A Letter To The Student Who Withdrew Himself

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Back before the semester started, I lightheartedly joked that I would never be able to learn my new students’ names because there were so many duplicates on my roster. I quickly figured out who was who. While many of their names were the same, they were all so very unique. And it was good.

Not too long ago, a student who had been doing very well withdrew himself from my class.

I kind of freaked out.

One year, I had a student commit suicide while I taught him. I missed the signals. And I was among the last people he’d talked to before he very intentionally decided to wrap his car around a pole.

Nervous, I called Student Services to let them know I was concerned about this student’s sudden disappearance. A woman assured me someone would contact him.

In the meantime, I sent him an email:

Dear Student X:

I noticed that you have been out a few days, but I assumed you were just sick.

I intended to call you today if you weren’t in class — and then I was poking around for your phone number when I saw that you had withdrawn yourself from class.

Are you okay?

I’m worried about you.

Oddly, that day in the hall, when I saw you expertly rolling a cigarette, licking the paper, and sliding it behind your ear, I wondered if something was going on.

I had a weird feeling.

And then you never came back.

You were doing really well.

Was it the research paper that spooked you?

I wish you had come to talk to me. Or emailed. Or called.

Because you are a very good writer, so I hope you left because you didn’t like my teaching style or something.

Because that I can handle.

But I’d hate to think you dropped the course because you thought you weren’t succeeding when you were.

Or that you are in a dark place not feeling good about yourself.

Can you let me know you are okay?



At week 12, the leaves have fallen off the trees. My class roster is down over 50%. Maybe more. I have lost all my Ashleighs, and I am down to one Ashley. My remaining students don’t seem to notice. Or, if they do, they don’t say anything. But they must see that there are more available seats around them, that there are fewer backpacks over which to trip, that there are fewer heads obstructing their view. They must recognize there is more room to move, more air to breathe. But maybe they don’t.

When I was in college, I don’t think I noticed when people disappeared.

Sometimes I blink back tears. Because I wonder about the disappeared ones. I wonder if they are okay. I wonder if they have landed in soft places where people are helpful and offering hands with palms up. People tell me not to worry so much, that I can’t possibly save them all.

I know that. But I don’t have to like it. Right?

What would you do if someone in your life suddenly dropped out of it? What if Student X were your child, away at college for the first time? What would you want a college professor to do?

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63 thoughts on “A Letter To The Student Who Withdrew Himself

  1. Renée, you are an amazing human being. I don’t even know what to say. But I’ll write a few paragraphs anyway because you are great at getting me to do things. 😉

    If someone in my life dropped out of it, I’d chase them down and make sure that they were ok. I’d let them know that I am always here if they need anything and I would pray for them every Sunday night when I pray for everyone I know.

    I’d let them know that I was sorry if there was anything I’d done wrong and if I had, I’d do anything to make it up to them. And if they’d just outgrown me, I’d be upset but it would be ok. Because sometimes that’s just what happens.

    If Student X were my child, I’d be forever grateful for teachers like you. If it was their first time away at college, I’d be calling them every week if they were out of reasonable driving distance. And I’d be hoping that they could come to me with any kind of problem, no matter how small they thought it might be.

      1. Thanks Christian. I do worry about my students. I don;t know that they necessarily know that. But by this point in the semester — since so many others have dropped — because of attendance (or the lack of it), the people who remain tend to make it all the way.

        This person wasn’t ever on my radar as a person who wouldn’t make it.

        Mad writing skills. Good attitude. Participated in class.

        I sort of figure when students transition to college — especially community college — sometimes they need a little cushion. I want them to succeed. That doesn’t mean I have to lower my expectations, but I can be a human being.

        I can let them know I notice they are struggling and offer help. Or let them know about places that can give them help. Since I missed the opportunity to do that in-class, I figured I’d reach out via email.

        1. I’ll always remember how my English teacher asked me if everything was ok when I wrote a story with an unconventional ending (which was very different to the usual kind of writing I did) and be glad that she did. There was nothing wrong of course (except a fairly standard teen self-esteem thing) but it was nice to know that people cared enough to ask.

          I can understand why you’d be concerned about your student. I think you did the right thing.

          1. You know what? I had a teacher ask me about a rather dark poem that I wrote during my senior year in high school.

            It wasn’t anything and it didn’t take but a moment, but I appreciated her concern.

