Tuesday night I experienced the scariest moment in my teaching career.
I teach my women’s studies course–Gender, Violence, and Popular Culture–on Tuesday nights. This Tuesday, we were watching the film Hard Candy in class; the readings for the night were about pedophilia and incest. As you can imagine, we were dealing with emotionally difficult subjects; we have been all semester, but this week’s readings and film were particularly tough.
During one of the film’s most disturbing scenes, a student left the room. I wasn’t surprised, as I have advised the students from the beginning that they can always leave the room whenever they feel uncomfortable or as if a scene (or even a discussion) is just too much. I had also noticed that this student seemed more and more bothered as the scene progressed, so I actually felt relieved when I saw him stand up–I was just about ready at that point to go to him and remind him he could leave, though I didn’t want to embarrass him by doing that, either.
He got up and walked out, and I noticed he didn’t seem very steady on his feet. As he went through the door, I asked if he was okay. The door swung shut behind him, and then I heard a horribly loud crashing sound. My student had collapsed in the hallway. I ran to grab my phone and call 911, directing other students to check on him until I got my phone. As the other students opened the door, I could see my student convulsing on the floor.
By the time I got to the hallway (only seconds had elapsed), the convulsions had stopped. Other students were helping him–they put a jacket under his head and were trying to make him comfortable. He started to talk, saying he was hot, and he said no when another student started to lay a jacket over him. He was digging in his pocket for his phone; he wanted to call his mom. I told him to relax for a few minutes and that we would get his phone and call his mom for him. Throughout all of this, I was talking to the 911 dispatchers, answering their questions and directing them to our location. As we waited for the campus police and EMTs to arrive, my student became more and more aware; he was able to correct me when I told the dispatchers his age, and he correctly stated his date of birth. He talked about other things, too–mainly how embarrassed he felt and that we didn’t need to make such a big deal over him.
Finally, the police and ambulance got there. I say “finally,” but I doubt it took them long at all; it just felt that way. They checked him out, and everything was normal. He declined going to the hospital, but I insisted on driving him home; there was no way I was going to allow him to drive after all that. He argued with me a little, but he knew he wasn’t going to win that one and quickly gave up. I drove him home and told his dad how wonderful I think this student is (more on that in a minute). The second I pulled away from the house, I collapsed into huge sobs. I’d had to keep it together for so long, trying to stay calm for this student, for the other students, for the call to 911, etc. I simply could not keep it together one moment past the time it was absolutely required. As soon as I was alone, I just lost it.
I slept very little Tuesday night. I kept seeing my student on the floor in those first few, awful seconds. I could not get that image out of my head.
This incident scared me more than almost anything that has happened in my life, and it’s the scariest thing that has ever happened to me in the classroom. This student is a strong, healthy, athletic young man. I’ve had him for several classes, so I know him well. He’s smart and engaged and an excellent writer; he’s the type of student we all want in our classes. He’s even babysat for M and P, and they love him. He has a kind heart and is the type of young man I hope P will grow up to be some day. To see him in a heap on the floor, convulsing, was terrifying. I felt absolutely helpless, and I feared the worst for my student. I remember the thought flashing through my mind, “What if something happens to him? What will I say to his parents?”
Because the student is who he is, he stopped by my office on Wednesday to let me know he was truly OK. He sat and talked with me for quite a while. He knew I felt horribly guilty that the film caused him to collapse, so he kept reassuring me it wasn’t my fault. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to teach that film again, though, and I am seriously considering taking a first aid/CPR class. I’ve always meant to, and this incident has prompted me to think it might be a pretty good idea.
I’m glad this week is almost over. It’s been pretty intense.