One of my former students was arrested for child molestation the other day. I don’t mean that I had this student a few years ago, either. This was a student that, up until a month or so ago, I talked to on a very regular basis. He was in my honors class last year, he was in my club, I took him on an overnight field trip to California with 20 other students at the end of last year. I knew this student. Or at least I thought I did. Turns out, I didn’t know him at all.
This incident has made me wonder and question the relationships I have with students. Teachers are often told that we can make a huge difference in student’s lives, both inside and outside the classroom. We go through training on how to spot if a student is being abused or neglected. We spend hours discussing how to help our students do better in school so that they can make better decisions outside of school. We talk to students about their interests and what they’re doing and what type of TV they like or books they read. But we only see them for a few hours in the day and that really doesn’t amount to anything.
I had this student in my classroom for 90 minutes every day for a semester. Plus I saw him every week after that semester for our club. I talked to him about Star Wars and comics and science. I watched him interact with his peers. Sure, he was a little creepy at times. I had to kick him out of room once because he yelled at another student. I had to talk to him once or twice about being sexist – one particular time he maybe half joked, was half serious that Marie Curie deserved to die because she was a female doing a man’s job and I thought one of my female students was going to beat the crap out of him. Yeah, he had no social skills in my class, saying and doing whatever he thought was right. But I never suspected the guy would actually hurt someone And certainly not suspected he could do something as serious or dangerous as child abuse.
It was completely stunning when a current student of mine said to me the other day “I’m in a little bit of shock after finding out what happened with Doug.” Then he showed me the article. I believe my first words were “Are you shitting me? Holy shit!” Then I had to shove it aside because I had a class to teach and couldn’t think about other things for a while. Now that I’ve had a few days to think on it though, I’m surprised and shocked and angry and saddened. This student took something for an innocent victim. This student, who was bright but a little weird, could have gone on to do good things with his life. Instead, he’s going to trial and probably to jail for a very long time – deservedly so for the crimes he committed.
This is one of those times when I wonder if I’m really doing enough as a teacher. Am I really changing anything or just going with the stasis quo? Could I really spot a student who was being abused by someone? Or a student who was abusing someone? It’s difficult enough keeping up with lesson planning and grading and teaching the content and tutoring and going to meetings and professional developments and running a club. But maybe that’s not as important as developing the relationships so that a student would feel comfortable telling me things about their home life. Or maybe it’s just as important to give those students a chance to focus on something else for a while. I’m not really sure. I guess all’s I can do is what I’ve been doing – teach them the science, talk to them about whatever they want to talk about, and hope that if they feel safe around me they’ll tell me when something is wrong.