            Thanks for making me remember that. 😉

  2. I sympathize with your situation, and it’s something that I struggle with too, because I want to reach out to all of my students. Having said that, I’ve been forced to learn that sometimes I need to let the drop-offs roll off of my back. Students are usually put off, at least at first, when they realize I’m blind, or they just don’t know what to do with me or how to respond. Inevitably several students always drop at the beginning of the semester, and while I try to convince myself that they dropped because they found a section of the course that better suited their schedule, or that they just couldn’t stomach writing a research paper or reading massive amounts of Jane Austen, the thought always nags at me: what if they left because I’m blind? What if they don’t think I can teach? But then I realize: wait, if they did, that’s their problem, and they aren’t mature enough to expose themselves to an educational experience.

    If that’s the case, my focus, then, shouldn’t be on them, but on those who bravely chose to remain and learn something from me and, in the process, about how people with disabilities can contribute to our world in positive ways. Of course, if a student disappears half way through the semester, one who has done well, I’d react the same way you described, but sometimes students have selfish or lazy reasons for leaving as well, and I’ve come to learn that if we get hung up on that, we’re doing the rest of the class a disservice, because we owe it to the ones who stuck it out to put our energies into teaching them.

    1. Poetprodigy: I agree with you 100% that classes are always stronger once the students who can’t handle the work leave. It is a dis-service to have needy, unprepared students sucking up my resources.

      And I never take anyone’s disappearance personally.


      But when someone disappears so late in the semester — someone who is very competent — without so much as a word…well, I get a little nervous. I’ll admit it. That student committing suicide didn’t do me any favors psychologically, but — on the other hand — it made me remember that these are people.

      That I am allowed to care about their whole person and not only about their academics.

  3. Is it common for that many students to drop out? I don’t remember that many dropouts when I was in college, but maybe, like your students, I just didn’t notice. I’m not sure the letter was a good idea. As a student, I would be uncomfortable getting a letter from a professor asking me if I was in a “dark place” just because I dropped out. Did you contact any of the other students who dropped out?

    If the student has been receiving good grades and positive comments, he should know he was doing well. I think there are many reasons a student might drop out that have nothing do do with the professor. It is likely it had nothing to do with you, or your teaching styles. Maybe it was a finacial situation – someone I work with had to drop out of college this year because of a problem with her financial aid. It could also be a personal issue – a family member is ill, he is moving to another town, he was offered a job and decided to work full time instead of attened college, he is transferring to another college, maybe he just felt he wasn’t ready for college at this point in his life. I’m sure there are tons of other possibilities that I could never come up with.

    I don’t think a professor should do anything – unless she really does have concrete reason to beileve the student is in physical or emotional trouble. College students are adults. They make and live with their own decisions. If a student comes to you asking for advice, by all means be open and honest – as I know you are!

    1. Larisa: Do you know how many people in the country have college degrees? Twenty-five percent of the adult population. So it is never surprising that I lose enormous numbers of students each semester. Nearly every college loses enormous numbers of students annually.

      What was alarming was that I lost a very good student so late in the semester.

      Often college students are away from home for the first time. And they don’t have contact with parents. Maybe they aren’t making friends. Sometimes they have decided to stop whatever medications they might be taking. It can be a disaster.

      I know you say you don’t think a professor should do anything unless he or she has “a concrete reason” –well, what would that be in college? Do you think a kid has to write me a suicide letter? To me, this student’s disappearance was pretty concrete. It represented a huge change in behavior. It is late in the semester. I was worried.

      You say “college students are adults.” I would argue they are emerging adults. Eighteen and nineteen year-olds don’t always make the right decisions. They are just figuring things out. And sometimes all it takes it one person to reach out to make a difference in another person’s life: to let them know someone notices them.

  4. I remember dropping classes in college. I don’t think anyone even noticed.

    I teach 8th grade and my students don’t have the options to “withdraw” or “drop” themselves. But my rosters have dropped from 35 this year down into the low twenties and I wonder what happened. Breyden, who showed up twice; Jeremyah, so eager to be helpful; Marcellus with the perfect manners and horrible penmanship.

    And I went through this with my 9th graders at my old school.

    I think the best teachers wonder.

    1. KatieB:

      It’s hard not to wonder.

      I can’t imagine losing them in 8th grade.

      At least I can assume my students needed to work. Or they had family responsibilities. Or they figured out that college is not really their thing after all.

      To lose them before high school.

      That’s rough.

      Keep on doing what you are doing. It will make a difference to the ones who make it through.

  5. Renee,
    You really are one of the most caring people I know. I hope my children are fortunate enough to have college professors just like you! I’m not sure about my oldest sons teachers as he is away at college, but younger son has excellent teachers who have gone the extra mile with him, time and again. The education system needs more people called to teach, and that sounds like who you are. Your teaching isn’t just a vocation but a calling and a destiny, and unfortunately for students, experiencing such an educator happens maybe once in a lifetime…

  6. I echo the sentiments of others in that you are a rare breed, one that does take the time to extend compassion to those around her. When I was in college, I don’t remember the drop-out rate being that high. I know in big seminars, they would go unnoticed, but in my specialized classes, there were always only 20-30 of us.

