The student in my college classroom was a large fellow. At least 6’3″, 280 pounds, or more. He sat at the very top back of the lecture hall and often wandered in and out during the two-hour class.
In his first email to me, he told me he was glad I was teaching the class. He was respectful, addressing me as Professor Zacharias, instead of as the “Miss” or “Missus” more common among his historically misogynistic culture.
His email started out innocently enough, kind, even. He felt obliged to catch me up on the class since I was taking over for a professor who had fallen ill a few weeks into the term. He let me know that the work the students had finished had not been graded and returned. He hoped I could get to it soon.
In the second paragraph of the email, he let me in on a little-known secret that he thought I needed to be aware of: “Not all the students in the class are who they seem. They are not students at all,” he warned. “They are DOD operatives.”
That’s Department of Defense for all you newbies out there.
I reread the paragraph again.
He went on to tell me how these students were working for the DOD. They were plants, spying on me, on him, on all of us.
I called Tim, read the note to him.
What do you think? I asked.
You have to report him, he said. Notify the Dean and the counselors right away.
So I did exactly as Tim suggested.
I alerted the Dean of the Department and passed the email along to the counseling center.
The next time class met, I ran up and down those lecture hall steps, delivering the lesson, peeking out the door every time that particular student wandered off, worried that the next time he came through the doors he’d be carrying a rifle.
The other students, unaware of the exchange, couldn’t figure out what was wrong with me. How come I keep running up and down the stairs of the lecture hall? Why didn’t I just stay in the pit and give the lecture like normal? Was I high? Was I strange?
Of course, privacy laws kept me from explaining anything to them.
When class ended and all the students left, only one person remained behind to talk to me.
I should have told him he could make an appointment to meet me in my office, but I had been gathering up my things, shutting down the computer and when I looked up, there he was, towering over me.
Just the two of us.
Can I help you? I asked. My mind was racing, searching out the exits to the room, praying. There were no other classes meeting. Ours was the last class of the day.
All of a sudden two students returned. They’d forgotten something. I called out to them and shouting over my shoulder, I asked the unstable student to send me an email.
Before class met again, I asked a student who I knew to be an Army reservist to please make sure to never leave me alone in the class again with that particular student. He didn’t ask any questions. He just agreed to my plan.
Someone from the counseling services eventually got back to me: “We are aware of the student and have been keeping a close watch on him. We know that he has some serious problems, but we don’t think he is a threat,” they said. “For now, we are going to leave him in your class.”
It was the week before finals, commonly known on campus as “Dead week.”
It had taken the counseling services nearly six weeks to respond to my initial email. Meanwhile, I had been dealing with a student who routinely contributed to classroom discussions by noting that whoever it was we happened to be talking about that day was a DOD operative.
What the hell are you talking about? one girl sitting in front row of the lecture pit shouted at him one afternoon.
Hush, I told her.
She couldn’t figure out why I wasn’t telling the paranoid fellow on the back row to hush. I couldn’t tell her why.
All term long, in a lecture hall at a major university in the Northwest, I had to delicately balance interaction with a student who was most definitely a paranoid schizophrenic in desperate need of medical attention, all the while not alerting the other students to the precarious mental health of their classmate.
This happens every single day on college campuses, on high school campuses, on middle high campuses, even at elementary schools, all across America.
Remember the Virginia Tech shooting?
One of my former co-workers taught English and writing to Cho at Virginia Tech. He worried her from the get-go. His writing was violent. He was anti-social. He displayed all the symptoms of the very sort of person who might go on a killing spree.
As his professor, she took all the appropriate actions. She alerted the counseling services, alerted the Dean, talked to others on staff who had Cho as a student. They, too, shared her concerns. They had alerted the right people, too.
All to no avail.
Teachers have no authority when it comes to these things. We have to follow the chain of command. It is left up to our superiors to alert law enforcement, something school officials are often reluctant to do.
No educated person wants to be that person who makes a mountain out of molehill. So we talk ourselves out of reporting things that need reporting. We tell ourselves that just because a student displays impulsive anger or disassociate thinking, we ought not assume the worst.
They are just kids, after all. That’s what the teenage years, our twenties are for – working out all that hormonal angst – right?
Besides, if educators were to respond to the alarming mental health issues our students display, we’d be calling in support services all day long. According to the National Alliance on Mental Health, twenty percent of young adults 13 to 18 experience some type of severe mental disorder yearly.
For the average educator of middle school, high school or college, that means that among the 100 or so students we work with daily, 20 students will be struggling with severe mental disorders sometime during the school year.
And the best answer the public has to the ongoing school shootings is to arm educators?
God help us all.
We are a nation of people who have taken leave of our senses.
Karen Spears Zacharias is author of Burdy (Mercer University Press).