I had a bad dream last night about my old college becoming violent with gang activity and losing teachers and them hiring me back to teach sewing instead of English in this atmosphere. Ulk.
Teaching has nearly always been a joy for me. Sometimes it’s been a frustration, like when a whole class of beginning ESL students, median age forty, bombed a basic simple present tense test after we’d studied it for three weeks. It was often a challenge, like when my overachieving Saudi student said he couldn’t do a speech based on his favorite song because his religion, which he shared with the entire class, and which no one else had cited as an issue, kept him from listening to any but religious music. But never did it feel off, weird, or dangerous. Except maybe one time.
One day back in the spring of 2009, we had a fire drill during the second half of my low-level ESL class. But it wasn’t quite a fire drill. Two or three giant pumpers showed up in front of the Le-Jao Center, which was part of Coastline College, that morning, and idled at the curb as the crew ran in and checked out the nice, new two-story building which housed all the classes. My class had been herded across the street for the whole thing, and we saw the trucks come, stay, and finally leave half an hour later, wrecking my lesson plan for that day. No fire, no smoke, no emergency. But my quiz had to be put off and a few students wandered off, as well.
After class, I got called in to see the program director, Kate, who introduced me to the campus security guy–actually security guy for all the little campuses the college had spread out around the city. Security Guy showed me security footage of the hallway leading to where the fire alarm was, and it showed only one person going in there and coming out at the time when the fire alarm got pulled: one of my students. I can’t remember the student’s real name, so I’ll call him Hiep. Quiet, shy Vietnamese guy—twenty-five to thirty-five. Like a quarter of my class. Not very memorable except that he seldom spoke in class and did “B” work on written tests. He was good at writing English and crappy at speaking it. What else was new? Yes, I told Security Guy, Hiep had left class early. Yes, now that I remembered it, he’d left before the alarm went off. This was college. These were adults. Students could come late, leave early, or go use the restroom any time.
Security Guy, who we’ll call Jim, told me this was not the first time this had happened. Apparently, Hiep, had done this in a night class the week before, bringing the fire trucks to the college and costing the college all kinds of money for false alarms. They had identified him then as the perp then and had sent him a letter telling him not to return to the college. They had called his house and told him not to come. Which he obviously had done anyway. But funnily enough, they had not warned me, or his other teachers, that he had been suspended or told us what to do if he showed up again. I’d had no idea I was harboring a suspended college criminal that day in my class, and had welcomed him into class as usual.
Well, Jim said he doubted this guy would show up in class again, but if he did, I should be calm, act normal, go outside class and call campus security to come and get Hiep, then return to class and just wait for Jim to show up. Of course, Jim’s office was miles away on another campus, so it would take a while, but I should wait for him and do nothing to rile the guy. I said sure, thinking that we’d surely seen the last of Hiep.
But a week later, there was Hiep in my class at Le-Jao Center again. I sucked in air as the guy sat down in the front row, backpack in hand, with his wide, gray, slightly timid, or was it scared? eyes and took out his notebook. I tried to be casual as I slid out the door against the flow of student traffic coming in and ran, heart pounding, downstairs to tell the girl in the office to call campus security and get Jim over there as soon as possible. Our fire alarmist was back. Then I went upstairs and started my lesson.
I don’t remember what the lesson was. Probably present continuous tense. “Class, please get into groups of two and practice the discussions on page 57 using present continuous tense for future meaning.” What are you doing tonight? I’m going to the movies tonight. Where is Bob going on his trip next week? He’s going to Hawaii on his trip next week. Or maybe it was reading class, and we were studying the vocabulary in a short reading about gold bars or coffee beans or grizzly bears. What I do remember was keeping a sharp eye on Hiep like he was a bomber instead of a fire alarm puller, and how quiet he seemed. How normal, yet not. Not since I knew he’d been banned from the school, but he was here anyway with his wide, timid eyes. That fact right there made me really wary. Who would show up twice after being banned? Who would show up at all after pulling the fire alarm twice? God. It was taking so long for Jim to get to my classroom, and I was feeling a growing sense of Mamma Bear protecting her unknowing cubs. I was in charge of this class, the safety of the students, who had no idea Hiep was a wild card. What if he had a gun in that backpack? What if he was going off the deep end very slowly and would graduate to violence in his next act of weirdness? My pay at this college was the best I’d ever had, but it didn’t really seem adequate to cover this kind of insecurity and weirdness.
