I have had my life threatened one time, and the picture looks nothing like the common worry of a stranger hiding in a dark park at night while you walk the moonlit path.
That one imagined dread of a lurking monster in the darkness, I think, is pretty common.
Instead the actual danger that seeped in for me, occurred when I was in a public place, surrounded by approximately twenty-five people. Sometimes I think my cracked intuition allowed for it.
He must be at least late fifties or early sixties. When he enters class before it’s time to begin, he walks as though this entrance should be reveled somehow. He walks briskly scanning faces of the other first-day students. His entrance, I notice, seems fraught and inviting at the same time.
I am at the front of the room reading out names from the attendance list for Composition 2. The skinny man, well under six feet, twiny legs and balding head, crosses his arms in a harrumph and leans back. He has a goatee. He sports a pageboy hat and blue-lensed Beatle glasses.
I call, and he answers in an odd accent, “Yes, that’s my name, Ma’am. I’m J.F. Glenn indeed.”
I’ve named him J.F. Glenn, but J.F.Glenn is not his real name. His name is not important to what happened.
We do some group work in sets of five or four and it is now I notice the bald man hasreckoned an isolated chat with a young woman. She wears a tight shirt, dark eyeliner, a frail sort of pretty. She’s hunched behind her long straight hair. I casually walk near them to check in, and J.F. Glenn stops speaking abruptly.
Beaming at me with his chin in the air he says, “Yes, ma’am? How can we help?”
Nobody calls anybody ma’am in community college. I ignore the feigned polite voice, the high chin, and I can’t see his real eyes.
Later, the man with the Scottish accent hands in his first narrative paper written about trimming bonsai trees in the penitentiary and how peaceful this practice in tending to minutiae made him. He had some trouble with addiction but now he’s happy to be out, learning and writing, curating bonsais.
One of my comments on the paper reads: You have a writer inside you.
He does have something inside. Yet the writer I first met on the bonsai assignment changes.
Weeks later J.F. Glenn writes me a letter so menaced with control and the threats so keen, his words on the page are pulsing.
Many years ago I was not the tenured English instructor I am now. Tenure is safety. Now most deans and colleagues fend off odd events alongside me when they happen.
Working as an adjunct instructor hollows a person if you let it burrow in. An adjunct never complains about anything if you are wise or dumb, depending, because you have hopes of nabbing a full time position one day.
Whatever it is wherever you are, you stay invisibly silent unless you run into administration or full-timers, then you smile and act grateful. You grin full of joy. You also buy your own dry-erase markers and supplies because nobody bothers to mention where to find the supply closet. You wear tall purple boots with heels. You wear skirts. You match jewelry accents to complete the theme of whatever you deem teacher-like that day.
During the term I meet Glenn, I travel between two separate community colleges and one technical school. I teach for a few hours then hop on the freeway to drive to the next college.
Nobody sees an adjunct when it’s late afternoon on a Friday.
It’s a Friday a few classes later when J.F. Glenn pairs himself with the same fallible-looking woman he had singled out before. He’s forgotten his book. He’s just come from court, he says.
The next class, Glenn huffs in with the October chill. I ask him to provide a copy of his argument paper for me, and one for a workshop partner, but he does not have the draft. I tell him then, that he can’t have the points and to work on finishing his writing assignment, rather than to workshop with others. He assures me that he is good at workshopping although this is the first time we have done so. He tells me he is going to workshop with a group of his choice. I tell him, no.
At the back of the classroom the only other student who has not finished the assignment is the woman J.F. Glenn likes. He walks back to her, she’s sitting huddled in the desk-chair. He pulls a desk in front of her and sits in it backwards. I see her nod and nod again. Then he leads her by the elbow out the door, glaring straight through the fluorescent lighting, through the other students and me, marching out with the much younger woman until they’re gone.
Via her writing I learn the woman Glenn led by the elbow somewhere is a dancer at a club where she uses too many drugs and she hopes to finally leave. She reveals she’s been raped. Dancing for men kills her.
Neither of them shows for the next class and I’m relieved. We’re reading aloud, and discussing ideas with purpose even though we have to read the pages again (for the first time) since it is clear not many did the reading homework. We’re reading Maxine Hong Kingston. I don’t mind reading Maxine Hong Kingston’s histories of a family aloud. We’re transfixed reading the poetry of her sadness.
When the students have gone and I’m picking up litter and straightening the desk-combos back into straight rows, J.F. Glenn walks in wielding an envelope. He tries to grip my shock for a moment. With pinned eyes behind blue tinted glasses, he’s saturating me. He shoves the envelope in my direction.
