Last week’s murder of six and wounding of 14 in a Safeway parking lot in Tucson has led to a lot of discussion in both the blogoshere and the traditional press. Did heated political rhetoric in the media fuel the confrontation? Why didn’t the clearly erratic behavior of the alleged gunman tip-off authorities? I can speak from some experience in the latter case and feel that — for better or worse — teachers and administrators simply don’t extrapolate beyond their own social groups when assessing possible damaging behavior. I know I didn’t.
Thirty years ago I was teaching at Stanford University. One of my students was in a graduate program in the School of Education. He was, well, erratic at best. Both his attendance and his work were inconsistent. He either sulked in class or was prone to outbursts. Several of the women in the class told me he made them uncomfortable; he was too much in their faces and very aggressive about asking them out. Then one day he submitted a paper I had seen in the same class the year before.
Making women uncomfortable and being late or argumentative in class don’t cut to the heart of the educational process the way plagiarism does. The former are often issues of style and poor taste, but cheating is cheating, so I went to my department chairman for advice. He told me to continue as normal but privately confront the student and get him to rewrite the paper. Either that or we’d have to turn him in to the academic council, which would probably expel him for violating the Code of Conduct.
During the next class I asked him to stay after and speak with me. He didn’t. The class after that he came five minutes late and left five minutes early. This went on for a couple weeks so my chairman finally called the head of his program at the School of Education.
This was 30 years ago, remember, but those folks over in Education didn’t appear to know what they had on their hands, nor did they seem particularly inclined to learn about their problem student. He hadn’t seen his academic adviser in months. Weeks passed while they were doing what appeared to be nothing. Finally, two weeks to go in the term — two weeks before graduation for my student — the Ed School told him in a letter that they were kicking him out.
That’s when he finally showed up in my office. Some people smoked in offices back then and he was a smoker. I remember him, unkempt and nervous, unable to look me in the eye, sitting next to my desk smoking one cigarette after another using each to light the next. He could smoke an entire cigarette in about a minute, he was so nervous or high.
“Can’t you just give me a D? ” he pleaded.
I told him a D was the best he could hope for, but only if he rewrote the paper to my satisfaction. I wanted to know, too, what his plans were after graduation? He was going to teach at a middle school. Was the school aware of his issues?
I couldn’t see sending him alone into a crowd of teenage girls so I added to my conditions that he find a different job — one where they knew what they were getting.
A suitable internship was available and he took it. The paper was finally finished the night before graduation, and one more Stanford grad went out into the working world.
And about three months later he started writing me hate letters.
I had ruined his career and his life. I was responsible for his lack of success after Stanford. If I hadn’t been so demanding and unreasonable in my assignments he wouldn’t have had to cheat.
So I deserved to die.
About this time a Stanford math professor was killed by a former graduate student who found him working late in his office, killing him with a hammer. That former student didn’t really have much to do with the professor, as I recall. The professor just happened to be the department chair and therefore represented the institution, I guess. My buddy Kirk, who was Doug Engelbart’s research assistant at SRI, rented a room in the professor’s house and I remember him quickly harvesting his marijuana crop when the cops said they were coming over to interview him.
I worked late at night back then in creaky old Redwood Hall. Sitting there grading papers at midnight every sound seemed to be an unwanted footstep. The math professor didn’t get any hate mail, to my knowledge and here I was getting a letter nearly every week.
Then they stopped.
My former student had taken his life, parking his car in the middle of the Golden Gate Bridge and jumping to his death.
I felt only relief.
If there is a lesson here in the context of last week’s events in Tucson it’s that I thought of my student and that student’s career, I thought of the values of the university, I thought of the safety of those middle school students, and I thought about myself, but it never occurred to me that my problem student would get a gun and shoot 20 people in a Safeway parking lot, killing six.
It’s hard to think more than a step or two beyond our experience. The fact that the teachers and administrators at Pima Community College didn’t see their guy being a mass murderer shouldn’t be surprising. On the other hand I suppose that they — and I — played the odds to some degree.
Much of this comes down to not really knowing people. The Education School accepted my student not knowing what he was like, nor did they seem to put much effort into knowing him once he was there. They were incredulous that I even cared. So too this guy in Arizona. Maybe he had long been on this path but nobody knew it because nobody cared.
That’s the way it is with people who are pains in the ass, and all the more reason to know them best of all.