I thought that was an overreaction to what had happened, but there had just been another mass shooting in the news. So when a student in the back corner suddenly flew into a rage over a passing comment, cursing at another student and finally at me, his professor, immediately removing him from the classroom did little to calm anyone down. As soon as he stormed out, slamming the door, someone in the back of the class muttered what I assumed many others were also thinking.
“What if he comes back with a gun?”
“I don’t think that’s what just happened here,” I said to the room of concerned faces that was a point I repeated and elaborated on when I emailed my department head that evening.
“I got the sense that something else was eating at the guy, some life issue,” I wrote. “He’s never shown any signs of this level of agitation before. He even laughs at my bad jokes. There’s something else going on here. I just know it.”
My department head appreciated my faith in the student, and in her words, my instincts, but the university has protocols for these situations. Steps that must be followed. Special departments for me to contact.
“We can’t be too safe,” she replied.
I couldn’t disagree. My gut feeling could be deadly wrong.
“I’m sincerely hoping he emails with an apology over the weekend,” I wrote to the counselor at the university’s Department of Student Conduct. His outburst was on a Friday morning.
“If he sends me an email with a reasonable explanation and an apology, then apologizes to the class and to the student he cursed at,” I continued in the email to the counselor. “I’d just prefer to let it go and move on with the semester.”
The counselor agreed to follow my lead but to take the necessary precautions. We waited, but no apology email came. And so, when the student arrived early to the class on Monday, the entire floor of the department was in a sort of lockdown mode. A few of the other professors were casually patrolling the halls.
“I was going to email you an apology,” my student said, watching his feet shuffle just outside my classroom door. “But I really wanted to tell you I was sorry face to face. I can’t believe I did that.”
It turned out that he’d been mugged on his way home from work the night before his classroom outburst. He woke up understandably agitated but still managed to show up to class. In that context, the whole thing made much more sense.
He apologized to the other students, especially to the girl he cursed at, and after the class, he apologized to the head of my department for causing so much trouble. She looked so relieved I thought she was going to hug us both right there in her office, and I certainly understood that. I hadn’t completely exhaled just yet.
Walking down the hall toward the elevators, past one of the professors who had been on patrol and was still half standing guard, I grabbed my student by the sleeve and quietly thanked him.
“It takes a lot of courage to stand in front of a room full of people and apologize,” I said. “To admit that you were wrong. I appreciate that. And I respect that but…”
He braced himself to finally be reprimanded.
“But you have to know where you live, my friend.”
It not being what he expected, he tilted his head inquisitively and finally looked at my face.
“This is the United States of Paranoia.” I added, “And outbursts of anger like that, no matter how justified, they set off all kinds of silent alarms. So, keep your head about you.”
He laughed with a ‘yeah, right’ laugh of twenty-somethings these days. And even though I was serious, even though it’s not funny, I laughed a little bit too. A few weeks later, they locked down the entire campus. Someone mistook the umbrella a student was carrying for an assault rifle, panicked, and immediately called the police.