Monday, May 9, 2011
PTSD: Post-Traumatic Semester Disorder
My mother tells me a story of a time before my sister was born. I would have been around two, and we were at the playground. I was on the slide, when a boy came along and pushed me off, giving me a bruise. I think my mother tells this story because she thought my response was so unusual.
"You didn't cry. You just asked why someone would do that."
I called her before writing this blog because I wanted to make sure it wasn't a story about my sister, or a story I made up. "No, it happened to you," she said. "Your sister would have pushed back."
She would have. My little sister ruled the school bus. I tried to slip in and out of the bus without anyone noticing me at all.
I remember the name of every bully in my life. That's not healthy, I know, but it's true. The girl who lived down the street from me, whose house was full of puppies, who tormented me on the walk to the bus stop every day in elementary school. In middle school, a group of girls took me on as a personal mission to be mean to. A boy spit on me, on purpose, from the monkey bars. In the classroom, when the teacher would leave, the girls stole my journals, read out loud from them, tossed them across the room.
I never said anything. They were bigger. Stronger. And what would I say? I didn't understand why they did what they were doing. I didn't know how to fight anyone, and I just thought if I became invisible enough, they would go away.
But I stewed, and as I've grown into my own life, I find that bullying is the one thing I can't seem to tolerate -- something I still haven't found the appropriate response to. Students can say or do just about anything, but when they bully me or someone else, I go back to the 5th grade in my body. Back to those girls who scared me so much I couldn't sleep. Back to my father saying, "You've just got to wait them out." My sister who probably would have just punched back.
This semester, I had the perfect storm of students in one of my on-line classes. The personal bullying began from the very first day. Before I'd even logged in on the first day of class, there was a slew of personal attacks about the course, the textbooks, the deadlines. I did what I did in middle school. My heart beat too fast. My stomach hurt. My shoulder screwed itself up into my jaw. Why are they doing this? What did I do that caused this to happen? So I hesitated, which is what bullies wait for, and I couldn't regain footing in the class the entire semester. I lost sleep for fifteen weeks over this class, these people. I'm used to frustrated students, but this was different. I couldn't shake them out of me. I couldn't reframe their posts for them and try and ease them out of their attacks into a more receptive place in the class. I tried for almost ten weeks before I went to my dean and told her I cannot keep responding to these people. I feel like I'm being shot at every time I offer feedback, every time I try and point out a craft concept. I'm not a new teacher. I've been at this almost twenty years. I know my subject matter and I know a great deal about how to work with various types of people, but this time, I was only ten years old. I felt like I was going to cry all the time, and I experienced the same feelings as I did in the 5th grade every time I checked my work e-mail or logged into that class. I was afraid to log in.
What could I do next time? Why isn't there a clear college policy on on-line behavior? Am I just supposed to feel poked and attacked several times a week just because it's my job? I don't think it's my job to be bullied, and I'm not in the 5th grade, and I am actually the one in the pseudo-power position in this circumstance. I started talking to other professors. What would you do with this? How would you have handled it? What can I do differently?
So I've made a course policy and a video on tone in the academic setting for next semester that probably won't change anything, but made me feel somewhat more empowered. I have some sample responses from other faculty that I can use right away if this happens again. But what I've really learned is that I still feel the shock and the disbelief that I felt in middle school when facing a bully. Did I make the right choice in the 5th grade not to hit back? I don't know. I didn't choose not to hit back out of any noble non-violence ideas. It just seemed stupid. They were bigger. I would lose. They would break my glasses and then I couldn't read.
Tomorrow is the last day of the semester. One particular student was the worst. Student X did not turn in the largest assignment of the semester. S/He had, in spite of being a bully, been earning an A because s/he was a very good writer. When s/he missed the assignment, at first I was thrilled. "Gotcha. Now you're not going to pass. Ha." But every day I waited for the e-mail. The reason it was my fault that s/he missed the deadline. That I have to take the paper. I still was stomach-aching anxious to log in to work.
Today there was a note that was not laced with the caustic tone I'd been reading all semester. The note explained what had happened, asked me if s/he could make up the packet. I don't know if the reason is true. This time in the semester we hear every reason under the sun for why things didn't happen on time. I don't want to read the paper. I want to post grades tomorrow. At first, my response was, "Should have been nicer to me, b---h." But that response, even reframed appropriately for office correspondence, didn't feel right. I actually do believe the reason given in the e-mail. I am in the position of power here. I have a no late work policy. I could have said no. It's too late. Too bad so sad, nanner nanner nanner. I win. It would have been backed up all the way to the top of administration. It's in the syllabus. I could win.
I walked around the building and came back to the computer. I responded that s/he had been earning an A up until that point. I responded that I would not include the points for that paper in the final grade calculation, so the grade will be what had been earned up until that point. I wished him/her a good summer, and I pressed send.
And then I cried a little, and I felt the shaking up in my body. I felt the hand loosen around my heart, and I felt my shoulder release a little. I don't know if that was the right decision. But as soon as I pressed send and felt the tightening shift, I knew it was the decision that was going to allow me to walk away.