What Do You Do When A Student Threatens Murder?
This is not a “Reflective Essay” in terms of its being measured or balanced. This is a Reflective Essay because it attempts to put down on the page some of the thoughts, ideas, and observations I’ve had since the above poem first came into my hands on April 17, 2006, and began to haunt me. (It haunts me to this day.) The writing will necessarily be raw and perhaps a little jumbled.
Two months ago, one of my Renton co-teachers put the following prompt on the board because she thought it would lead to some good Creative Writing: “Write about a time when you broke up with someone. What feelings did this inspire in you?” She told me privately that she had just gone through a breakup herself, and wanted to see how her students handled such things.
I did not think the writing prompt was a good idea, since it asked for a lot of negative emoting, without tying it to any narrative specifics. I was afraid to tell the teacher this, however. She was clearly in a vulnerable space and I did not want to further upset her or delay the start of class.
The class we co-taught was a difficult one. At the start of the year, it had been a “grab-bag” course, a “dumping ground” for athletes and English-as-a-second-language students whose writing was, so far as anyone knew, of dubious merit. The class started out being huge (36/37/38) but by the time The Poem was written, the class had returned to a “normal” size. The class had little cohesion. There were respectful, even obedient students, mostly Asian, who hardly ever spoke up in class. There was a clique of mostly African-American students, who had a large ‘tude on their mutual shoulders. Several of them had been featured in the local papers, were virtually guaranteed for college admission (they’d been told) on the basis of their basketball abilities.
The student in question was one I had identified early on as a class leader. James and several others were allowed to listen to headphones during class, with the proviso that they take out the earplugs when someone spoke to them. James had trouble staying in his seat: he moved about at the back of the class; he frequently asked for and got passes to the men’s room, or showed up late with excuses. In an earlier exercise, he and his buddies, working in a small group, responded scatologically to a “skeletal story” exercise and was reprimanded by the teacher. James seemed to hold his having gotten into trouble against me, personally. He rebuffed any attempts to talk to him, and crumpled writing in which I had praised his abilities.
During the “break up” class on April 17, I saw the teacher try to engage James in conversation, to discuss what he had written, but James put his hands over his paper, and wouldn’t let her see. He handed me the paper directly. This was highly unusual for him.
When I got home that night, I read through a bunch of expectable responses- Students’ ex’s were described as “lower than scum;” people said they were sorry they’d ever met their ex’s, that their ex’s were not nearly good enough for them, or way too good; they said they wished they’d never met their ex; they said if their ex were dying of thirst in the dessert, they wouldn’t give them water, and so on. Their writing was full of “tell not show” words—“Despair,” “Grief,” “Anger,” “Frustration.” And then, at the very end of the whole batch of student work, I came to James’s poem.
J**** G***** 4-17-0? Per. 4 Lyn writen
Im a kill you
cut throat now u die
die, die, die
I’ll kill u witthe gun
keep yo mouth wide
cause you should die,
burnt up, no life
cut deeply with sharp knives
you dyeing isliketaken a thousand lives
Imcrazy, you made me like this,
pissed at you and the world,
all over you, a dumb ass girl,
with a jerry curl.
Its that time, good bye
you are done,
your life is none
When I first read the poem, I thought it was directed at me. I thought “keep yo mouth wide” was a reference to his thinking (as I knew he did) that I talked too much in class. “Im southside” I thought referred to the fact that I live in basically whitebread Magnolia, and he lives in a lower class ‘hood in Renton. I thought “you made me like this” referred to me and his other teachers and all the other adults in his life who had let him down, who had failed to help him reach his potential anywhere except basketball.
I read the “dumb ass girl” with a “jerry curl” part over, until I was sure James’s poem was not directed at me. After all, I reminded myself, the topic had been “breaking up.” Also, the teacher had told me one time when I was complaining of James’s class performance and attitude that she thought he needed to be “cut special slack” since he’d just broken up with his girl friend. I calmed down for a moment, then immediately got all worked up again. So the focus for his death threat wasn’t me, but against the statistically most likely target- his ex-girl friend.
