I'd come to teach a course as part of a writing festival at a university. It was a low-stress weekend gig. No administrative drudgery. No grades. All grown-ups, eager and motivated and grateful to be there. These were people with jobs and families who were willing to travel and take time off to learn about the craft of writing. Usually, I found it to be the easiest and most enjoyable kind of teaching.
My first exchange with the student who would make this time different from all the others was not an unpleasant one. He was a smiling, well-caffeinated, 30-something man, a college administrator who exuded a confidence that made me mistake him for a fellow instructor. A few minutes before class began, we were prowling the leavings of the continental-breakfast table when he smiled in my direction.
I nodded and smiled back. "What is this?" I said, pointing to the table. "Five different kinds of croissant and not a single bagel?"
"That's exactly what I was thinking: Where the hell are the bagels? How can you have a continental breakfast without a bagel?" He smiled as he spoke, maintained a salesman's practiced charm. When I realized he was entering the classroom behind me, I felt neither pleasure nor dread; it didn't occur to me that he might be the kind of student with whom friendly banter and familiarity are entirely the wrong tack to take.
He smiled as he spoke, maintained a salesman's practiced charm.
The trouble began almost immediately. "Here we are," he said, as I put down my folders, organized my desk. I didn't answer, gave a polite but more guarded smile. I wrote my name on the board, talked a little about the course, then suggested we go around the room to introduce ourselves. Most students spoke for a few minutes, told the room about their background or interests or reasons for taking the class.
When his turn arrived, the tenor shifted. What he offered sounded more like a prepared speech than a casual introduction; he didn't so much speak as take the stage. He had prepared this in advance, I could tell, a statement of purpose — this was his chance to share it. He was a serious writer, a man with many important and complicated stories to tell about love, loss, youth, women. He had a lot to say and we were going to listen. He stood as he spoke. He paused for dramatic effect and made sweeping gestures. "This class is going to be amazing!" he assured us all — he assured me, the teacher. "I think we're going to do great things in this class."The trouble began almost immediately. "Here we are," he said, as I put down my folders, organized my desk. I didn't answer, gave a polite but more guarded smile. I wrote my name on the board, talked a little about the course, then suggested we go around the room to introduce ourselves. Most students spoke for a few minutes, told the room about their background or interests or reasons for taking the class.
During our first break, I approached another teacher, who happened to be my husband. He'd come along for the weekend with our two small kids. "I have a problem," I said.
"You forgot your lesson plan?" he asked.
"Good guess, but no. It's a who, not a what." I tried to explain to him the student's aggressive extroversion, his overtalking, his performativity and almost garish affect. My husband didn't seem surprised. He worked in academia and was more accustomed to challenging students of every stripe.
"Say something now," he suggested.
"You pull him aside, tell him you appreciate his enthusiasm, it's great to see him so invested, but he needs to tone it down and share the stage with his classmates."
Softly, I groaned.
"Seriously," he told me. "It's the kind of thing you have to nip in the bud. The longer you wait, the worse it will be."
"OK," I said. "You're totally right. I have to say something. I will."
I returned to class and said nothing. Somehow, I couldn't. There was a part of me that saw exactly what was happening, the damage he was doing to the class, the way his behavior was poisoning the atmosphere. But even as I saw it, there was a part of me that didn't quite believe what I was seeing. And so instead of confronting him, I hedged and evaded. I made lame, ineffectual attempts to contain the student as he grew more insistent in his bids for floor time. I tried not to call on him, to cut him off after a reasonable amount of time, to communicate to him through body language, eye contact, unspoken social cues, and the like that he was acting like a jerk. He noticed these efforts and grew icy, then more determined than ever to gain center stage. He asked disruptive questions that had nothing to do with the material under discussion, wondered aloud if I might help him get an agent or offer him the contact information of my writer friends.
At one point, during a writing exercise, he rose and approached my desk, raising his hand high above his head. I stared at him, squinting, for at least twenty seconds. Was he choking, saluting, swatting a fly? "Give me a high five!" he said at last.
"Come on. High five. This class is awesome. This is the most awesome workshop ever. High five. High five."
