Archive for May 17th, 2006

A Troubled Student

Yesterday I had one of the most difficult, if not the most difficult lessons I've ever had. I have a student, A., who's very quiet, sits at the back of the room and hardly ever speaks. In the first lesson, when we were introducing ourselves, I asked him what he did for a living, and he refused to answer. I found out later from one of the secretaries that he's a cop.

He seemed to get along well with everyone in the class, which wasn't really difficult, because everyone in that group got along well. They're a friendly bunch of people, ranging from about 20 to 36 years old. Occasionally he would refuse to answer a question, even if it was multiple choice. I'd say, "Come on, you have a 25% chance of getting it right," but he would shrug his shoulders helplessly. (This is not uncommon. I've seen people do this when there were only two choices.) But apart from that, he participated when asked to. He wrote a lot of compositions, too, in a large, messy script. Once we had a composition about what job we had or wanted to have, and he wrote the whole thing without ever stating what he actually did.

One thing that sticks out in my mind as atypical of what I imagine cops to be like is that he liked Rimbaud and Baudelaire a lot.

Sometimes he came to class without his books. I thought that maybe the course was being paid for by some sort of work-related programme, and he simply had to put in the hours. I still don't know if this was the case. At any rate, I've seen this sort of thing many, many times, and I thought nothing of it. After the Easter break, though, he started to get very strange. He'd sit in class with these huge sunglasses that made him look like a fly. At the school where I work, we share classes with another teacher. For example, I teach this class on Tuesdays, and the other teacher on Thursdays. The other teacher told me that A. had said some strange things in class. He'd raised his hand and started talking about music and radio, when it had nothing to do with what the class was discussing. He left after only an hour. He'd left early in my class too, but had not spoken.

Yesterday I saw him sitting at his desk at the back, without the huge sunglasses this time, with a pack of Marlboros and a CPE textbook on his desk. But it was the wrong book. We don't use that one. In a joking sort of tone, I asked him what he was doing with that one.

"I prefer this one," he said, in broken English. (He usually responds to English with Greek.) "I think it's a very good book."

I told him that the author of it produces good stuff.

"But actually at the moment I'm not interested in Cambridge or Michigan. I listen to the radio. [He may have said something about Eurovision.] And I'm smoking a lot."

Before you joke about what he's smoking, let me make it clear that I immediately understood this as a sign that he was under stress of some kind, and was smoking the way some people drink when things are difficult. I don't remember people resorting to cigarettes so much in Canada at times like that, although I know they do. But it seems they do it even more here in Greece.

Anyway, the lesson got under way. I knew better than to ask him any questions, since he didn't have the book, and I knew he wasn't interested enough. I didn't ask him to sit with someone who had the book. The first hour was fine. I don't remember him doing or saying anything. In the teacher's room during the break, I was telling the others about the little exchange we'd had about the book when one of the secretaries came in and said, "You wouldn't happen to have a student who's acting a little strangely today?" I said I did. He told me that A. had been saying strange things things to some students in the waiting room before class had started, and had alarmed them. I learned from the secretary that he had told one of the girls in the class that he wanted her to be the mother of his children.

In the second hour, the situation became clearer to me. A. was in love with the girl whose children he said he wanted to father. After the first break, he began to talk more in class, and things became awkward. I hoped he would leave again, but he didn't. He didn't even leave the room to smoke — he stood at the window at the back of the classroom.

In the second hour, he took out a blank sheet of paper from somewhere and began to write quickly. In only a few minutes he'd written a page and a half. He seemed inspired. Later, he started tearing up paper in small squares, about 3×3 inches, and writing on those. When the hour was over, and I was leaving the room, he asked me a question. It started out having to do with English, but in mid-sentence was about Madonna and a few other things. "You know?" he said at the end of it, and I just said, "No." Some people laughed.

In the third hour, he was much more talkative, and I spent it dreading every time he opened his mouth or raised his hands. The rest of the class were trying very hard to be conscientious about the lesson, and keep up the appearance of order.

"Have you seen the video clip for 'November Rain'?" he asked me at one point, although it had nothing to do with anything. I told him I hadn't, and he shrugged, disappointed, and remarked that I was obviously clueless then.

At one point he suddenly spoke up and said he was dying for a cigarette. I told him he could go out and have one if he wanted to. He started saying things I couldn't understand, although the others in the class realised he was talking about the girl who was ignoring his advances. The oldest student, who is my age, and who sits at the front of the class, told him to give it a rest. I gathered that he'd talked about it before. Then she said quietly, so that only those around her could her, "He's not well."

There were moments of lucidity, though. He raised his hand and proposed that, since the course is ending, I tell them how I thought they had done in things like their compositions, if I was disappointed with them in any way, or give them any last bits of advice. I made a few brief comments and moved on. Another time, he raised his hand and asked a question that had nothing to do with what we were discussing, and then, realising his mistake, said, "Don't mind me — I'm raving."

The verb defect came up, and I was explaining what it meant. The oldest student, who is often the only one to pick up on the cultural references that I make in class, mentioned Baryshnikov, whom the others didn't even know. She wondered if Nureyev had defected. I mentioned Solzhenitsyn, but jokingly, since I knew that if they hadn't heard of the other two, they would have a clue who he was. A. raised his hand and said there was also Dostoevsky and Pushkin, and that the latter was a philhellene.

"But they lived before the formation of the USSR," I said.

"And then there's Lorca, who said he was going to burn the Parthenon," he quickly added. He made some remark to the effect that this is the kind of stuff we Greeks have to deal with.

Finally, the last hour came to an end. I knew the girl he was in love with was not going to leave alone. She went to the secretary, who's a much bigger guy than A., and some of the students waited for her, I believe. (I know they went as a group and complained.) I had to get ready for the next class. (I have a weird one in that class too, probably on medication, but I'll take ten of him before A.) When A. was leaving, he passed the drinking fountain and slammed his book on it, and left it there. Later in the evening, I looked at it in the secretary's office. It was new, untouched, except for the indentations his writing had made on the cover when he was writing on the paper.

I dread to think what he'll be like next time, if he comes back. I hope he doesn't. I dread the thought of him becoming violent, if it comes to that. It's tough when you know that, should it come to that, you'll have to do something. If he does something to bother the girl, you'll have to step in, even though he may be able to send you flying.

And I hope he's not working. I can't imagine him staying at work (let alone carrying a gun) in that state. I hope he's on some kind of disability leave. They say he was being transferred to Thessaloniki and wasn't going to register for the rest of the course. But who knows now.


Tonight I said to my boss, "I guess you heard about the incident with A." Not only had she heard, but she knew much more than I did. She told me that A. had given a letter to the girl saying that he was either going to kill somebody or kill himself, or both. Her parents called the school and said that they were going to take legal action against him.

Unfortunately, the administration's attitude has been to wait and see. They don't want to do anything about it because there are only three more lessons, and he's not going to come back anyway when the course ends. Meanwhile, we teachers (not to mention the girl, if she decides to come again) have to go into a classroom with a disturbed policeman who has threatened to kill "someone".

The next class for that group is tomorrow night (18 May). Then there are two more lessons next week. I hope the girl doesn't come. She's a sweet kid, but she should stay home. She'll continue the course when he's gone anyway. (Unless her parents decide — quite logically, in my opinion — to put her somewhere he won't be able to find her.) 

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