Walking Along the Edge: A Reflection on Virginia Tech

21 Apr 2007
April 21, 2007

I didn’t hear of Monday’s tragedy at Virginia Tech until 9:30 that night. I had just plopped down my suitcase in my NYC hotel room after a long, flight-delayed ride from San Francisco. As I unpacked I watched the TV as teachers and students were eulogized and I began to remember my many years as a college teacher. As I watched Cho Seung-Hui’s English professor, Lucinda Roy, recount both her concern and inability to take action after reading Cho’s writing, similar memories of my own experiences with my students began to resurface. Suddenly, I remembered John.

• • •

The first day of this Beginning Photography class I surveyed the faces of my new students as I always did. I noticed John throughout my opening remarks writing copiously in his notebook and nodding approvingly as I spoke. It was nice to receive visual confirmation that I was connecting with him that first day. He was an older student as some were in this community college. With a bit of life experience under their belts, these students were often some of my best. I was glad to see I had at least one in the class. But about halfway through the course, things began to change.

One day Linda came up to me in the darkroom and pulled me aside. “If you don’t tell John to stop telling me what to do…” She didn’t finish her sentence but it was clear she had reached her limit. John, she told me, had been trying to give her his tips for the perfect photograph and ignoring him had done no good. Telling her not to worry, I asked John to stay a minute after class.

“There are many ways to teach photography,” I told him. “If you see Linda having a problem, come tell me and I’ll take care of it.” “I’ll tell you what I’ll do, he replied, “I’ll tell her what to do and then I’ll tell her to come talk to you.” I was a bit surprised by his response. Usually, students were pretty understanding and I didn’t expect resistance.

Trying to convince him to try it my way yielded no change in his position. I finally made it clear: “John, I am the teacher in this class and I want you to do as I have asked.” I made a mental note of his inflexibility and adjusted my sensors accordingly for the rest of the semester. There were no further intrusions and when the end came, judging his coursework, I gave him a C.

The first week of the next semester I got a call from the Chair of the Photography department who told me John was angry with the grade he had received. I called him to talk and explained why I had given him the grade he got. But he would not listen. He said knew a justice on the state’s Supreme Court and was going to make sure I never taught in the state again unless I changed his grade. This was beginning to look like something more than an inflexible student. I made an appointment with the dean.

“John has written a dossier on everything that happened in your class,” the dean told me. “I have seen this document but he asked that I not show it to you.” I was starting to get scared. Had I said something he had misinterpreted? I remembered him writing in his notebook that first day. It was eerie to think that everything I had said and done in that class had been recorded. And not being able to read what he penned in that notebook made me feel vulnerable.

The “case” made its way through the school’s system that next semester. Other teachers viewed his work and agreed with my assessment. But John continued his protest. Finally, a face-to-face meeting was arranged. John, myself, the dean, and another teacher would hash this out. But before the meeting the dean finally offered to show me John’s dossier. I opened the notebook with trepidation and scanned it for any incriminating evidence. Near the end I came upon this entry:

January 30: Mr. Gates called me to tell me why I got the grade I got. He was very polite as he explained. Obviously, someone was listening in on the line.

I breathed a sigh of relief and then immediately realized I was holding my breath. His entries were banal but his voyeurism was unsettling.”October 12: Twenty four people in attendance. Mr. Gates calls roll…” There was nothing in his diary he could use against me. But it did reveal a side to John I had not been privy to. The dean then provided a bit more context: John, as it turned out, had just retired from military intelligence. At the very least he was conducting his civilian life as he had his military one. But the worst-case scenario was chilling: he was paranoid. Neither was very appealing nor offered me any comfort. Just the week before a student had killed a teacher in her classroom at another school. Did the military allow former soldiers to keep their guns when they left? I was relieved to know I had done nothing wrong. But I now feared for my safety.

At the meeting the other teacher laid it on the table. He said that he, too, had been in military intelligence and there was nothing in these notes that would hold up in any court, let alone the state Supreme Court. Feeling once again centered with the veil of secrecy and possible guilt lifted, I immediately offered my former student a way out.

“John, it’s obvious you don’t respect me nor what I was trying to teach you. So a better grade from me would be meaningless to you. Here’s what I will do. I will change your grade to an F so you can retake the class with someone you do respect.” He didn’t take me up on my offer and we never heard from him again.

Teaching connected me to people I would never have met elsewhere. Most were wonderful and excited about learning. And the most interesting always taught me something. John taught me a lesson. And this week’s events in Blacksburg, Virginia reminded me that whatever we do and wherever we go there is always the potential that we will walk the edge. Sometimes it’s our own but often it’s someone else’s.

1 reply
  1. James says:

    Wonderful post and EXACTLY why I keep telling myself NO when it comes to teaching… especially something as subjective as art .

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