Tim hung by the door as I walked up, a few minutes late to class. His pink hair, black eye liner, and neon tank presented a contrast to the individual I’d met the previous semester.
Then, he’d worn his Appleby’s uniform as often as his beloved purple hoodie. Often unkempt, his blond shaggy bangs obscured his eyes as he looked up from the front row.
In his mid-twenties, and seasoned by years of menial jobs and failed college attempts, he finally had his shit together. He was also a stand-out writer – fluid and thoughtful in ways you just can’t teach.
I was so tickled, so thankful when a group from that class took my Comp II in the spring. Tim was one of those students.
He came back from winter break with pink hair, and his physical transformation continued from there. Nose stud. Eye liner. He mixed up his clothes, discarding the functional, even dowdy, pieces of the past semester. Clearly, something had given way, and we were getting glimpses of a new Tim, or at least a side he’d kept hidden.
Then, in a journal entry, Tim revealed something he’d kept secret for awhile: he’s genderqueer.* The changes I’d seen suddenly made sense, and I was grateful for the opportunity to witness part of his evolution.
Unfortunately, Tim’s personal security seemed inversely affected by this transformation. Early that semester, he moved out of his parents’ house – an unhealthy environment, apparently – and proceeded to couch hop through different homes. I honestly don’t know the specifics; I heard stuff piecemeal, following crumbs of information he dropped in our conferences.
Tim’s unsettled home life and brutal work schedule leveled his class performance. About the time we started Hamlet – a play I knew he’d love – he started skipping class, didn’t turn in assignments, then major essays. We met and discussed strategies for how he might proceed, but the strain became too much.
That day, outside our class, he came to tell me he wouldn’t finish.
That he couldn’t. That he needed to focus on courses he might pass.
He was visibly distraught, nearly crying, and I was conflicted. He’d taken so many knocks and was breaking apart right in front of me. What could I do? I wanted to give him hope, to tell him even his worst writing could pass.
I wanted to slip my arms around his waist and squeeze that hope into him. I wanted to take his face between my hands and tell him it would be okay, though I had no way of knowing, no right to tell him so. It seems so juvenile, so petty, to think that hugging Tim would help, but it’s all I had at that moment, when words failed me.
But I didn’t do it. I didn’t hug him, or tell him things would be okay, or plead with him to reconsider.
Was this what he really wanted, I asked.
He said it was.
He turned away, and I walked into our waiting class.
Like so many times in the past, I was paralyzed by intense emotion. The struggle to say something helpful rendered me silent. The edict that teachers not touch their students stayed my arms, and instead of doing everything I could to help, in that moment, I did nothing.
I’ve replayed that moment hundreds of times, and I would give anything to change it, to do and say what was in my heart. I’ve tried to make it right ever since.
As soon as I got into class, students busy with a quiz, I emailed Tim asking him to rethink his decision. I told him, however, that I understood. I tried to communicate that I wasn’t angry with him, or disappointed, and that, ultimately, he needed to do what felt right.
I never heard back. I’ve tried emailing again, several times, even messaging on Facebook, but he hasn’t responded. It’s been five months. I don’t know if he’s upset with me, or embarrassed, or just hasn’t seen my correspondence, but I’m haunted by the knowledge that I didn’t respond as I should’ve that day, and that Tim doesn’t know why I seemed aloof.
It’s a strange dynamic, the relationship between students and teachers, especially at the college level. As teachers, we are commanded to keep professional distance, yet the best of us are passionate and take an interest in our students’ lives. We learn about them, and they us, and our paths get intertwined, somehow. This is especially the case in humanities classes, where we wrangle with issues of self expression and identity. The writing my students do – at least the best of it – depends on a particular intimacy and trust that spans between us. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Where does this leave teachers, then, when we lose a student? Or when it feels like we lose a student? How do we respond when we see turmoil and frustration but can do nothing to help?
I don’t know.
I’m not advocating that teachers become integral members of all students’ support systems – that’s asking too much. Yet, we do fill that role on occasion, for some students. What are we then? Friends? Mentors?
I’m reminded of Roethke’s poem “Elegy For Jane,” which ends with the speaker weeping over the grave of a former student:
…I speak the words of my love:
I, with no rights in this matter,
Neither father nor lover. (lines 20-22)
I care deeply for Tim, but I’ve reached the point where contacting him further would seem presumptuous or forward. Assuming he’s seen my messages, he doesn’t want to talk, so I won’t keep trying, at least not directly.
This post is my bottle cast to sea. It’s my way of saying, Tim, that I hope you’re okay and have found a measure of peace and stability. I want you to be happy in yourself. I think of you every time I teach “Ozymandias” because you loved it so, and I look for you in the hallways of my building. Perhaps I shouldn’t, or don’t have a right to worry about you any more. But I do, and if I could, I’d rewind to the last time I saw you, walking away. I’d call you back and reach out the way I’d wanted to then, but couldn’t.
*I refer to Tim as “he” in this post because, at the time, he didn’t directly specify another gender identification.