“Well Ma’am. This is a letter of complaint,” he says in Scottish, “and I’ve got another for administration.”
“Okay,” I say, “Class is over today though.” I take the letter from him as gently as I can since I am shaking because something inside tells me to shake. I know the letter is not my main worry at this moment.
“You kicked me out of activities for no reason. Not a reason at all, Ma’am. You said I had a writer inside me. Remember that? You said that. Remember?”
“I did. Yes. You do,” I say, “We have to leave now a new class is coming.” By saying it, I’m wishing a hoard of students will barrage through the door.
“I’ll tell you a story,” Glenn says.
The only story I want to hear, though, is that he’s leaving, that he’s backing away from his close proximity to me.
“I was in a car wreck, you see,” he continues, “a little while back I was broadsided a bit. The young girl had no insurance.” He moves slowly to block my path to the doorway. In order to pass him I will have to swerve near the whiteboard where I could be pinned. I’m thinking of a plan. This worry comes from somewhere, telling me to strategize routes of safety.
“I phoned the police while I held her head to the ground with my boot,” he says.
He’s wearing the sort of boots people who work construction wear outside for the winter; quite hard, sturdy, and black. He’s pointing grandly down at those heavy boots.
“The heel of my boot pressed right on her neck,” he says. “I held her like that until I heard the police. She was going to flee the scene, you see. I had a right.”
The letter, indeed, is a threat. I read through it twice and walk to the administration’s side of campus. I have never spent time here before. I have never had to spend time here. I wait on a blue cushioned chair made of plastic. There are no windows but glass barricades the space from the students walking through the halls. Finally, a woman with long straight hair pulled back in a low ponytail greets me. She reminds me of many women I knew from my childhood—she is not very city, she’s a cowgirl. A very sturdy cowgirl, I think. She’s new to the position as a mediator on campus.
Now, in my life as an instructor, I always document moments of possible threats, of odd behaviors. I make copies of words that might possibly arise as danger to me or to other students. But when I was new to teaching and adjuncting as one of J.F. Glenn’s first instructors at that school, I dropped the letter on the desk and saw only mere portions of it again. I never had a chance to save the threat, the menacing tone, and, I have learned from that regret.
Here is the process of a complaint:
Summarize the event.
The event is that a strange Scottish man expressed his desire for me to treat him with the utmost respect or he would find a way to make me respect him. He would find a way to be heard. He would try not to become upset, but if actions needed to be taken, he would take them. The man described his time in the penitentiary as one where he learned tricks. He described his time there as a time in which he learned how to make people respect him.
“You will respect me, now Ma’am,” he said. “You will learn I am a person who requires respect. If you do not respect me, I will gladly show you how. I am not afraid to teach you manners you see.”
If the complaint is deemed of merit, an investigation begins.
My complaint is that I fear this man. I fear his eyes. I fear the story of the heel of his boot, crunching a woman’s larynx. He had a right, he said, to physically harm a person. I fear the story as I believe it to be a threat. I fear this man, requiring me to give him respect. I fear violence might be the way he plans to teach me. I fear this letter that discusses his desire to take action against me, more than three times—it’s the ever building tone of screaming on the paper . . . I will make, you, respect me.
I fear his boots. I fear his veiny arms. I fear his resolve in taking me down in what seems an odd fantasy or maybe something real. The letter says, “Believe me, Ma’am, it is not hard to find a person on this campus. I will find you, you see?” My complaint is that I am not safe in the classroom with him. My students are not safe.
A jury of investigators assess the concerns and proceed in further actions which could result in mediation or resolving the complaint as closed.
I see the cowgirl woman again and she says she’s read the letter over a few times. No actual threat of violence, here, she says. Your student has a right to complain about policies, she says. He is free to remain in your classroom. I remind her of the boot on the neck story. I discuss the word “imply”—implied threats. Implied determination to find me. To make me be . . . not a teacher but a thing that needs punishment. He believes he has a right. He’s implying necessary violence.
The cowgirl woman suggests mediation or to write a complaint against him. I write a complaint discussing my fear of J.F. Glenn’s harassment. I meet with my dean. She’s a person with a hearty voice. Her hair is a white crew cut. She tells me to call my union, and I do.
I’m teaching twenty-one credits, travelling between three colleges which means I have approximately one-hundred and twenty five students. One of the students is J.F. Glenn.
