College Teaching and Helplessness in the Face of General Badness

In my memoir course, my students’ first exercise is to write down a small story that they often tell people about their lives.  I like reading these little paragraphs – they are often about getting lost in foreign airports, mislaying precious items and realizing that material things don’t matter, buying liquor while under age.  But there are always one or two students who tell me things I don’t want to know.

This term it was Michael.  Michael (not his real name, of course) wrote a story about being punished when he was around six.  It’s difficult to follow the timeline, but it seems that his parents left him alone while they went on vacation, and came home to find the house a mess, so they beat him and sent him to his room.  The description of the beating is perfunctory, but that of his feelings is quite elaborate: the fear that they would find out, the terror during the beating, the remorse as he recovered, and so forth.

I think it’s possible some facts of the story are less than accurate (his parents left him home alone for the weekend when he was six years old?)  Nevertheless, there is clearly something unfortunate going on here.  I wrote a note at the bottom of his assignment saying that the story made me sad and asking him to come talk to me about it.  Instead, when he rewrote his story he added a paragraph at the end that went something like this.

Yes it is a pretty sad story but I know people who have had been threaten even worse. I find that it was tough but I know a very important star who had problems like that in his childhood and in his career they had a pretty tough time even and a lot worse than me. I think it’s the shock my parents had that made them do that but I understand my parents because if your them and you don’t know that there are mess everywhere when you enter your house you can take it pretty bad so at the same time yes and no it is and it is not a sad story

Here is my reply.

Michael: of course, it is your feelings about the incident that are most important.  Are you aware that we have counsellors here at the college whom you can talk to if you are ever feeling bad about things that happened in the past or are happening now?  Let me know if you would like more information.

Like many of my students, Michael is over 18.  I am therefore not under any legal obligation in a situation like this (according to counsellors I’ve spoken to in the past about similar stories students have written.)  I have no intention of chasing him down and making him talk to me about anything he doesn’t want to.  That said, I wonder if there’s something more I should be thinking about doing for him.

Every year, I consider avoiding personal writing assignments.  Every term I ask myself: do I need these close reminders of the general badness going on out there in the world, in my students’ lives?  But I know I will never eliminate them – the assignments, because I won’t, or the badness, because I can’t – so I need a clear strategy for dealing with the stories that rear their heads.

What do you think teachers, especially teachers of older students, should do when faced with stories of suffering, abuse, or trauma?  Have you faced this issue yourself?  If so, what do you do?

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21 responses

  1. Since I teach high school in the states, I am a mandated reporter. I am required by law to contact DCFS or other authorities if I believe a child is or has been in danger. In addition, my school has an agreement with a local counseling center that allows me to recommend a student for counseling if I feel it’s necessary.

    For college teachers (or in your situation), I think it’s different. All you can really do it make yourself available, help the student understand you care, and realize that the ball is no longer in your court. My husband is forever telling me I can’t make decisions for my students–and I think that applies in this situation as well.

    • I couldn’t have said it better myself. At the HS level, we don’t have the option, we HAVE to report these things or we could loose our jobs, but when you are dealing with young adults, all you can really do is make sure they understand that you will help them if they want you to.

  2. I think continuing to ask for personal stories might be very hard for you, but is a blessing for your students. Obviously these difficult stories have been pent up for a long time and these college kids are lucky enough to finally have an outlet. “Michael” has been carrying that story around since he was 6. Maybe you were the first person he told about that story. Maybe he just needed a confidant. I also think offering to discuss the story more, and to give information about the counseling department is the most appropriate and professional way to handle the situation. Writing (as we all know) is so therapeutic, so in many ways your assignment might be helping students more than you think.

  3. I think it’s the best way to connect with the students and it makes them think about themselves in a different way, even if just for a moment. I think teachers should do what you did. Of course, it’s always dependent on the age.

  4. What most people really need is to be heard. Michael wasn’t ready for the implication that his parents might have been wrong and he deserved some compassion for what happened, but he also may have needed to hear it anyway. (Yes, parents that beat their 6-year-old for leaving the house a mess may also be inclined to leave him alone for a weekend.) Thus the defensiveness.

    I think it’s important to hear these stories, because it reminds us of who our students are as whole people.

