the universe tips this in your favor and grants that poor child some relief so she doesn't F#$% over everyone in her path. Maybe it can even find some balls for those admins. Who knows... = ]

     
  • At 1:09 PM, Blogger Ana Martin said…

    A comment in which I tell you what to do:

    Forget about her emotional well being. She has self-diagnosed as having "problems", she has displayed emotional instability, hostility, and a willingness to fly at you. She has turned from the victim to the attacker. Her well being is no longer your concern. She has made herself The Enemy.

    Go to a gun range and fire some guns. Figure out which one feels right.
    Buy that gun.
    Go to a women's gun safety class and learn to shoot the gun in all kinds of situations.
    Practice with the gun every two weeks until you feel comfortable with it.
    Get a carry permit.
    Keep the gun in your bag. Loaded.

    If you were a mother and you had children with you, you would do this to protect them. You are valuable and worthy of protection.

     
  • At 1:17 PM, Blogger Candy Rant said…

    Thank you, Ana. I've been taking on more and more guilt about the situation, thinking I should've handled it better.

    I told Scott last night maybe I should've tried to small talk with her before we looked at her paper, to make her feel more at ease. But even if I'd asked her something totally bland, like "do you have brothers and sisters?" (something I often ask my students, who are mostly thrilled that someone asked them anything) she may have said "Why do you want to know THAT?"

    I suck up all the guilt for everything, like a big guilty Spongebob DespairPants. It is very tedious.

    I would hate having to carry a gun. I would rather move away from the city and from the "Welcome All Nutbags!" college.

    Thanks, Ana.

     
  • At 1:32 PM, Blogger Mad Grad Mom said…

    Oh, Candy, in an already terrible semester, you have to deal with this!?!?

    I second Ana and I should note that, not only is this a person with problems, she may be a person who wants to hold onto those problems because they may be the only thing she has. Her problems give her an identity and give her the courage and comfort to separate herself from her community.

    I absolutely understand the guilt you feel in wanting to help her. That's normal and because you are good person. You take the necessary steps to protect yourself from this student and I am glad the CC is placing someone outside your classroom door. Even if she's all hot air, you can, at least, feel more comfortable in your classroom.

     
  • At 5:59 PM, Anonymous Ana said…

    "On zee menu tonight you have zee options of righteous indignation wis a lovely disgust reduction. Zat is served with baby irritations. Also tonight we have zee angry feest pounded in zee manner of zee peasants wis an annoyance salad."

    "Do you have any self recrimination or perhaps guilty hindsight?"

    "Non madame. It ees not in seezon. Eet ees really never very good anyway madame. May I suggest zee peesed off and don't geeve any damns?"

     
  • At 6:24 PM, Blogger Candy Rant said…

    Good point, Mad Grad. And she has definitely separated herself from the world.

    The dept. head walked the student over to see the dean today. I asked him "Was that a nice buoyant conversation?" He said "I said to her 'Isn't it a beautiful day?'" Not a word from her. The whole walk.

     
  • At 6:27 PM, Blogger Candy Rant said…

    Ana, if you were a dog, I would go find the most perfect of all dead birds for you to roll in.

    I love the menu selections. Friggin genius. I must remember the menu. Always. And force my stubborn ass to realize that I am the only one who chooses the meal.

     
  • At 6:28 PM, Blogger Candy Rant said…

    I'm STILL laughing about that menu. Especially after reading it out loud.

     
  • At 6:58 PM, Blogger Steve B said…

    Wowzer. Powerful stuff. And very well written. I think I forgot to breath.

    And kudos to you for doing the right thing. There are times when it might be appropriate to play rescuer, but there's a time for having healthy boundaries and recognizing when someone is just plain dangerous to you, to themselves, to others.

    You did good.

     
  • At 7:09 PM, Blogger Candy Rant said…

    Thanks, Steve. Part of that is taken directly from my response for the dean. It was very tedious to go over the whole thing again. I'd already relived it about 800 times.

    Yes, with a full day's time, I'm feeling that I didn't do as poorly with the situation as I would have myself believe. Time does its nice trick once again.

     
  • At 7:48 PM, Blogger prairie biker said…

    I think the idea that this young lady will come after you is simply outrageous. Girls don't act out. They internalize. It is far more likely that she will act against herself.

     
  • At 8:12 PM, Blogger Candy Rant said…

    I would think so, too, PB. I would have been more sure, though, of her not being violent toward others before I saw how completely out of it she was, in the eyes.

    Then the dept. head told me about his own experience with a very disturbed female student a few years back.

    Occasionally, a female does get violent. Not as likely as a guy getting violent. But it happens.

    I don't get intimidated by all that many people. But her behavior all semester has been very very off. I met the professor who had this student in class this past summer, and she also felt unsafe around the kid.

    I don't mean to turn any of this into melodrama. I hate getting anywhere near the role of damsel in distress. That makes me puke.

    That said, at my old teaching job, I had a guy get enraged with me for not taking his late paper, stand up and pound the wall of the classroom with his fist, putting a big hole into it. That didn't scare me as much as this girl. I'm not used to dealing with crazy. It scared me. Whether or not I'm over-reacting by agreeing to have security at my classroom Monday, I don't know. The dean insisted on it.

    I just know that I'm sick of the whole thing and have moments where I'm too pissed off at and weary of the girl to care what she does to herself. Not unlike the guy who offed himself in the truck near our house a couple weeks ago. I think, just get it overwith. A rotten thought, I know. Sometimes the compassion cog in me shuts down.

     
  • At 8:57 PM, Anonymous futuresis said…

    Well, know that you're not alone. A friend of mine here has been long-term subbing at a high school on the north side of town and was threatened last week. She says the girls are worse than the guys. You're smart to be cautious. Generally speaking, girls aren't as violent, and it will probably come to nothing more than threats of legal action. But having security outside your classroom door can't hurt. Times are changing, and you looked into her eyes. You're pretty perceptive and if something struck you as being off, then don't second-guess yourself.

     
  • At 9:30 AM, Anonymous Scott P said…

    Hey- How 'bout one of dem EPILOGESs, like they used to have at the end of "The Streets of San Francisco"? Of course, the story ain't over yet.

     

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