Sunday, April 20, 2008

The Whole Truth

If you want the whole truth, fine. Here is the whole truth: I've been scared lately. I've been sad, too. I've found it hard to understand what to think or feel about a whole mess of things, mostly my teaching.

Yes, I know I've been talking about how rough of a semester it's been. Yes, I know it seems like that's all I ever talk about. But I'm not even scratching the surface. Not even close.

I had a student scream at me and storm out of my classroom. I had a student follow me home, slip a note into my mailbox. The same student, after he was told to stop, stop, stop, continued his--what can I call it?--advance and wrote more, wrote an e-mail that was scary in the way it spoke about women, about me. I was just a thing, a thing he wanted, and he didn't understand why it was wrong, why he couldn't have me, why he couldn't talk to me the way he really wanted.

For nights after that I cried myself to sleep, scared and thinking I heard someone outside my apartment, someone pressing his ear to the door that separates my bedroom from the main hallway. Administrators at my school suggested I be walked to my car, that I give them a call before I left campus for the day. At the school's request, a cop came to my apartment and talked to me about how to handle things, how to be extra careful. For weeks I was mindful of everything: the patterns of footprints in the snow outside my apartment, the crumples of papers fallen in the hallway, the shadows that fell around and inside my building. I feared footsteps. I dreaded opening the door in the morning. I was afraid of what small signs would be waiting for me just over the threshold.

When all this first started happening, someone at my school shrugged and said, Well, welcome to full-time teaching!--as if this was some rite of passage all full-time college teachers were required to endure before they got tenure. That night I came home and stared up at the ceiling, thinking, This can't be what it's really like, can it? I wondered if this was the norm now--students acting in ways that defied comprehension, teachers just having to take it. Would I really have to spend my career dealing with students who were grown--who were adults--but acted like petulant children, like tiny thugs sent to take me down?

And then there were the bomb threats. I mentioned one that happened right before my half-semester tech writing class was over, but since then there have been two more bomb threats. And one more that came after that, but that one wasn't taken as seriously as the first three. In fact, they didn't even evacuate school for the last one. Late in the afternoon an e-mail popped up in our mailboxes that told us there was a possible threat, but they'd decided not to cancel school--they were going to call in the bomb squad, have it checked out, hope for the best.

Is this the norm now, too? Four bomb threats in one semester? Losing obscene amount of class time because someone--well, I don't know--someone didn't want to do their homework? Take a test? Be at school? Did they want attention, a thrill? Did they want to see how far they could get, for kicks, for fun?

Do I really have to wake up every morning and face the very real possibility that my day will be filled with disaster? A bomb? A student overstepping his bounds?

And it makes a girl wonder--just how far away are we from having a student slink onto campus with a gun hanging loose and ready in his or her hands? Do I really have to go through my life and work my way through my career afraid of being shot? Is this what things have come to?

Third graders are coming to school with knives and guns. They are coming to school wanting to kill their classmates and teachers. What are we doing? Honestly, just what is going on?

Sometimes I wonder why I'm teaching. Most students I see these days are in school half-heartedly, and they're looking for any way to get a leg up. They don't want to do work. They'd rather cheat their way, moan their way, cry their way into a grade. They're always searching for another thing to get themselves a break. Very few that I see actually care about learning. They want a grade, and they don't even want to earn it. They just want it handed over, wrapped and glittering, for them to unwrap and present triumphantly. See? See? This is my grade. Here it is.

Sometimes I don't know why I bother. So I can be called disgusting? So I can have someone storm from the classroom screaming that she hates me, that she is going to get me fired, all because she didn't do her homework? So I can have grown male students blow raspberries at me when I ask them to do their work? So I can go to work afraid of what small drama might erupt that day?

I'm in the middle of a crisis of teaching. I'm hoping more than I can even describe that this semester was just unlucky, just a strange deviation from the norm that will right itself in a few weeks when the term is over. Because I don't want to feel this way anymore. I want to feel the way I used to feel when I taught: that this was all worth it, that I was doing some good, that there was some sort of meaning or reason to why I got up in the morning.

I'm just so tired of holding my breath.


E said...

Jess, I'm de-lurking because I just can't in good conscience let you struggle through this by yourself anymore.

I've been a college instructor for 5 years. I've taught at community colleges and four year schools (both public and private). Before I was a teacher, I was a Writing Tutor. I've been in education for ten years, and although the note in the mailbox was definitely over and above on the normal-college-student-hijinks scale, the rest of it: yelling at you, refusing to do work, not understanding the basic "I just want a grade"'s all normal. I too have been yelled at, threatened, and told to "f-off."

You're not alone and if you want another person to bitch to, or to listen, or to plot your revenge with, I'll gladly do that for you.

Diana said...

Professor, it is almost over. Breathe deep. Eat cookies. Watch American Idol. Call me. Know your people LOVE you.

Also please bring me back a snow globe from Mexico.


Jason said...

The notion of a Mexican snow globe strikes me as wrong somehow. Sand globe? Margarita globe?

I'm going with the "this semester is a flukishly terrible one" theory. It's what keeps me grading.

Jess said...

Thanks E, D, and J. You guys are helping me keep it all in perspective. They just really drive you crazy sometimes, you know? It's always good to know you're not alone...

And, D, mission snowglobe? Count on it.