Saturday, January 15, 2011

The weird guy in the back of the room.

Way back when the world was a simpler place, over a quarter century past, I had my own up-close-and-personal with a disturbed individual similar to Tucson assassin Jared Lee Loughner. Not at the same level of danger, by any means, but still unsettling. The memories came flooding back as the terrible story unfolded last week, but I've held off until now out of respect for the wounded and slain.

I was in my second year in the Temple University English Department Master's Program. I'd decided late to go to grad school, so I paid my own way the first year but, since teaching was my goal, I talked my way into a class that was offered to Graduate Assistants (they got free tuition and taught a class each semester, for which they were paid) and was hired as a paid part-time instructor. I finished up all my classwork by year's end (you tend to work harder and faster when the money's coming out of your own pocket), teaching classes in Night School to earn my pay, and was planning to do my Master's Thesis during the summer.

Then, after I received a rave review from the department chairman for how, as part of the at program, I stepped in and conducted a sophomore literature class one morning, I was offered a graduate assistantship of my own for the next year. Hey, why not? I was already in the Delaware Air National Guard so my craft status wasn't an issue and it was another year on campus before facing the real world. I had no classes to treat seriously but could audit as many as four a semester (which I did, a couple in areas of English Lit where I felt inadequate and the others in history and philosophy). I also picked up a job as the instructor of Friday night literature class at the Philadelphia Museum College of Art (previous a "school" which had to add academic classes to achieve its new status) which I got to conceive entirely out of whole cloth.

My assigned class under the assistantship was a Freshman English first semester course, 20 or so students. I'd had some, um, unusual students in Night School, but this class was your average college class...except for this one guy who always sat in the very back of the room.

From the first day, he would stare at me with hard cold eyes and periodically make hand gestures in my direction which looked very much like karate chops. He never participated in the class and was non-responsive when called upon. Three weeks in, those karate chops turned into his making a pistol with his thumb and forefinger and pointing it in my direction. The week after that, he suddenly stood up in mid-class and, still pointing his "gun" at me, started walking to the front of the room. I said something like "Whoa!" and several students (football scholarship guys I later found out), stood up and blocked his way.

As soon as class was over, I went to the administrative offices and worked my way through the system until I got to the Psychological Services Dept., where they told me a lot more than I believe would be permissible these days. The guy was 31 years old, a combat veteran who seen action in Asia. He lived with his parents and had, someone offered helpfully, "never been on a date." He had been accepted into the university under an agreement that he would take prescribed medications on a daily basis. And, oh, yeah, he had not shown up for those meds since this new semester had begun.

I remember to this day standing up and thanking them for the information and then saying, "if I go to the next class and he is in the room, I'm done" and then leaving.

I never saw him again.

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