    At any rate, I understand your concern, but would also add that it’s college. Kids do stupid things and it’s important not to take it too personal. Maybe they have stuff going on, maybe they’re just lazy. I think the fact that you sent an email opens up the door for communication either way, and whether they walk through it is their choice. I know that for me personally, if I was going through something, that would mean the world.

    1. Abby: This is not a lazy person. This person had a B+/A- average. This person did all the work. I don’t fret every student who walks out my door. I don’t feel like this with every student.

      Lord, I couldn’t work if I felt like this with every student.

      This one caused alarm bells.

      It is always their choice, of course. But we do have a program at Student Services where we can report students if we are concerned that someone may be in need of some counseling. I wish I had known about that with my former student.

      May he rest in peace.

  7. That’s so sad, Renee, that you had a student who committed suicide a while back. That would make me even more sensitive, too.

    I haven’t worried about the early-droppers; usually it’s a schedule thing, or they don’t like the room location (GWU is sprawling; one building I was assigned was 7 blocks from my office), or the reading list, etc. Notice I didn’t say it was me, lol.

    It’s good that you tried to run down the student if he dropped the class so far into it, and I hope you get an answer from him, but you can’t tear yourself up about it. Chances are it’s an illness, or family-related. Still, I understand that it’s good to know.

    Happy Thanksgiving,

    1. Kathy:

      It was so awful. I ran the conversation over and over in my head. And then I received that email from the school telling me to remove him from my roster.

      I was sure I had pushed him over the edge.

      Of course, it is ridiculous — but I needed a little counseling after that one. And I vowed to be proactive rather than just worry silently going forward.

      So that is what I do.

  8. I wish I could say I noticed, but it’s unlikely I actually did.

    My youngest sister often dropped off contact for several weeks at a time while she did her own thing. I used to fret about that non-stop, together with my other sister, but now the silences are shorter and more comfortable.

    If that kid were my student, I’d want the teacher to do exactly what you did.

    1. Deb:

      That’s it exactly.

      I keep thinking about this in terms of my own son. If my son were away at college, I would assume he’d be busy. He might not check in with me as often as I would like. I’d assume he’d be doing homework, making new friends, going out and enjoying himself. I assume I’d do a lot of assuming.

      But what if none of my assumptions were right at all?

      What if my son was struggling? What if he didn’t have friends? What if he was taking every meal alone? And what if when we spoke he just said everything was “fine”, the way kids do?

      When I emailed this student, I was thinking like a parent.

  9. Sigh. Parallel lives, my friend:

    This past Thursday, I scooped up and brought home a girl from my class, who’s away from home for the first time and who is not coping. She’s behind on everything, loving the wrong kind of boy…you know, typical stuff.

    Anyhoo…four days of sleeping on my couch, having me nag, nag, nag her to do schoolwork and catch up…she’s back in residence and wlll likely be gone by Christmas. She hasn’t caught up, despite my nagging and nor is she interested in putting forth the effort.

    At this point, I reckon it’d be for the best if she simply went home.She’s not ready for this life, these responsibilities. Better she should go home, regroup and try again.

    Love the letter you wrote, though. Bet he keeps it forever.

      1. Don’t want to save ’em all, just the ones whose light burns a bit brighter, who have potential. In my case, I am not her teacher, though I do recognize that I have valuable life experiences that act as teachable lessons.


        Will you let us know what became of your student, should you find out?

  10. I would want you to reach out to her, as you did to the student who was gone. I understand that teachers/professor have a great deal on their plate, but so do these students. I have been extremely impressed with the professors that my daughter has in college… they want to get to know her. They are pleased when she has come in for help, or just to get to know them, one on one, at the beginning of the semester.

    Overall, a personal interest in someone will go a long way, for both individuals in the relationship.

    Your concern for your student says a great deal more about you as a person, that your employment status. You will always be that person, even after you have retired from education.

    I have this quote on my desk, and I think it applies to us Scorpios, or at least to you and me….”creative people feel things deeply”… Anonymous~

    I hope that you hear from your former student!

  11. I think all students would be lucky to have a compassionate teacher like you. Both my kids have had teachers with total opposite, but they have had wonderfully compassionate teachers too.
    Great post!

