because life doesn’t fit in a file folder

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to call you today if you weren’t in class — and then I was poking around for your phone number when I saw that you had withdrawn yourself from class.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

Sincerely,

RASJ

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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