Monday, January 26, 2015

Breakups and Drama

The screaming, then the sobbing, oh, the sobbing... that ensued today when one of my students received a text in class was a perfect example of why students SHOULD NOT check text messages in class. This couple, I'll call them Silly and Sally, have had an on-again/off-again romance that has perplexed, disturbed, and frustrated many of us. And today, for the fifth or sixth time in a month since classes began, it was off-again.

Some history: Silly walks Sally to class, he waits for her outside of the classroom, and walks her to her next class. Silly skips his own classes so he can sit outside of Sally's classroom to watch her. They are in LOOOOOVE, as displayed by Sally's waving and blowing of kisses to Silly as he moons over the distance of the 50 feet that separate them when she's in class and I refuse him entrance to the classroom. On the occasions when I have shut the door in Silly's face because he presents a distraction to not just Sally, he merely moves to the outside of the classroom to observe through the window. They usually settle down after a minute once we engage in an activity or lecture, so are not as disruptive as they could be. At the end of class, their reunions have included Sally doing a running jump into Silly's skinny arms, the likes of which we usually only see when military personnel return after a deployment. Then sometimes Silly and Sally break up, usually at her behest, and Silly sits forlornly outside watching Sally from afar until they make up again. It's not an example of a healthy relationship.

Aside from physically barring Silly from the classroom, and talking with Sally about how their behavior is disruptive and how she should probably talk with a counselor about her relationship, I've ignored their love and its ups and down. Today it was down, as evidenced by Silly's texting Sally something awful enough at the beginning of class to lead to the double dose of drama and tears. Lots and lots of tears.

In the past, when a student has cried in class, it has usually been done quietly and surreptitiously, or during a speech when they pick a topic they shouldn't have chosen for a speech. This was my first "loud crying" incident. Sally was in full-blown diva mode, seeking attention and wailing her despair.

To try to calm her down, I got the class started on a discussion and then asked if she could please step outside the room. She refused to budge. "But Silly is out there...somewhere..." So then I tried cajoling, "OK, if you stay in the room, please just cry quietly." She continued to sob in hiccuping gasps that no one could ignore. At this point, no discussion had started and no discussion was likely to take place, given that the first seven minutes of class had already passed and Sally was nowhere near done with crying. I asked her if she felt she needed medical or counseling attention. She declined both: "I just need to cry," she said.

To solve the problem of needing to continue with class, I moved the whole class next door to an empty classroom and left Sally crying in the classroom with a girlfriend who was attempting to comfort her. We could still hear her wailing, but we could continue with class. Had Sally been belligerent, I would have called Campus Safety, but it seemed too harsh a step to take in this case.

I will be talking with Sally tomorrow about her behavior and how it disrupted class and how she is now on alert to be kicked out (our new classroom disruption process includes a warning, then an actual removal for that class period, and then dismissal from the course if the problem continues), but at the time, while she was heartbroken, I couldn't bring myself to put her on notice.

What would you have done?


  1. Assigned a positive value to one, negative to the other, flipped a one ruble coin, and shot the one that came up.

  2. Gotten her out of the classroom by the other door, but I'm lucly that way.


    1. No one said I couldn't push her out the window, right? Only one door in and out. :/

  3. Why didn't you make her move to the empty classroom instead of making the whole class move? After all, you cannot have such a disruption in class and it would have been reasonable to kick her out, with or without the option to just go next door. If she didn't want to risk meeting Silly outside, that would not have been your problem. However, if you wanted to be really helpful (or to make it easier for everybody), you or another student could have simply made sure that he was not before making her move to that room. If there was no empty room next door and you needed to kick her out for real, you wouldn't have had to escort her to the front door or to the parking lot (or bus stop, etc.) but you could have "proposed" to have security "help" her "in case Silly is there". She would have likely chosen to leave by herself instead.

  4. Ideally, yes, if there were logic involved here, Sally would have left the room. But it wasn't even that Silly was outside the classroom; he wasn't. She merely refused because he was out there... somewhere. We couldn't see him and nor could she. But she refused to move and wanted to be the center of attention. I don't think she was concerned about her safety. Since I wasn't going to bodily push her out of the room while she refused to leave, I took away her attention by moving everyone else. Do you think I should have called Campus Security to come get her? She absolutely refused to leave the room at the time.

    1. Actually, yes, unless somebody else is normally called for a psychiatric crisis on your campus and you want to go that route. And to be honest, it is only because you chose not to kick her out that I have not suggested that you should have. It is true that by simply giving her a hint that she should leave the way I have suggested, you would have been able to pretend later that she herself made that choice. Obviously, if she still refused, you would then have had to make her leave.

