Did a student's dark thoughts translate to ill intent?

  • Article by: JULIE SCHUMACHER
  • Updated: June 19, 2014 - 6:14 PM

The fraught experience of engaging with a young man whose writing made people nervous.

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The undergraduate who had been writing poems about killing people showed up for his appointment in my office carrying a black canvas backpack. He was slim and dark-haired, his mouth torqued into an uneasy smile. I had spoken several times about his violent ramblings to the campus police and to the university’s office of mental health, and this was what they came up with: I should invite the student to my office and calmly begin a conversation with the following question: “Do you have a plan to harm yourself or anyone else?”

They didn’t specify a course of action if the answer was yes.

 

My office is small and square, with glass on three sides; an oversize desk takes up most of the floor space. I seated the undergrad and his backpack in the corner, leaving the door ajar so he was partly behind it. In the open doorway, I seated the student’s graduate teaching instructor — a shy, soft-spoken young woman working on her master of fine arts in poetry. It was she who had reported to me, her faculty supervisor, that despite clear and repeated instructions, the undergrad was writing things that had nothing to do with class assignments — things that made the other students afraid.

She was to accompany me in the subtle art of interrogation, and the two of us had made an agreement: At any sign of a problem, she was to sprint out of the office, assuming that I would be immediately behind her. In order to follow us, the student would have to squeeze somewhat awkwardly between my desk and the propped-open door.

Did I imagine that a twenty-something poet and her middle-aged faculty supervisor could outrun gunfire? I don’t remember. What I remember is the backpack in the corner, larger than the typical student model, which attracted my gaze like a dark star. And I remember the student’s response to my carefully scripted question about a possible plan to harm himself or others: “If I were going to pull a Virginia Tech or a Columbine,” he said, “I wouldn’t tell you about it, would I?”

As a teacher of creative writing, I’m accustomed to disturbing subject matter. During a typical semester, I read depictions of sexual assault, addiction and various flavors of violence — some of it otherworldly (sepulchers, werewolves), some of it inspired by slasher films. Undergrads often turn to creative writing classes in pursuit of catharsis, returning to their French or physics majors with a renewed appreciation for language but otherwise unharmed. And yet: I had one colleague whose emotionally disturbed student had found out where he lived and had taunted him with intimate, sinister messages, and another who saw her abusive student arrested only after he sent his threats through the mail.

The student in my office was visibly trembling. “I’m going to ask you that same question again in a minute,” I said, trying to speak softly. We were already off-script; the poet-instructor was gazing earnestly at the floor. “We’re concerned about what you’ve been writing. Some of your classmates are frightened. They want to drop the course.”

I asked how he was doing in his other classes. (Not very well.) How about in general, apart from school? He confessed to anxiety and a history of depression — but no, he did not want to talk to a counselor, because he’d done that before. I asked about his family (he was an international student, alone in the United States) and then his friends (he said he had none). Then he started to cry. The poet-instructor and I made empathetic sounds: College was hard, we said; both academic and social issues could be very stressful.

I realized I was avoiding a return to The Question. Perhaps stalling for time, I asked about hobbies. What did the student do when he wasn’t studying? Did he have an outlet for relieving stress, maybe something outdoors? Yes, he said, the backpack slouched against his leg like a faithful dog — guns. He’d been taking lessons at a shooting range.

Our meeting lasted for almost an hour, and though it wasn’t yet noon when it was over, I needed to go home; I had sweated through my clothes. I never got an answer to The Question. And because the student’s written expressions of mayhem didn’t pose a specific threat, there was no recourse, despite consultations with mental health professionals, the student’s adviser, the campus police and a faculty committee on student conduct.

Eventually, the student dropped out, but before he did so I sat sentry outside his instructor’s classroom while she taught. Her class was at night, at an hour when the building was mostly empty. If violence had erupted, I doubt I would have been useful. Still, I sat outside her classroom, reading, waiting, because it seemed there was nothing else to do.

 

Julie Schumacher, a creative writing professor at the University of Minnesota, is the author of the forthcoming novel “Dear Committee Members.” This article was first published at nytimes.com, as part of the “Private Lives” series.

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