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to call you today if you weren’t in class — and then I was poking around for your phone number when I saw that you had withdrawn yourself from class.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

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Fall Semester 2009. Last year. He sat in the back row. In the only blue desk in a room filled with brown desks. He wore a button up shirt every day. He was quiet. Kept to himself. Initially, he was studious and handed in each assignment. His grammar was impeccable, his writing strong. He had a wry sense of humor and wrote about a time when he had worked in a Styrofoam factory. How the white stuff stuck to him, went up his nose, in his mouth, made him sneeze and sputter. He learned quickly he didn’t want to ever work in a Styrofoam factory. We all laughed when he read his piece aloud. Not at him: at his material. He was funny.

I expected great things. In fact, I was so sure he was going to produce great things, he kind of fell off my radar.

About six weeks into the semester, we hit the argumentative research paper unit, and he started to fall apart. He didn’t hand in his intentions for his topic, thus he never had a topic approved. I worried because he didn’t seem to be moving forward. While other students worked on paraphrasing and interview questions for their “experts,” he sat still in his blue chair, looking stiff and uncomfortable.

Finally, I asked him to stay after class. I went to his desk. I asked him if he had started the research paper. No. Did he have a topic? No. Did he need help selecting one, I implored. It was not too late. No. Could I help him? No. Would he let me know if I could help him? No. That was the one that stopped me. Chilled me, actually. No? I tried to look into his face, his eyes for something, but he was looking down, angry at being detained, at the questioning.

“You won’t contact me if you need help?” I asked.

“No,” he said.

I tried to explain to him that up until the research paper, he had an A — the only A grade in the class! He shrugged, underwhelmed. I told him he could still save his grade, the semester, but without the research paper, it would be impossible to pass, especially since he had not met any of the deadlines during the process. I told him I was worried about him.

“Thank you,” he said quietly. “I understand what I’m doing.”

The next day I received an email from Records and Registration that read:

We regret to inform you that we have been notified of the death of one of your current students (name here, and student number). We have noted this in the student information system so that all parties reviewing the student’s record will be informed.

Please make the appropriate notation in your records.

I was stunned. The appropriate notation? Was there a code I was supposed to put in my book? “D” for deceased? “S” for suicide? I knew I had to have been among the last to speak with my student. I replayed our conversation in my head endlessly. “I understand what I am doing” suddenly sounded much more ominous. I had missed it. I had missed a strong student’s decline from excellence into despair. Something was going on with him, and I had missed it. Maybe the better notation was “IF”: I. Failed. Or IF I had only known.

Later, I learned that my former student’s chosen method was to wrap his car around a telephone pole. He had been driving very fast. Very intentionally. He understood what he was doing.

Meanwhile, I was devastated. None of my students noticed the sudden absence of their classmate because students come and go all the time at community college. People drop out for many reasons: job or family obligations, financial issues, poor grades, poor attendance.  I spent the remaining weeks of the semester staring at that lone blue desk amidst the sea of brown desks and felt desperate.

I have had former students die – through illnesses, accidents, even at their own hand — just not during the semesters I taught them. Last year’s experience was a first for me. I have long known that I cannot transform them all into English teachers (nor would I want to), but I guess I always thought out of all their teachers, I would be the one they might come to if they needed help. I would be the one they would choose.

Last year, I learned that was a ridiculous idea, and that I cannot save them all.