      As for the suggestion that you treat her situation as a psychiatric emergency, it's not as much because she needed it just for crying but more because that, too, is a kind of trouble that keeps people from having emotional outbursts in public if they are, in fact, capable of controlling themselves. If she didn't need psychiatric "help" just for crying, she would have made sure in the future to avoid drawing that kind of attention to herself, especially in the presence of people who know about her previous "episodes". You, for example. It is also in terms of mental health "concerns" and "need for evaluation" that you and the university may want to phrase the next steps even if you realize that this approach is largely just a social control mechanism. It is harder to disprove psychiatric allegations than to simply get whatever punishment for a purely disciplinary issue, and people tend to be extremely careful afterwards if, in their natural or medicated state, they are, in fact, able to control themselves.

    2. Hmm, good point. I just chalked it up to her general dramatic persona and immature behavior, in general. Silly and Sally seem to be acting out a romance for the world: i.e. they seem to think they're SUPPOSED to behave in this manner because this is how people in love act.

  5. Incidentally, I know what's going into my syllabus for next quarter.

  6. Not healthy is an understatement. The fact he waits for her, watches her in class, and leaves her no space whatsoever, and when she tries to leave, it becomes a huge issue says, to me, this is possibly an abusive relationship to me. He sounds very controlling.

    While I avoid getting involved with students' personal relationships, I wonder if you could call , if you have one, the woman's center or a DV hotline. Often what one sees as some teenage dramatic on and off can be something quite darker. And abuse doesn't have to present itself in bruises but can be this emotional back and forth.

    Her breakdown in class might well be genuine and a real cry for help.

    1. That would be as out of line as deciding that she must be bipolar, cyclothymic or have a Borderline Personality Disorder (a very realistic possibility, actually). Normally, the professor could simply encourage her to get psychiatric help or counseling or else some authority such as the Dean of Students could actually require it as a condition for her return to the university. If she self-identifies as a victim, that's one thing, but being under suspicion of being one could simply upset the supposed victim. Now, her emotional outbursts are a different matter. They are observable behaviour that is unacceptable in the classroom and it is perfectly all right to expect them to stop.

  7. This is the kind of story that, first and most of all, makes me profoundly grateful that it didn't happen to me, since dealing with suddenly-erupting high drama in an effective way is *not* my forte.

    With the luxury of distance, I agree with Monica that calling the campus police might not have been a bad idea, because it would over two bases: (1) Sally really did have reason to be afraid of Silly, or (2) she needs to learn that saying that you're afraid of your boyfriend is something that people will (and should) take very, very seriously (this comes in the same category as responding to mentions of possible suicide, which can be attention-seeking, serious, or -- probably most often -- a hard-to-define combination of both). But I also like your approach: taking away her audience, since she wouldn't quiet down or leave.

    If you've got any sort of reporting system for students in (non-academic) trouble, I think you should use it. She does need guidance (in appropriate behavior, if nothing else). And if she's got any of the mental illnesses Monica lists (which sound plausible to me, too -- but I also agree with the danger of diagnosing from a distance, or even close-up but/and without training), then she needs serious help.

    Silly also needs, at the very least, a serious talking-to (maybe not from you, but from someone; I'm thinking a male authority figure might be a good choice in this case). Maybe he's some combination of well-meaning and oblivious (even a bit socially tone-deaf/impaired), but his behavior does seem stalkerish and controlling, and somebody needs to tell him that, if only to prevent his finding out what is and isn't appropriate the hard way.

    Or he may be genuinely manipulative/controlling (which, as others have pointed out, is a form of abuse, and sometimes a precursor to other forms of abuse). I especially don't like that he sent the text just as he knew she was heading into class; that was, at the very least, a poor choice of timing.

    Unless. . .he's the abusee (or at least the less-dramatic, potentially more functional partner caught up in the turmoil of a partner's mental illness), and he was trying to protect himself, at least unconsciously, from her reaction by sending the message at a time when there was an obstacle to her immediately confronting him. I'm assuming you didn't see the message; what Sally took as awful/mean might be Silly's best attempt to extricate himself from a relationship he knows is unhealthy (and his lurking around might be the reassurance which she insists she needs to believe that he truly loves her; we really don't know what's going on here). If so, then he, too, is seriously in need of help.

    One final thought: if, indeed, Sally is suffering from one of several mental illnesses that might cause her to see situations in extremely dramatic, black and white, terms, you need to tread with some care. If she decides you have treated her unfairly, she could decide you're the enemy, and people with such mental problems sometimes put an amazing amount of energy into trying to get what they see as justice when they fell they have been wronged (this is the voice of experience; I haven't experienced this with a student, but have with someone who married into my family, and decided I was/should be persona non grata. It's a very strange, extremely unpleasant, and utterly exhausting experience to suddenly find oneself serving as the projection-screen for someone else's inner turmoil/self-hatred, and very difficult to cope with accusations that are utterly real to the person making them, and therefore have a way of sounding plausible to others). The sooner and more completely you can hand Sally off to a trained professional (and the more you can make sure that any pedagogical interactions with her are documented and/or witnessed by others), the better. Maybe I'm being unduly alarmed/alarmist here, but better safe than sorry.


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