Teaching the Mentally Unstable



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.

And again.

And 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.

Yep. Him.

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). 





Karen Spears Zacharias

Author/Journalist/Educator. Gold Star Daughter.


Dorcie Tracy

about 7 years ago

Thank you for writing this. People need to know! Our classroom doors could only be locked if I stepped outside in the hall to lock it. I had several unsettling meetings with moe than ine parent and finally had to request that they not be allowed to visit the classroom without an administrator present. Our male teachers were on-call whenever a certain person entered the building, but we could not bar them from coming. One night at a public function we had to call 911and they could not find our building, although the school had been there for 10 years! If it had been a safety issue they would have lost about 10 minutes trying to find us. These are just a couple of highlights after 23 years of teaching in an elementary school.



about 7 years ago

Yes. One evening after worship about two years ago, a woman I had not seen before finished her meal and asked for paper and a pen. I still carry the five-page, single-spaced essay she wrote, including her name, SSAN, and military service history. The sentence structure is good. Composition is grammatically correct. The subject matter and the content are a bare snippet of what she carries with her 24/7. I tell myself that there is probably some basis in fact for all that she revealed. The conclusions and connections are highly suspect to me, however. To her, I am certain that they are bedrock solid. I carry the essay in my backpack, edges of the paper now very dog-eared and tattered, as a reminder of what other human beings all around us live with. And how exhausting it must be. Next month, after over 8 years of regular ministry with homeless and mentally ill folks, I'll finally get to attend a 2-day NAMI workshop on mental health first aid. I never got such training in any seminary classes or even in clinical pastoral education (CPE). We should probably mandate it for every pastor, teacher, administrator, politician and policy maker out there. The daily news says so to me. In spades. Be safe, and God bless!



about 7 years ago

I have struggled with this issue with various coworkers over the years and I really can't come up with a good answer in how to solve it. Yes the Second Amendment is important to ensure tyranny doesn't prevail but there is no line anymore. I was watching an episode of Blue Bloods a few nights ago and the show dealt with a cop killer. The retired police officer grandfather spoke of a time when bad guys knew there was a line when it came to shooting cops. Cops now have to fight for their very lives every day on the job and there is no line anymore. Violence is the first and usually only resort of so many people. How in the world are we going to monitor people in society to determine if they have psychological issues? That is not a cynical question. How? Putting cops or armed security in schools makes sense on one level but what's next? Armed guards at churches? Playgrounds? College classrooms? Nursing homes? I don't know what the answer is, but I am sure worried about the future for our children.


Karen Spears Zacharias

about 7 years ago

Yes, there is reason to be concerned. Sadly.


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