  12. Long before I had kids, I visited my cousin (a very good teacher) who had just gone back to work full-time (English) after having her second child. This meant she had two children, ages 3 and 1. I asked her how she did it, how she managed. She said her focus in the classroom has changed; more specifically she changed how she assessed herself. “Every day”, she said, “I try to show one student I care. If I’ve done that, I’ve had a good day.” She went on to say how that is possible on very little sleep. May I add that she also works with a lot of low income/”coded” students.

    You remind me of her. In the best ways. <3

  13. You are an awesome educator, and I want to be like you. I teach 7th grade math. I notice when my students are gone, and I try to connect with them when they come back, but I don’t usually try to contact them if they are gone. Your decision to be proactive instead of reactive inspires me. Thank you for all that you are doing! You are a great example to me. =)

  14. Renee,

    I don’t even know what to say to this other than I understand your concern. I do.

    I’ve had two students who committed suicide; but in the summers after I had them, not while they were currently in my class.


    I couldn’t help but wonder if there was something more I could have done, signs I missed, stress I’d added to their lives.

    Of course I realize that the hours they’d spent in my classroom were drops in the bucket of their short lives and their problems were bigger than my ability to effect change.

    And yet.

    Could I have been the one to say the thing that helped them hold on?

    I’ll never know.

    1. Thanks Julie.

      Those suicides are horrendous.

      As I said in the other post, I’ve had former students commit suicide — but not during the time I was their teacher. That was a dark semester.

      I want to make sure that doesn’t happen again.

  15. It’s a fence you walk, really. You care deeply, but there is only so much of you to go around. You respect privacy and that these are “adults” who want to be treated as such, but you see them struggle and make what you know are doubtful, if not bad, choices. You have your own family and life to worry about, but these strangers have landed smack dab in the middle of your life.

    We all have similar issues, co-workers or people from our church, neighbors, friends, acquaintances, people we come in contact with who we care about, but have no real “right” to counsel or protect.

    But I admire you for looking out for this young man. I 100% agree that one person can make a difference in someone’s life, one kind word, one helpful bit of direction. We don’t ask for these things even a fraction of the amount that we need them. People don’t ask for help. But they can fall apart when they don’t get help.

    I am often not brave enough to offer help where I think it may be needed. And it does take bravery to do that. The fear is that the person will strike out at you or tell you to mind your own business, or even just the embarassment of it. But that’s wrong of me, and it’s something I’m working on, even if it’s just here in cyberspace, where I don’t have to be told I’m crazy to my face.

    Finally, you have to quit beating yourself up over that other young man. You may have been one of the last people to speak to him, but that doesn’t put you in that drivers seat. And you may not have seen the signs because he didn’t intend for you to see them.

    1. I guess that’s the issue: how far to go.

      The boundaries become murky.

      Sometimes I feel like the institutions in which we place our faith are too slow to act.

      I know many people who battle demons like depression and seasonal affect disorder (S.A.D.), so I’m very aware that the change in the weather can come changes in mood. I just wanted to reach out to see.

      And while I’m not beating myself up over the other student, I am forever changed. Certainly I have changed my behavior because of that incident. And you are right; if there were signs, he didn’t want me to see.

      I have to believe that.

  16. It is admirable that you have a genuine concern for people. When I took Biblical Exegesis (verse by verse OT and NT with Jewish, Christian, secular commentary) under a Jesuit with multiple PhD’s, the class started with 160 or so. 5 of us finished. One thing that I learned is that where it says “student” on your campus ID, that really does mean student.

  17. Tough issue, Renee. I feel for you and how much you care about the future of your students. I had a similar issue happen to my college roommate. She was depressed, but hadn’t found the right therapy group yet, and she also stopped going to class. I tried to help, but she actually took all her frustration out on me. Turns out, I cared too much. Things got so bad, I moved out mid semester and we never spoke again. She transferred to a tech school closer to home, and I hope is doing well now. It was really awful I’m sure for both of us, But as someone on the other side, I’m going to remind you that you can only take care of yourself. Caring for your students won’t make them make the changes necessary to lead good lives. It’s nice you reached out to your student, but now it’s up to him/her to take the next step forward. Good luck and remember to take care of you too, ok?

    1. It’s nice you reached out to your student, but now it’s up to him/her to take the next step forward.

      Jess: That’s all I was trying to do: reach out. Sometimes people just need to hear/read/feel that someone cares. I have since heard from this student, and I feel comfortable that I have done all that I can do.

      Sometimes life gets in the way of the best laid plans.

