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.
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.