I’ve imagined a gun in my classroom. Maybe held by the depressed student, or by the belligerent one who thinks I have graded him unfairly. Because I teach freshman writing, and students write their own stories in my class, I know better than other professors just how unstable freshmen are. They’ve been thinking about college for years and now they’re here and it’s not what they imagined. Drugs, alcohol, and sex are available as never before. Everyone is a stranger. They have to manage their own schedule, and most say that time management is their greatest challenge. Their GPAs will follow them into their careers. Life, in other words, has gotten serious.
One story sticks firmly in my mind. One of my students, Jim, was an intense young man, shorter than I was, certainly not a person I would take for a jock. His father had ambitions for him as a baseball player, and starting in fifth grade, had hired a personal trainer to shepherd Jim onto the high school baseball team. Throughout high school the personal trainer worked with him, and he became good enough to win a baseball scholarship at Montclair State University, where I teach. Like so many high school athletes, he had skated along on his athletic laurels, glorying in the years that would probably be the highlight of his life. His picture was in the local paper, the girls loved him, he had trophies.
College, at least my class, didn’t go so well for him. He was heading for maybe a C+. Then he handed in the major paper of the semester, and I could see right away that it was plagiarized. It was also turned in late and the semester was coming to an end, so there wasn’t much time to rectify this situation. Instead of trying to rectify it, he fought my conclusion. “My dad helped me some with it, but I wrote this whole thing!” He was outraged, offended, and furious at me. I passed the paper along to the head of the department and to the ethics officer of the university, and they agreed — it was plagiarized. This meant he would fail the course, or at least fail the paper, which would mean losing his scholarship and pop him right off the baseball team. This was a turning point in his life, and he could see his hopes in ashes.
My own emotions were mixed; I understood his despair, I was angry at him the same way I am angry at Lance Armstrong, and I was afraid. There was no way to just forget the whole thing especially after representatives of the whole department and university became involved. He brought his father in to see the department head and they had a tumultuous meeting.
With only a few classes left, I remember conducting class wondering if he would barge into the classroom with a gun, or whether he would assault me. If he did come in with a gun, he would be standing between me and the door. There were only a desk and some chairs for shelter, and the windows were on the second floor so there was no escape from them. Would I try to talk him down, throw a chair at him, try to turn on my phone (I found I didn’t even have the campus police’s number in my cell phone — which I remedied), try to protect the other students? At that moment, I realized that I would simply die, and maybe some of my students would too, especially if they tried to protect me, which I thought was pretty unlikely. Given the recent school shootings, my fears were well founded.
Dustin Hoffman said in a recent interview that, except in one comic scene, he had never held a gun in a film. He had once been threatened by a man with a gun, and in his opinion nothing on film had ever portrayed the true terror of facing a gun. Likewise, none of the recent rhetoric has portrayed what it is like to be standing unprotected in a classroom, responsible for a whole class of students, with a manically furious or mentally ill student on the loose. A physical assault, or an outburst of anger would be bad enough, but just add in that gun………