I caught myself. This was, after all, poetry. Did we not talk about poetic license? Why was I running so scared? Wasn’t I just knee-jerk over-reacting in a “culture of fear” way to something that was, after all, a very powerful piece of writing?
I went back and read over all the other student responses, hoping for something that looked or felt a little similar, so I could relax a little. But going over the other writing just made me more keenly aware of how different James’s piece was. Nowhere, in any of the other angry, depressed, guilty, resentful, accusatory writing, was there so much as a hint of anybody’s taking action against another person.
I thought for a moment of what made the piece powerful. I thought aimlessly of all the “I” sounds in the poem- the rhyming of die and I and why and knife and life and the concluding “truncated Shakespearean sonnet” couplet—“you are done/ your life is none.” I thought of how a critic might tease apart the Donnean wit of the conclusion. (reminscent of the famous, “I have done/ You have Donne”) I imagined myself as a lecturer explaining, “You see, the victim’s life is no longer hers; it is forfeit. Neither is it the victimizer’s, since it amounts to zero in his eyes. The poet is saying here that the speaker of the poem is saying he will manipulate the physical (by killing his victim), until her physical state is equatable in its nullness to the state of its metaphorical value.”
I sat with the poem for a long time. I thought of putting it away in a drawer and forgetting about it. No one would know. No one would be the wiser. If found out, I would be culpable of nothing more than—Nothing more than— When I have difficult decisions to make, I find a useful strategy is to apply “worst case scenarios” to both sides of the equation. So, here, if I “reported” James (and I wasn’t sure to who, or what consequences would follow from the reporting; he hadn’t done anything yet; he’d only written a poem), the worst case scenario would be that he would shut down completely in class, refuse to participate whatever, pressure by example his whole little clique, and beyond that, the class, to turn against me. No, wait. Why had I come up with that as a worst case scenario? What was the matter with me? The worst case scenario if I reported James was that he would become enraged and carry out against me the actions he threatened to take against his ex- girl friend. The worst case scenario if I didn’t say anything to anyone was that James would kill his ex-girl friend. The worst case scenario if I did say something was that James would kill me. What was the matter with me was that I was frightened.
Now my mind leapt into lurid technicolor fantasizings. James would kill his ex, then kill me, then kill the whole class. Renton would be the next Columbine. He and his athletic group would band together a la Lord of the Flies: they would band together and come to school armed with a whole shooting match of supplies, available at gun shows and elsewhere.
I told myself that was impossible. Then I flashed back a few years. I was living in a peaceful country house with my husband, a psychiatrist, and my three year old daughter. The dog had awakened me at 2 in the morning. He was downstairs on the back porch, barking his “something’s wrong and you need to take care of it” bark. I went quietly downstairs—no sense in waking either of them up—and went into the kitchen. The minute the dog saw me standing by the door, he stopped barking. And that’s when I heard Crazy Pete pounding on his door. Crazy Pete normally liked to play his Crazy Religion radio station loudly at night. It was hard to ignore. Even through a couple of doors, I found it difficult not to hear that Elvis, for example, had been the reincarnated Jesus. He had not died, but was wandering around…. I had just last week come around to realizing that two of our renters needed to go. I had already spoken to Pete, and was planning to speak to Berna Drumwright, the world’s ugliest woman, though sweet, a welfare renter, who mumbled odd things and tried to borrow money for cigarettes the day after she paid her rent. I was planning to turn over the rental of the whole back of the house to Jason, a cheerfully ambitious up and coming young man who came with references and worked two jobs and was going to build us a basketball court. With the two crazies gone, the house could return to a peaceful state.
