Monday, December 2, 2013
"The Day I Almost Bought a Gun." From the T Shirt Prof.
I'd say that this overly optimistic (naive?) young professor took a bit of a hit to his belief system one cold morning when my phone rang at 8am with a University exchange. It's a call I won't ever forget.
I didn't recognize the number but any fool on campus that early had to motivated to call me, so I answered it. It was the Provost, a man that I was sure had no idea who I was. He first asked if I was ok (I was, although my anxiety was beginning to rise quickly) and then said the magic phrase, "We have a bit of a situation here..."
He went on to say that the President of the University, new to the job, had a few days earlier received a disturbing email from a student that mentioned me by name. The Provost asked if I knew much about the student, and so I described the paper that I received via email at about the same time that the President got the email.
Briefly, I had assigned each student a one page paper each week of the term for an experimental one credit course that I was trying out. These were mostly highly motivated non-majors, and for the most part they were motivated and highly engaged throughout the class.
One student, however, often arrived late without having completed the assigned reading and would generally act as the class foil. If someone articulated a strong position, he'd attempt to stake out the opposite viewpoint - which nearly always amounted to "hey, you can't analyze this stuff, you just FEEL it."
I felt like I was out of touch with this student, so I crafted a set of readings and a paper that I thought he might find interesting. Boy did I!
The paper itself contained the following passage (which I've edited to remove names and identifying material):
I don’t expect [you] to understand that but what are you going to do about? Have some one poison me? You probably will. [someone else], a professor, did. Just to let you know this class is under serious investigation for fascist activity. You can talk to...the President, about it. (You said you didn’t care about the content of this paper [professor] and by the way I didn’t forget to email you about asking you to bring in the article, and last year I reported you for having a test question on one of your tests for your ...course that promotes bigotry...You are such a fricken Nazi. Don’t make me pay for blowing the whistle because I will and I mean will make you pay.
At the time I got the paper I nervously laughed it off (that's the Pollyanna in me!). But the student had emailed the President and began his email with the line, "The recent shootings at Northern Illinois were a tragedy, but something similar could happen here..." and went on to essentially claim that I was a fascist and that the student knew that both the President and myself were in a conspiracy to poison him.
And here's the best part - a quick google search revealed that this student's name was the same as a local firearms enthusiast.
Thus began a dance between myself, the administration, and the local police where the University legally couldn't do much unless the student made a physical threat. (he had claimed that he meant "make you pay" legally, as in sue the University) I dunno about you, but I read that last line above (make you pay) over and over and I was pretty sure that it was a physical threat!
It turns out that the student maintained a Myspace account that read exactly like the notebooks of Dylan and Eric, the Columbine killers. It was utterly incoherent most times and it clearly showed that this student's mental health was at the point of crisis. He was on and off various meds (now I know that this was the "poison" that he mentions) and viewed the meds as the equivalent of crushing his creativity. That's right - he saw his psychosis as merely a manifestation of his true creative spirit, and any attempt to medicate him was as if the doctors, parents, teachers, friends, whomever were killing off a vital part of his soul.
For roughly two weeks the student disappeared. No one knew where he was. He never did return to class, although he did attend meetings with counseling staff on campus, and we was eventually banned from campus due to erratic behavior. He quickly was banned from a local community college, and then totally disappeared. A few days later he posted a rant directed at University officials that said that he wanted to rip the heart from the rib cage of one specifically, and within minutes he was arrested and hospitalized.
During this time I did consider carry a firearm to class. Luckily my rational brain realized that I'd most likely shoot, in order, myself, an innocent student, the wall, the floor...anything BUT the threat so I was able to resist that feeling. I did enter a bit of a zen state. I rescheduled all of my classes (at least the location of them) and stopped going to office hours. I figured that I was pretty much toast if the student decided to take it out on me, but I wanted to ensure that the rest of the students were safe. Nothing ever came of it, fortunately. The student eventually spent a good amount of time in jail (drugs, of course). He seems to have left the area.
Now, 5 years later, I still caution colleagues to be very observant of student behavior. Most of us have been in a situation in which an agitated student intimidated us. However, the combination of new freedoms, still raging hormones, drugs, and psychosis can cause even a very seemingly stable student to have a breakdown. College is stressful!
One final note - it is due to this situation that I am stridently and vocally anti-carry for students. I can't reveal why when the issue arises, but I cannot imagine a situation in which allowing students to carry guns on campus is a net positive for us.