The other students were watching, appalled. Here was the moment to draw a line, to ask him to speak to me privately. Instead, I put a finger to my lips, then gestured pen to paper. He snickered, then shook his head in a way that communicated his disappointment. As he returned to his chair, I felt a mixture of embarrassment, exhaustion, but most of all disgust, not at him, this socially challenged and possibly personality-disordered student, but at myself, my utter inability to manage and contain him.
"Just wondering," my husband said when I admitted I hadn't taken his advice. "Would it be easier if he were a woman?"
It wasn't the first time I pondered the particular difficulties women face as teachers, especially a woman who is trying to maintain authority and is directly challenged in her efforts by a man.
I remember my very first experience teaching. I was 23, a graduate student at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. My pedagogical preparation involved a three-hour orientation on classroom management and the late Frank Conroy bellowing at me and my 50 other new classmates not to sleep with our students. This is all to say: I had no idea what I was doing. I admitted as much after the first, terrible class to a male friend who was in the same boat.
"You know what I did that helped?" he said. "I wore a tie. Huge difference. Also, I told them straight out that I didn't want any bullshit. They seemed to respond to that."
"You know what they responded to?" I countered. "They responded to your penis. The fact that you have one."
"Nah," he said. "It was the tie. Also, the hard-ass attitude. Give it a try."
I did, half-heartedly, intermittently. At times it seemed to work. Other times, no. But I remember one evaluation above the rest. "Ms. Brooks knows her shit. But she can be a total BITCH!!!" the student wrote.
At times it seemed to work. Other times, no.
For what remained of the festival, the student's behavior continued. I knew the other students were annoyed, but I didn't understand how fully I'd allowed him to hijack the class until the day after I returned from the festival when another student, a woman, contacted me. She and several of her classmates had received hostile emails in which he'd berated them for not taking his work seriously and giving it the respect it deserved. She forwarded me his email, which was full of expletives and accusations. It was near-hysterical, vaguely threatening, and far beyond the normal and accepted etiquette of a writing workshop. I cringed as I read it. I cringed as the student went on to tell me that whenever I wasn't watching or was attending to another group, he referred to me as "Mommy." I cringed when she ended the email by stating plainly that she'd found his behavior oppressive and disruptive, and that while she enjoyed the class overall, she was disappointed that I hadn't done more to take back control.
It's never easy to read this kind of feedback from a student, but in this instant, it was particularly difficult, mainly because I knew that she was right.
It's never easy to read this kind of feedback from a student
In the months since this occurred, when I find myself remembering the incident and attempting to formulate some lesson from it, I think less and less about the student himself and more about myself in the moment — or moments (there were several of them) — when I failed to take control. I think about the feeling I had in those seconds. It was closer to uncertainty than intimidation, a feeling of not trusting myself, of not quite believing in the validity of my interpretation of events. If I'd been able to freeze time, if I'd been able to receive some secret, silent message from the other students, confirming my experience of what was happening, I would have done more. But I couldn't, so I didn't. I had only my own reading to rely on, and in the end, I didn't trust it. Maybe I'm overreacting, I thought. Maybe I can work around the disruption. Maybe it's not really that big a deal.
As women, we are asked to do this all the time, to reconsider feelings that are inconvenient, to make adjustments in what we think we believe. We're asked to smile, to feel less deeply, to be less sensitive, to get along and gain consensus and constantly negotiate our needs. My husband had asked if it would have been easier to exert control if the student had been a woman. I hadn't answered him at the time, probably because I wasn't willing to admit to him or to myself that the answer was yes. Only in retrospect could I see it clearly, that despite my most deeply felt convictions, there's still a part of me that wants to be approved of by the man in the room, even a man like that one. It's not a part I'm proud of, but there it is, rearing its head, whispering in my ear to make nice, to be liked, to go easy. Sometimes I feel like I've been doing it, faking it, betraying what I ought to be protecting, all my life.
Kim Brooks is the author of a novel, The Houseguest, and Small Animals: A Memoir of Parenthood and Fear, which will be published next year by Flatiron Books.