  5. I, too, have been in this situation several times as a Creative Writing teacher. I believe in most cases the students NEED to tell their story, and a credit to you is that they trust you enough to tell it to. I think the best thing any teacher can do (whether they are a mandated reporter or not) is to talk to the student to let him/her know he/she is not alone. There are support systems in place for them. And while we are not counselors ourselves, we are people who care enough to listen and know enough to point them in the right direction (if it is help they are seeking).

  6. Dear Siobhan Curiou
    yes it is vry same on them, the parents are sometimes so cruel to his kids,
    i remember a true story of a great doctor of India, he tell once that in the age of seven he lost his bat, (cricket bat) he comes weeping in home, his step mother gave him 4,5 tight slap and send him to his room, and the hole eve + night she didnt gave him food n water,
    tomorrow his father came from a official trip, and again he is beaten by his father, and again he didnt get any food for next two day n night,
    suddenly his grand mom came there and near about 65 hour he get first support and love from any one (grand mom) and she gave him bread to eat, aftr that he lives with his grand mom ,and wen he become 27, he passed mbbs and he start practicing , now he is phycologist and he help poor kid and depressed kid for free ……..
    uffff!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! God help us

  7. Oh man…it’s a hard one.

    I think telling personal stories is so important, because it’s the context in which most people know what storytelling is for the first time, and learning to tell your own story in a coherent framework is such a powerful experience.

    But I’ve noticed this too, lately, from a couple different people I know, that the *need* to believe that you were not abused can be overwhelming. Some of the cognitive dissonance I’ve heard lately from people who cannot bear to realize the huge wrong done to them is really, really intense. And I don’t know what to do, either. I think you did the right thing with Michael–let him know that there are people available if he ever feels like talking more. (Or maybe give him an opportunity to write more?) You can’t make anyone deal with something they don’t want to deal with; I think we can only continue standing up as examples of what the right ways to treat people are, and let them come to their own conclusions when they’re ready to face them.

    (Oh, and I have no difficulty believing that there are people who would leave a 6-year-old home alone for a weekend and go on vacation.)

  8. It is possible, with an assignment, to bring up memories/emotions that will cause a person to decompensate emotionally. When I followed up some concerns about a university student I was teaching, a psychologist taught me a simple introduction to keep a personal exploratory exercise “safe”. I give the group an idea of how “secret” a situation I want them to write about. E.g. “If we have a rating scale where 1/10 is something you would tell anybody, and 10/10 is your deepest, darkest secret, pick no more than a 5/10 to write about.”

  9. I taught Freshman Comp for two years and made room in the syllabus for a personal assignment about halfway through the semester. There were a list of possible prompts from “Writing Down the Bones” (great book for getting writing juices going, btw) but they had the option to write whatever they wanted. After writing most of the period, I gave them the option to read their work aloud for the class or shove it in their bags where it would never be seen again. (I also made this a primary discourse exercise, so no attention to grammar/swearing/etc. anything goes) Eventually someone volunteers and then at some point you get to that student pouring their heart out. I’ve had students crying in class, heavy breathing, shaking. Then we talk about how powerful writing that piece was for them. It’s most uncomfortable for everyone who is not the student sharing something, and they learn something about writing that goes far beyond classroom work that they can take with them. We talk about journals, letters, and other types of writing that can be done to work through issues. It’s a bittersweet feeling learning about horrible things but knowing that a doorway for coping has been opened. I say keep the personal assignment for the possible good it can do whether we as instructors are aware of it or not. Good luck!

    • Well said. I second your sentiments.
      Just last week I had a young girl write on the back of her assignment “I just want the beatings to stop.” We were sitting close together. It was her first day of attending class, into the second week. So many tears, so many young girls with babies they are ill equipped to handle. Sigh…

  10. When I was ten I lost my dad…although I have an awesome mum and brother our whole world fall apart and school became a haven of comfort and just being a kid. I will never forget the teacher I had at the time, she seemed to understand what I needed most was to be left alone. I got to just be Claire not “the girl who’s dad died” . She never looked at me pityingly when she thought I wasnt looking and never treated me different and I loved her for it . At the same time I instinctively knew that if I need to I could go to her.
    I guess what i’m getting at is that you reached out to him he knows he can come to you if he needs to and trying to make someone talk if they dont want to will only push them backwards……You seem like a great teacher btw :)

  11. Wow, I can’t even imagine how these stories must grab your insides and squeeze. How brave of both you as a teacher to continue the practice and the student who lets loose the story. We all need an outlet for the things that are inside. Great job providing that opportunity!