  18. Remembering what I was like at 18-19 and the big change it was moving away from home, friends and support, I think you made the right choice as to sending that email. I know if I was in that situation I would have appreciated that someone took the effort to write it, even if I didn’t reply (which at that age was reasonably likely). So don’t beat yourself up, you have done a great thing.
    My students are much younger and while they don’t usually drop out as such I always wonder about the children that arrive half way through and have changed schools again before the year is up. They always seem so lost and fragile and I worry about them.

    1. Kelliefish:

      Some study was done indicated that a student’s ability to succeed to 12th grade drops about 25% each time that child changes schools.

      Can you imagine how difficult it must be figure out a new school’s climate and culture? Never mind what is going on behind the scenes that precipitated the move in the first place.

      I know that fragile, lost look. Changing schools must be exhausting.

  19. I think it’s caring and personal investment that makes a good teacher great 🙂 The letter was a perfect balance of concern and support; I’m not sure I would have the guts to reach out in a similar fashion, but I hope I would!

    1. Jules: It was completely honest. If a student is going to casually roll a cigarette in front of me…the way one would roll a joint…well, something is going on.

      Hard to articulate.

      It’s something teachers learn.

      Like when they ask you when you first had sex. They don’t really want to know about you, they want you to ask about them. Something is going on with them. They are just trying to start a conversation, but they don’t know how. So they are round-about.

      I thought there was something he wanted to say.

      I wish I had said something then.

  20. Renee- you rock! Caring counts and if that’s your downfall, then let it be the downfall of more teachers. I bet most do care, but not all. Keep caring – it’s what makes you you! That boy was lucky to have you because he learned something about writing and the fact that adults do care.

  21. Renee, you have to reach out and that’s exactly what you did. I hope you’ve inspired others to the same. I could ramble on and muddy the waters but this is really the heart of the matter.

    Love your posts. I just don’t always have time to comment.

    1. Brian:

      I’m just so happy to have met you over at “Punctuation Saves Lives.” Don’t worry about not always commenting. I already did a poll about that. I totally get it. Sometimes it’s just good to read.

      And writing on cell phones is a pain in the butt. 😉

  22. Wow, sending a letter to a student inquiring why they dropped your class? I think that is an unbelievable first. I truly wish more educators would respond in this manner. I sincerely hope my kids are blessed with educators like yourself because so far they have experience a large variety of drift wood!

    I’m not in the educational arena but I would like to think that if I were I would take the time go the extra mile. I currently walk that extra distance in my profession but it’s medical…I have to or they might die 🙂 (Kidding…sorta)

    1. Hi Beth:

      I don’t think that was a “first” — but I’m glad I did it. I have always reached out to my students when I have seen signs that concerned me. I’d rather have the kid laugh in my face and tell me I’m ridiculous than not ask at all.

      I love that you can have a sense of humor about how you have to go the extra mile in your profession… hahaha. 😉 We don’t want any blood on our hands.

      Have a wonderful Thanksgiving!

  23. Yup, I can relate. I was surprised a lot early on in teaching. One year a student who had a nearly perfect score just stopped showing up for the last two weeks. Never came back for final exam or research assignment. I asked another teacher and she said “it happens all the time.” I often wonder where they go, but don’t linger on it for too long. Sometimes I guess we’ll just never know.

    1. Yup, that’s it exactly: the home-stretch droppers.

      So, if you don’t mind my asking — since you are kind of exploring this on your blog — did you get involved? Or ask? Or just let it go? Take the argument that they are adults, making their own decisions?

      I guess I wasn’t satisfied with letting it go without trying to find out. 😉

  24. I actually knew someone – a very smart someone – that did really well in college and was only 8 hours away from a degree when they quit. They just weren’t ready to grow up at the time. The “real world” idea scared them. It didn’t make sense to me at all, but I wasn’t in their shoes. They have since gotten their degree and are doing well.

    I’ve lost touch with a dear friend. Haven’t heard from her and can’t find her. It’s been 10 years now. She had some emotional issues she was working through and I fear the worst. But I have no way of solving the mystery. I think about her a lot.

    Great post, Renee.

    1. Annie:

      It hurts to lose someone when you know there were “emotional issues” going on.

      Many college students have mental health issues. Or that is when problems first reveal themselves.

      It’s weird to think in this digital age that you can’t find that person you are looking for. Sometimes these people resurface at the most odd times. I’ll keep hoping she’ll come back to you so you can have some of your questions answered. Hopefully, with happy answers. 😉

      1. It IS really odd that I can’t find her and that’s worrisome. I found her husband on FB who is obviously no longer with her (he’s with someone else). He friended me but won’t respond to my messages. That REALLY makes me think something bad happened and no one wants to tell me. 🙁 I’m praying I’m wrong but I may never know!

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