My mind worries in pictures. I’m alone in the parking lot. It’s dark. Black boots. It’s dark. Or, the class scatters and it’s Friday and he plunges at me from behind. Or I’m at home while my husband is out of town and the man in Beatles’ glasses arrives at my door. He is here in the bathroom stall next to me I’m sure. He is here in the trunk of my car.
I have only smelled fear once before and that fear was the sweat from my Dad’s leather jacket, hanging there, sour and still pungently sweet. I can smell that fear on the jacket Dad wore in Vietnam when he was a fighter pilot, still decades after he returned home.
I wonder now if this sweat I am becoming every day is that sort of fear-smell in my Dad’s flight jacket. I wonder why my ears hear silence as a thrumming noise.
As a teacher, it is easy to worry about not teaching well. It is easy to worry about grading turnaround, but it is often difficult to see danger where there should be safety. A 2018 Report from The National Center of Educational Statistics noted that “During the 2015–16 school year, 10 percent of public school teachers reported being threatened with injury by a student from their school.” A summary of a study conducted by researchers who interviewed 2,505 study participants nation-wide revealed: merely 12% of the teacher victims of student violence, physical or verbal, saw a counselor or mental health official after the incident.
1 in 5 teachers who were victims in physical or verbal attacks did not report the violence to school administrators.
14% of teachers who experienced violence did not tell their colleagues about it.
24% of these teachers did not tell their families about the violence they experienced. Sometimes there is shame in not managing the classroom well. Yet what does classroom management entail?
Let me tell you a story:
J.F. Glenn did not come back to class that term. The cowboy woman interviewed most of the students, whom I could have told her, saw nothing, nothing odd at all during class time. If one has any sort of street cred, you never see anything. You do not tell. You don’t rat.
There was an agreement made that Glenn could take the class from another instructor the next term.
I have the scene still in my head where he scoped the room that first day and he found a person, the young woman with the eyeliner, the young woman who’d been violently abused by a man before, as his to find. To seek and to sit by. To grab her elbow and lead her away that day. The young woman came back to class, however, and I believe she passed but that gradebook is long gone.
Two years later I became a tenure-track, faculty member at another school. I received an email from the campus that had provided J.F. Glenn the option to take the class from another instructor. The school administration was attempting to suspend him. He had threatened three more people with violence. The three people were administrators. A state lawyer asked me questions when I agreed to testify against J.F. Glenn. I was the first witness, the first person who claimed him to be threatening two years prior.
I asked my husband to drive me to the courthouse that day because my body screamed inside. Glenn represented himself. My body screamed inside while I answered questions trying to avoid the quakes in my words when I answered Glenn. I remember he said I had been confused all along. You must have confused yourself, he said. He lost and was suspended. Why, one might wonder, in terms of logistics, was the man still studying for a two-year A.A.degree. The answer is it happens quite often. A loner finds a place of acceptance so he stays.
It is important to note that a teacher should never judge a student. Most times the student surprises me in a positive way. I have never been really afraid like that before or since while teaching. I have read the names for over two-thousand students for attendance during my career. I have been cussed at, been told I have a bad aura; and, during my first term, I broke up a fight in another teacher’s classroom. I have truly smelled fear though, one time.
There is a backstory to the story.
While Glenn was my student I researched court cases regarding his past crimes. He had shot a person in a restaurant, and he was tried for second degree murder. Bad drug deal, is what the court records described. A convicted murderer sat down and spent time writing me spooky thoughts. I witnessed this same man scope out a frail woman the very first day our class met. A convicted killer.
I stay because I want to stay. I stay because there is nothing more electric than a collective conversation when students reach out from inside. When they’re thinking critically about a book, an essay, or their children’s futures. I have seen faces change from wonder to insight when writing becomes thinking. I have witnessed, countless times, an individual discovering how to earn a new dream. I stay because my students breathe humanity into me. I stay because education is a conversation and not a corporation.
Last year, a student tackled a computer science instructor at the school where I teach. She was an adjunct. She taught classes in the nighttime. He tackled her to the ground, the story goes, and he kicked the shit out of her. Security came quickly, but not quickly enough. My colleague saw the resulting swollen, purple-red bruises on the adjunct’s arms and legs the next day. The adjunct never made a formal complaint.
Kasandra Duthie’s writing has been published in The Rumpus, The Emerson Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, The Summerset Review, Dzanc Books Best of the Web print anthology, Love and Profanity nonfiction anthology and other places. She lives with her patient husband and a large, black dog in Minnesota where she teaches English at Saint Paul College.