I come back from a completely dispiriting comp class today to smile at the gaggle of English students who happen to camp out outside my door --- there must be an upper division lit class that always starts a little late and the instructor hasn't come to unlock the door. Usually I smile over the piercings and different hair colors (one is literally rainbow-hued on one side of the floppy mohawk cut) and their enthusiasm about Reading Things, which translates into a general loud exuberance and willingness to quote Douglas Adams novels, to relate Douglas Adams novels to classic Russian literature, and to say random things in Japanese (for our majors here all seem to be taking Japanese. And reading lots of manga. It is interesting.)
But then someone jumps up out of the crowd to shout Dr Cog, Dr Cog! and the smile deflates on my face. It is Disappearing Student, who seemed to be a pretty solid writer and hard worker in the beginning of my comp class but then vanished from the face of the earth months ago after mentioning dealing with some psychological problems. I have an unanswered email from this student begging me to somehow get around the departmental absence policy and let the student return. Seeing this student reminds me of the email I never actually got around to composing and sends a pang of guilt through me.
Luckily, the student brushes off my quick apologies with an explanation of some of the problems that have arisen over the semester --- they are mental and neurological. And involved misdiagnoses as well as trying out various medications and dealing with side effects. Disappearing Student asks me to sign some paperwork for an emergency medical withdrawal --- today, not a week later, it turns out, is the deadline, and the student is scrambling to get all the medical documentation and signatures and oh sorry about that, my roommate would spill tea all over the forms --- and the student may have to go away to ____ House for a little while but this person is going to enroll online and maybe even be back by summer for on campus classes and will make it through this, don't you worry about that --- so I say, "Well, you were a decent writer in my class so I think once you get this little problem under control and come back I think you will do fine in Freshman English."
The student comes to complete stillness, no longer a flurry of papers and random objects being picked up and set down and overflowing out of the backpack. Disappearing Student says something like, you don't know how much that means to me. I really 'preciate that. Do you know, I've been doing that pre-writing stuff you taught us? Not just for the classes I'm taking; I do writing of my own and even making out a list before deciding what I want to write about in my journal every morning changed a whole lot. The student goes on to mention being a bit discouraged by the first essay grade and that I might be a hard grader (to which I jump in and absolutely affirm it; that first essay had an F or D average, I forget which) and the student says, Oh, whoah, ok; I guess getting a C+ was pretty good of me then. I just had never ... I don't think I'd gotten below a 93 in my life before that ... before going back to mentioning a couple exercises we had done that are now part of this student's daily writing routine.
I repeat that the student is just fine as a writer and should be able to do well in later English classes, and that it is mostly the department's required attendance policy that did Disappearing Student in, but that this class is structured to meet constantly to help --- here the student breaks in --- a gateway class to keep the crazies and the stupids out of college --- No, no, I interrupt. It is ... a class in academic socialization. I joke sometimes that some of my students were raised by wolves and I have to introduce them to society...
That's sure me, says Disappearing Student. I was raised by wolves if anybody was. No, no, no, I say. I want to do something to help, something more than the tiny, pitiful amount of help involved in listening for a few minutes, in making one stupid encouraging comment --- I want to give something to this smart, troubled, misfit student who, for one moment, looked completely at home in a misfit, outsider community --- but I don't have anything in the office but books. Can you hand something about journaling and madness to a student who is mentally ill? Would handing the student some crazy, incandescent, world-transforming poetry make things better, or worse? What would They say, over at _________ House?
It is over in a smooth movement as I say my goodbyes to the student and close the door. Alone in the office, I feel useless and defeated. I think of Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, Robert Schumann --- probably all terrible choices to hand somebody. And I think of the poet's claim that poetry never stopped a tank --- and yet, and yet --- what else are you going to use?