But Pete was shouting as he pounded, “He’s killing her. Jason’s killing her.” I ran to get my husband, still asleep upstairs, and called 911 on my cell phone as I ran. I told my husband what little I knew, and he pulled on some jockey shorts and stumbled downstairs. As I was telling the 911 operator what little I knew, it occurred to me that the house had gone back to being silent. I thought of waking up my daughter and taking her away, but I didn’t know what was happening. “Sit tight,” the operator advised. We’ll be right there.” I stepped out of the front door, and walked around the corner of the house until I could see the back entrance. The door to it was open, and the light was on. There was my husband, throwing himself against Berna’s door. At first I saw him in profile, but then he turned toward me. His head was bloody. Then there was a noise, and my husband disappeared into Berna’s room. I ran up the back stairs and followed him in. Berna lay on the floor. There was literally blood everywhere I looked. She was naked from the waist down, Her face had been bashed in. Before I could think that I didn’t know what to do, police and an ambulance came. They took Berna away. Pete was nowhere to be found. My husband told the officers that he had been trying to enter Berna’s room to stop Jason from doing whatever he was doing and Jason had tried to keep the door closed, bracing himself with his feet. When my husband got the upper part of the door half-open and stuck his head in, Jason hit him on the forehead, backwards, with a wine bottle. My husband said Jason was wearing nothing but underpants. He had apparently gone out the window at some point.
“Don’t worry,” the police said, “we’ll go after him with the dogs. You don’t have to worry.” “But there are doors on the other side of the house that lead directly into his room,” I said. “What if he comes back to try to get clothes or something? He has a key. In the movies, they always come back.” “You have the dog,” they said. “The dog will bark.” “But the dog barked because Jason was attacking Berna. He knows Jason. Jason gives him biscuits. He might let Jason back into the house. Please check his room before you go.” So they checked Jason’s room begrudgingly, and when they opened Jason’s closet, Jason sprang on them from the top shelf. And they led him away, smiling his obliging smile, still wearing only his underpants, blood on his chest and arms.
All the jumbled events of that night came back to me, and the trial afterward, and how Jason pleaded no contest and got some really light sentence and how about the time the sentence was to have ended, I saw Berna walking on the street, and she looked wonderful, with a new hairdo, new clothes, a new face.
What if Jason in the days or the week before attacking Berna had threatened to kill her? What if, because the threat came in the form of a poem, no one took it seriously?
And then I flashed back to the year before Jason, when my mother was very near death, and we all feared the worst, and the early morning phone call came and I thought, “This is it,” and took the phone to hear that my 26-year-old niece had been stabbed to death on the Appalachian Trail, stabbed almost thirty times, and her boy friend, traveling with her, shot three times.
When I read James’s poem, a wave of fear and violent remembrances swept through me. It took several days for that to subside. I reported what had happened to the Language Arts supervisor at the school, and then to the class teacher. The class teacher said the “scary” poem “didn’t sound at all like James,” but agreed that we should report it to the school nurse. It turned out that’s what happens at Renton when someone threatens violence against themselves or others: they’re sent to the nurse. That’s all that happens—a one time visit to the nurse. The school is has had its share of lockdowns and reports of guns and even some sporadic gang violence. I guess a “scary” poem doesn’t loom large in their list of worries.
And then I remembered being a graduate student at the University of Michigan. I was friendly acquaintances with a famous poet, a Nobel Prize winner, and was pleasantly surprised to have him call me from Berkeley one day. He told me his son was “running amuck,” and threatening people’s lives. He gave me the number of his son’s best friend, a Canadian psychologist, and asked me to go and talk to his son (whom I’d only met once) and see if I could talk him into getting help. Another long story, the upshot of which was that the son was “ravaging” the anthropology department, sending letters to faculty and putting notes in mailboxes which threatened to have the people “executed” for “crimes against the state.” I spoke on many occasions to various social service agencies, agitating (along with the friend, who had come down from Canada to be of help) to have the poet’s son put in a mental hospital. The social agencies said they couldn’t do anything because the poet’s son didn’t use the proscribed language. “He doesn’t say ‘kill’ or ‘murder,’” they explained to me. “As long as he sticks to words like ‘execute,’ we can’t do anything. In the end, the Canadian friend and I realized if anyone was going to give the poet’s son the respite we felt he needed (the friend felt even more strongly than I that the poet’s son was very dangerous), one of us was going to have to commit him. The Canadian friend, as it turned out, couldn’t do it, because he wasn’t an American citizen. So I did.