  12. For every story like that, there are so many that are uplifting and make me glad to be a human that I’d hate to totally abandon personal writing. I agree with other comment writers that retelling can be cathartic and help your students understand their personal experience and the world at large.

  13. Thanks so much to all of you for your comments. It is indeed necessary, I think, to give students a way to tell these stories – after all, what is writing of any kind for, if not to say the things you want/need to say? They are tough to read and tougher to talk about, but if we don’t read and talk about them, they don’t go away.

  14. Writing down your story is powerful but telling your story can be even more powerful. The only thing that I would add to how you handled the situation and everyone’s comments is that this young man needs to understand that his parents behavior was WRONG no matter what he did, no matter what circumstances their family may have been in. I would also tell him/them that they have taken the first step toward healing and they need to continue either through writing or even better through talking to the professionals on campus. It was very sad.

  15. I would send this young man right to counseling. My sympathy should be voiced, but I should not be the one to hear more about how this experience unfolded or how he processed the tremendous pain that he must have felt. This is partly because it is hard to be both teacher and counselor; and also because student writing done at the instigation of a teacher may have been distorted either in the direction of softening the actual events because of the semi-public nature of the classroom experience, or even in the direction of exaggeration because it’s the nature of the writing experience to want to heighten effects in order to communicate the core of the remembered event. I, as the teacher, should not be the one (unless literally no-one else is available) to hear and respond to this traumatic childhood experience.

  16. I teach high school English. I too have read my share of sad stories. In one respect, I think when students write about sad or difficult times, it’s because they want someone to know, and they want someone to care about them. In another respect, I think that calling the authorities is a sticky situation because the parents could become even more angry with the child, the child may not want to leave the home (even though times can be tough), and I can say from experience that the alternatives, namely foster care, do not guarantee a safer environment; they are sometimes worse. What I try to instill in my classes is the knowledge that we are all free to make our own choices in life. Even when we come from less than desirable backgrounds, we are the captains of our own ships. I tell my students, “If you are unhappy with the family that has raised you, make a better one.”

    • Well, but the thing is that here in the States, anyway, teachers are required by law to report suspected abuse of a minor. It doesn’t necessarily mean that a child goes to foster care–social services will usually try to find appropriate shelter with safer family members first.

      It doesn’t sound like Siobhan is in that situation, as a college student is probably a legal adult.

  17. Sad but not surprising. I have a friend who was treated as badly, if not worse, by his parents when he was young, and even to this day. He on the one level can recognize that the way they treated him was abusive and wrong, but on another level, he’s internalized it as normal and just how things are. I have other friends who laugh about how their parents used to beat them when they were young, and seem sincerely untraumatized while doing so – like you or I would tell a story of how we got sent to our rooms for acting up as kids.

    You did the right thing to open up the door to discussion, express support and empathy, and leave it at that. Whether he takes it farther is up to him. He probably knows unconsciously that what happened was wrong, but he probably also accepts it as a natural consequence of growing up. Pushing him farther could just get him to close up at this stage.

  18. I love the fact that as a teacher you care about your students, and essentially that could be your biggest factor in helping this student. There could be an instance (perhaps office hours) that you could not discuss the issue but instead show this student that you are there for him. i know that often professors invite students to dinner, lunch, or other activities just to get on a more personal level. for a student like this, inviting him and maybe a few others to lunch can go a long way. recently, on my campus, there have been posters about suicide. not saying this boy would but the possibility lies in everyone. 1,100 students a semester (or year… i have difficulty remembering but it is posted downstairs in my dorm) commit suicide. this is a personal issue to me because a year ago today my brother’s close friend took his life over a girl. maybe by showing him that classmates and yourself are there for him and by building a relationship that way, this may end up helping this student to a greater happiness. (sorry to share such a sad story but often cases like this happen more than once and should be addressed before the thoughts hurt the person.)

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