It had been twenty-five minutes since my run to the office, and Jim still wasn’t there, but Hiep was, looking at me with his odd eyes. My stomach was in knots. I finally said to Hiep, “I’m sorry, but you’re not supposed to be here. I need you to leave.” He got up and started toward the door, and when he was almost there, I said, “And DON’T pull the fire alarm.” I, as Mamma Bear, followed him out and watched him leave the building, watched him pass the fire alarm area without going in. Then I returned to class.
When Jim finally arrived, I told him I wasn’t getting paid enough for this type of stuff. I had told Hiep to leave because I didn’t feel safe with him in the classroom. Jim didn’t really think Hiep was dangerous, but I held my ground. It was my classroom, and I’d done what I thought was necessary. They could grab Hiep and chat with him off campus, not in my classroom. I saw Kate later, and she said Hiep must really like me because he hadn’t attended anyone else’s class since he’d left mine and pulled the alarm. I felt so special.
That spring, there was a lot of flu going around, so I was getting quite a few sub jobs for ill teachers. One evening, I arrived at another campus site, a tiny room the college used in the Vietnamese Community Center in Westminster. The class wandered in for the first few minutes, late due to traffic. And who slipped in and sat down last? Hiep! The guy who had been banned from the college for pulling fire alarms! I set the students a task and excused myself to go outside.
I stood on the balcony and wondered who to call. There was no one in the office here. It was after 5:00. Hell, there would be no one at the main college switchboard, either. If I had had that number, which I didn’t outside here. I had an old flip phone—not that smart. No contact numbers for college security in it. My list of college numbers was in my bag at home, not in my purse, which was all I brought to a sub job. But I had used the number of my director at the Le-Jao Center recently, so I sort of remembered it, and I knew she sometimes stayed late at the office. But would she pick up the phone? She often let her calls go to voicemail. I tried the number I remembered. It didn’t work. I transposed a couple of numbers and tried again. And amazingly, she picked up. I whispered, “Kate, he’s here in this night class at the Community Center. Our fire alarm guy. Please send security.”
And then I went back to class. I managed to start teaching the sub plan lesson, avoiding Hiep’s odd gray eyes for most of it. Somehow, I got involved in teaching present perfect tense. George has worked here for fifteen years. Freda hasn’t worked here very long. How long has Frank lived here? We practiced using the /t/ sound on the end of worked and typed and the /d/ sound on the end of breathed and lived. They had to write sentences. In a stroke of luck, Mamma Bear didn’t rear her head this time, and Hiep just sat there like a scared bunny in the corner, hoping I hadn’t noticed him. It was evening, it was dark, and it was not my normal place of work or my normal group of students, but somehow, I was braver this time, more patient. Maybe because I hadn’t seen the fire alarm in this building, and figured there might not even be one for Hiep to pull. And maybe because these students seemed to accept him as a comrade. But mostly, I just wondered how lonely Hiep must be to keep showing up to classes after all that had happened.
Finally, Jim showed up and took Hiep by the arm and led him out of the classroom. Hiep gave me one last scared, gray, wide-eyed look as he left, but I realized it wasn’t that crazy. It seemed more surprised that I, his favorite teacher, would mess up his only social gig. Mean, mean me.
Two days later, the dean and Kate were outside at break time, and they laughed at my seeming magnetism for this odd student. Yes, I told them it was me being wonderful and caring. They said they hoped he was done showing up in my classes. He was. I never saw him again. I just wonder what college he’s alarming now.