Wednesday, February 20, 2008

And Then She Said, "You Need to Have Been Gone Two Minutes Ago."

Yesterday, in the middle of my teaching a lesson in technical writing, the door to my classroom opened and in stepped the dean. She stood in the doorway and waited a moment, waited for everyone to turn their attention to her.

I was frozen at the front of the room. It's not every day that the dean comes into a classroom, after all. A certain panic crawled up my throat. Whatever had caused the interruption was guaranteed not to be good.

"Hello," I said.

"Hello," she said, and then she launched into her speech. She announced herself, her title, and then she told my students they needed to turn off their computers, pack their bags, and exit campus. She told them the college was closing for the day. All day and night classes were canceled.

At first, no one moved. They just stared at her like it was a joke. Out the window, though, the parking lot was flooding with students on the escape. A long line of cars trying to exit campus was stacking up all the way back to the lake.

"What's going on?" one of my students asked, but the dean only pressed her lips together and let the silence hang over the classroom before telling us that she needed us to get gone.

"You need to have been gone two minutes ago," she said.

She left the room then, and my students became a buzz of questions and gossip. They started talking about a mob they'd seen outside one of the girls' bathrooms, about a group of guys who had gone in, about a bomb threat scrawled in lipstick across a mirror.

"Do you think that's true?" they asked me.

I told them I didn't know. I told them to be careful getting home. I told them to drive safe.

I didn't want to tell them what I was really thinking about. I was thinking about last Thursday, my night class, and what had happened in it.

I'd walked into class and set my books down on the front table. I was arranging things and signing into the computer when one of my students asked me a question.

"Hey," she said, "was there a reading due tonight? Everyone says there is."

I said, yes, there were two essays that had been assigned for that night.

The student rolled her eyes and told me that hadn't been clear from the course calendar.

I was confused. If everyone else had known there were readings due, I was sure the course calendar was correct. Still, I offered to check it for her. "Let me just take a peek," I said. "I'll see if the readings are listed on the right date."

And they were. There, listed on the day's date, were the night's readings: two process analysis essays that were up for a discussion and quiz.

And so I told the student this. "See?" I said. "If you look at our course calendar online, it shows what readings are due for tonight."

She rolled her eyes again. "Oh my God," she said. "I can't believe this. How stupid."

I tried to explain that our online course calendar was where everyone needed to look to see what homework was assigned for each class. This was not the first time I'd said that. I'd been saying that for weeks now, since we'd been having homework since the semester began.

Still, the student was not placated. "Yeah, right," she said. "That's not clear. I guess I would've had to have my ESP on to understand what you meant there. I mean, Jesus Christ."

I stared at her. My other students stared at her. Every one of us, we just stared. I don't think anyone understood what was going on. I mean, there it was, right there, in black and white--the date, the readings.

"Excuse me," I said. "There's no need to have that kind of attitude or to use that kind of language in my classroom. If you want, you can leave for the night and come back when you are ready to act appropriately in class."

"Oh no," she said. "You aren't going to talk to me that way! No way! Who do you think you are? You think you can treat me like you treated him last week? No way! What gives you the right to treat your students so badly?"

At this point in the coversation, there were a million things I wanted to say. I wanted to tell her I had every right in the world to ask that student to leave class last week. I wanted to tell her he--and now she--had disrupted class. I wanted to tell her to shut up, shut up, shut up, but I didn't. I just took a deep breath and shook my head. "You may leave now," I said. "You're done for the night."

And that's the last thing I said to her. She started packing her things away. She slammed her bag onto the table. She threw her notebook and text inside. "WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE?" she yelled. When I didn't answer, when I didn't say word one to her, this made her even angrier. She zipped her bag and threw it over her shoulder. "I AM GOING TO THE DEAN'S OFFICE!" she said. "I AM GOING RIGHT NOW! I HOPE YOU ENJOYED YOUR JOB WHILE YOU HAD IT! I SERIOUSLY HOPE YOU DID!"

Her voice pitched toward hysteria as she stumbled toward the door. She grabbed the handle and twisted. She put one foot outside but turned to look back at me once more. "YOU," she screamed, "ARE DISGUSTING!!" And then the door slammed behind her.

And you know what? I had to teach a three hour class after that. I had to look back out at the rest of the members of my class and start talking about writing, as if that's actually what any of us were thinking about in that moment. I had to take a breath and move on as if someone hadn't just shouted at me at the top of their lungs, as if someone hadn't stood feet from me and told me they were going to get me fired, that they thought I was disgusting. And all because they'd misread a course calendar.

And so it was this student I was thinking about when the dean came in my classroom and told us we had to go, we had to move, we had to get off campus as quickly as possible. I knew it was a long shot, but the incident was still fresh in my mind, and I could still see the hateful snap in her eyes as she stormed toward the door. I could still see the way her lips snarled as she spit out her last words: You are disgusting!

I wanted to get off campus as quickly as I could. I didn't want to know what was happening. I just wanted to be far, far away from there and from the possibility of the unthinkable. And that's exactly what I did. I went home and sat in my bedroom and stared up at the ceiling. I wondered. And then this morning when I woke up, there it was, an e-mail about what had happened the day before. A bomb threat. A bomb threat. Someone had decided to write on the mirror of a bathroom that they wanted to burn the campus down to nothing.

And that's how we started our week.


Kristin said...

I would have chased her down for you and kicked the sh*t out of her. Seriously that makes me mad.

Okay I really don't have violent tendencies but still in my mind, it was fun to think I did for a second!

Anne said...

I don't understand the students this year Jess. Is this just a Maine thing?

cornshake said...

seriously, wtf if up with those students?? do you know how rarely i say wtf out loud?? this would be one of those rare times, if i had heard this story from you in person.


cornshake said...

ps. hang in there...

Jess said...

Thanks Kristin and Ms. Shake for having my back/swearing out loud. That's how I feel.

AMR-I don't think it's just a Maine thing. And I don't think it's just a community college thing. I think it's just an unlucky semester... or maybe this is just the direction student-teacher interaction is headed? Who freaking knows.

Anskov said...

I'm in loaf (banana bread with chocolate chips level of loaf) with you too, babe.

Hang in there, if anything, the bizarre behavior of those two nut job students will have the effect of allying the other students on your side - they witnessed the crazy behavior and your level-headedness. They'll pick you any day (anyway, you control their grades).

Hugs, babe.

Jess said...

Matt! How did you know I was going to make chocolate chip banana bread tonight? You crazy psychic lit nerd!