I reflected on how seriously we take language, and found myself wondering how good a predictor language was of future event. (I remember from my days as a hospice social worker that written expressions of suicidality were one of the strongest predictors of actual attempts. Going over James’s poem for the umpteenth time, I noticed (finally) that he had actually not fulfilled the assignment. The prompt had asked students for their feelings- What feelings did they have, etc. The other students had written less graphic, less powerful, more “tell without showing” pieces in which they did as they had been asked, and presented (in most cases) a jumble of conflicting feelings, most of them carefully labeled—“anger,” “depression,” “guilt,” “fear.” James hadn’t actually said what sorts of feelings he had—what he had presented was a game plan for acting out feelings of anger and worthlessness and victimhood: “Im crazy, you made me like this” along with hyper-powerfulness and self-justification and hyper-revenge, “you dyeing is like taen a thousand lives.”
I wrote James a letter (because I wasn’t due to meet with the class for another week, and James was going to be gone the week following that) and I wanted to be out in the open with the decision I had made. explained that his teacher and I were referring the matter to the school nurse because he had threatened the life of another human being, and I needed to take that threat seriously. At least that’s what I thought I’d said, until I found and reread my letter for this essay. Here it is in its entirety:
In your latest piece of writing, you threaten to kill another human being. I am therefore going to pass it on to Ms. Barker and the school nurse, and see if there is a need for further action.
Your piece is scary, and a call for help. The fact that it is eloquently written is not the point here.
I don’t know if you know what a strong writer you are. It scares and saddens me to read what you have written.
You have a lot of sadness and rage in you, and you know how to express what you are feeling forcefully and economically. What is important to realize here is that you have NOT expressed your feelings, which was what Ms. Barker’s prompt asked you to do. You have jumped over most of your feelings and written a death threat describing what you say you will do; one in which you blame someone else for your internal state—“you made me like this, pissed at you and the world.”
I would appreciate your redoing this assignment, and writing about a break-up you experienced. What actually happened? How did you feel? In my view, one of the greatest services writing performs is helping people examine their own feelings and beliefs and the feelings and beliefs of others, so they can act in a reasoned and compassionate way.
I wish you well, and hope I can continue to help you strengthen your writing.
Looking back and reflecting on my letter, I would say I was an idiot. I was acting “under the gun” of time pressure, however. The school nurse would be contacted the next day, and I wanted to get word to James before that happened, so he wouldn’t feel sabotaged by me.
One sentence I especially don’t like is, “Your poem is scary, and a call for help.” The last, “call for help” part of it sounds both arrogant and cliched (social worker jargon) to me now.
For the next three or four weeks, James managed to get out of class with me. He had a series of “legitimate” excuses. For about two weeks, he was out looking at top basketball schools on the west coast.
When he came back to school, the teacher gave him a couple of library passes for to work on different projects. As soon as James appeared, I tried to speak with him, but he was having none of it.
Lyn: James, I’d like to talk with you.
James: (walking away) I’ve got nothing to talk about.
Lyn: You sound pretty angry.
James: Conversation over.
The teacher first spoke of setting up a three-way meeting (her, James, myself), then said James didn’t want to talk with me, so she’d agreed he could write me an email. When I said, weeks later, I’d never gotten an email, she said he’d gone to see the school nurse, and would write me an email before the school year was out. She told me that was all I could reasonably expect of him.
In the last couple of months, I noticed a marked “chilling” in James’s class. The whole experience rattled me. Partly, I was secretly glad when James didn’t show up in class, because it was one less thing to deal with. Mostly, I was obsessing about what I’d done, what I hadn’t done (spoken to the principal, confronted James, confronted the teacher, etc.)
It wasn’t clear to me until the last day that this was a kind of classic t.v. story, without the classic feel-good entry. There no positive resolution to this story, and I am aware that, together with my being ill, James’s poem and its consequences colored the whole end of my teaching year. Even though I was able to keep to my WITS commitment, the last few weeks I have felt like a failure as a teacher. Partly, I feel that sentiment so familiar to a lot of teachers and fishermen (I think)—a tendency to focus on “the one that got away.”