(continued from here)
The cake was was enormous–easily enough to feed 10 people. Like the mysterious beverage she had brought me that first day of class, it too was a color seldom found in nature. I vaguely wondered if massive amounts of sugar and red dye were at least partly to blame for Bonnie’s troubles. I don’t remember whether the cake was to celebrate the pregnancy or the end of it; I just remember wondering how to politely turn down such a generous offering.
You see, that was the thing about Bonnie. I have never had any trouble drawing boundaries with my students. I pride myself on being friendly and approachable, while maintaining a reasonable professional distance. But Bonnie crashed through any such boundaries with such spectacular disregard, I was often caught wrong-footed. I wanted to help her, but she was a bottomless pit of need.
As the weeks wore on, I began to feel as though my own privacy were being violated. I couldn’t go near my office without finding her waiting for me, and keeping an open door during office hours was impossible. Finally, I just had to buck up and tell her that my office time was for conferencing about course-related issues only, and that she’d have to go to her counselor for support in all of these other matters. She easily circumvented this limitation by showing up with “drafts” of “essays” that she needed help with, and the topics would handily circle around to abuse or pregnancy or any of the half-dozen other “challenges” she was dealing with. “You said in class that we should write about what we know,” she’d say. Or, “I thought you said to choose something we felt strongly about.”
She was right, of course. I do say those things, and I mean them. I believe that writing can heal and empower the writer. I want my students to feel safe sharing personal details. But Bonnie had a way of using all of my best ammunition against me. She made me question my instincts about everything: about open doors and approachability, about boundaries and professionalism and even about writing itself. I started waking up every day at 4 or 5 a.m., actively dreading going to a job that I had always loved.
One Friday, I bluntly told her she would have to leave so I could get some work done. I got a voicemail later that afternoon that went something like this: “I was hoping we could talk today, but since we can’t, I just wanted to say goodbye. If I’m not in class on Monday, don’t worry about me. It’s not your fault.” I knew that she was more manipulative than suicidal, but that didn’t stop me from spending the next couple of days (once I had forwarded the message to her counselor and debriefed with him) wrestling with my own guilt and anger.
Fortunately, I work at a big institution with a large network of student support services. In addition to sucking the life out of me, Bonnie had been setting off alarms all over campus with at least one other professor and any number of student services personnel. Eventually, a meeting was called, complete with a boardroom, people in suits, and people in uniform–about eight of us all told. A very smiley and avuncular dean told me how important it was to just say no, and that it wasn’t my job to be all things to all students. I somehow resisted reminding him of my fifteen years of teaching experience. No one who had not personally met this girl had the vaguest idea what we were up against. When I started to explain this, the dean said, “Well, when I met her, she seemed pretty harmless. But Tom,” he smiled, addressing Bonnie’s counselor, “please don’t send students straight to me without going through the proper channels.”
Tom and I exchanged a knowing look. He paused for a minute, looked at the dean with one eyebrow slightly raised, and said quietly, “I didn’t send her to you.”
“You didn’t?” the dean said. “But she said—“ he paused. “Ah. Wow. She’s good, isn’t she?”
The mood in the room changed over that next hour or so as those of us involved with Bonnie’s case exchanged anecdotes and unraveled details. When I told the campus police officer that I didn’t think she was dangerous, he looked at me like I was an idiot. “What do you think is in that black duffel?”
“Oh, I don’t know. More cake?” I laughed, trying to lighten the mood. “You don’t honestly think she’s packing weapons, do you?”
He was not amused. “You have no idea what she has in that bag.”
He was right. And since I suddenly felt like I didn’t know much of anything anymore, I stopped cracking wise and listened as he set down a list of procedures: “Do not allow her to bring her bag into your class. Do not speak to her privately. Do not respond to any email that is sent outside the course mail or that has any content other than course work. Forward all messages to the police and counselor. If she approaches you, tell her she is making you uncomfortable, and tell her you will call campus police if she does not back off. Document every interaction with her. Draw a line. And above all, do not explain. Do not give her an opportunity to respond. Just cut her off.”
That evening, I went home and sent her an email explaining that, while she was welcome to continue in class, she was not to have any one-on-one interaction with me, etc. etc. To do this without a word of explanation was inexplicably difficult, and I’ll confess, a little painful. She was obviously suffering, and as much as I had begun to resent her and the energy and time she was taking from me and from my other students, I also cared about her welfare. It took some convincing from Tom (did I mention that he had become my personal hero?) before I was persuaded that cutting her off was not a matter of self-preservation, but was in her best interest as well.
For whatever reason, Bonnie did not cross this line. I don’t know if it was because she realized that she could no longer play people off one another, or because she overestimated the amount of trouble she’d be in with the police, but she never contacted me again. She submitted the last couple of papers via email with no shenanigans, and got credit for the course. For weeks, I looked around corners on campus before turning them, asked who it was before answering a knock at my office door, screened phone calls whose numbers I did not recognize. She was gone, and I was off the hook.
One spring afternoon, weeks after I had last seen her and just as I was starting to relax, I got a call from campus police. A restraining order had been taken out against me. Could I please come down to the station for a briefing? Apparently, Bonnie had decided that I was a threat. That I had violated her personal freedoms. That by threatening to involve the police, I had wronged her. As I signed the forms the officer provided, I was not sure she wasn’t right. I wasn’t sure of anything.
But since I was already there, I filed one against her, too. You can never be too safe.