A troubled student on the day of the Sandy Hook massacre

December 14th

December 14, 2012 started off like any other college finals day. Actually, it was the last day of finals, so there wasn’t even the usual hubbub in the department office. A lot of kids had already packed up and left for home. One more final and I would be ready to post grades and be done, too. My class and I were looking forward to this particular final because there was no exam — the culmination of the course would be viewing final film projects. All we needed to bring was popcorn.

Could Josh become another Adam Lanza? (photo via biography.com)

Josh had had three troubled years. Always an excuse. Only the minimum. Usually on academic probation. Having failed a course, a semester behind. His roommates had ejected him from their dorm room twice during the semester, and he had been referred to our counseling center on numerous occasions. He said he missed the first appointment because he “couldn’t find the office.” The second because he was “filming,” the third, fourth. . . .  He was bright, even personable, but scraping by and always seemingly in over his head.

On the due date, Josh had handed in a blank DVD, trying to pass it off as a defective disc — the same excuse he had given another professor the day before. He promised to bring in a corrected one by the final screening. The morning of that screening, a staff person reported seeing a picture of a gun on his computer screen. He had been kicked out of his room, yet again, and had slept in the men’s bathroom, this fanboy of the popular violent video games and anime. Was this the recipe that we hear about later? After? Was this the day when the sweet but troubled young man clicks into a news story?

Taking precautions

My chair and I requested security outside my screening room. Just to feel safe. Safer. The officer sat outside, with a newspaper, inconspicuous, as if he were on a break. The students piled in. Excited. Final screening, last day! Laughing, joking. Ready to roll. Josh came in dressed in his usual long, black Army/Navy overcoat, carrying a large duffle over his shoulder. As he reached in his bag for the replacement DVD, I scanned the bag’s contents as closely as I could. Just some stuff, not too crammed. All clear, as far as I could tell.

Cell phones are supposed to be off in the classroom, but controlling the secret texting is a little like herding kittens. So when a student received the message that there was a mass shooting at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, many phones started to buzz, including Josh’s. He leaned back to show me a message that read, “If I had a gun I’d shoot up a school, too.” I asked him who had sent it. Was it someone on campus? Did he know the guy? Where was he? He assured me, no, no, no, it was a random tweet from a faceless follower. He nervously told me that he thought the whole thing was “just terrible.”

It was almost noon. I ordered pizza for the whole class. I was later told that that action was great because it “changed the dynamic.” The policeman outside the door didn’t know what to think. An eccentric professor who gets a pizza delivery in the middle of a final? But the dynamic needed changing to complete the work. Josh ate three slices.

Weird is not often wrong

I commend all the faculty and staff at the university who were alert and concerned to the needs of this student. I know several other colleagues who also reached out to him. We had no desire to just pass him on — we all wanted to help him. Many of us have hand-held a host of students to a completion of college, and we all hoped to add Josh to that list. But he was over 18 when he came to us and over 21 when he left, and in loco parentis has no real standing.

Each day a teacher stands in front of another fragile soul, not ignoring behaviors and signs, but often helpless to do anything. We want to support the student and help him or her reach an educated, productive adulthood; we also know that weird is often not wrong, especially in the arts. Would any of us really want to see our 20-year-old selves categorized and judged, again, especially in the arts?

December 14th became a pizza party. Class ended and so did Josh’s college career. He slid away with little fanfare, telling several different stories of exciting destinations. There was a campus-wide sigh of relief.

I heard recently that he’s now relocated quite far away and doing well. I’m glad for us both.

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