When I met her, I was standing in the hallway waiting for a classroom door to be unlocked. It was the first day of the quarter, an early morning in January, and the general mood was one of post-holiday, back-to-the-grind weariness.
Then along came Bonnie, an aggressively cheerful close-talker who extended her hand to me in greeting the minute she laid eyes on me.
“Hi, Professor,” she said as she wrung my hand furiously, “ I just wanted to introduce myself and tell you how glad I am to be in your class…” I semi-listened as I sized her up to be a brown noser. Yes, it’s a good idea to introduce yourself to your professors, and yes, I do want to get to know you, but c’mon. It’s early and we’re not even in the room yet. I said something polite in response, and when she started peppering me with questions about the course, I gently suggested that she wait until class started, as we’d be covering everything she needed to know.
Apparently, the next hour did not suffice to quench what I would soon learn was an insatiable thirst for attention. Despite having answered at least half a dozen questions from her that first day in class, I found her waiting outside my door when I arrived to hold my office hour.
“Well, hi, Bonnie. What can I do for you?” She handed me an enormous, clear plastic Starbucks tumbler filled with bright red—something.
“I just wanted to bring you this and tell you how excited I am to be in your class! Also, there are some things you should know about me and they are—well—sort of private.”
Before I could figure out what to do with the proffered beverage and before I could explain that all personal information could be shared on a need-to-know basis, she started to tell me about the sexual assault she had suffered a few days before, the result of which, she was certain, would be an unwanted pregnancy. I do not recall all of the details (thank God) but she mentioned in this same stream-of-consciousness brain dump a number of medications and “issues.” It quite quickly became apparent that she was mildly delusional if not seriously ill.
I should stop here and say that I have had many a student share personal information with me. There is something about teaching writing that makes stuff bubble to the surface. Sometimes it’s a personal narrative that recalls an incident of abuse. Sometimes it’s analyzing a poem about suicide or a play about family dysfunction. English is a tough discipline that way. I have had to offer tissues to students during conferences (not always because they are unhappy about their grades) and I have had to use a few myself when reading about particularly difficult things they have faced. But from the get go, there was something about Bonnie that was different, something in her eyes that was a little wild. Something that was, for whatever reason, deeply unsettling.
Over the next weeks, my suspicion that she was not just “one of those students” was confirmed. Often, Bonnie would arrive to class just late enough to be disruptive, and would sigh loudly and frequently so everyone would notice how distraught she was as she settled into her seat. Another favorite trick was to arrive early and play loud music from the computer on her desk before class started. Other students would make eye contact with me on the way in and cut their eyes in her direction, as if to say, “What is up with that girl?” She started carrying an enormous black duffel bag around with her. Like Mary Poppins, she would produce all manner of handy items from its depths, like a full-sized boom box (despite the fact that she had an iPod) or, on a number of occasions, a blanket. It was January, after all.
By the second week of the quarter, I often found her camped out outside my office door when I arrived in the morning. At first I wondered if she was homeless, but I soon learned from her disability services counselor (whom I had contacted very soon after meeting her) that she was under the care of both her grandmother and the county. She did, in fact, suffer from a number of diagnosed illnesses, as well as a personality disorder so profound that it all but trumped everything else. I don’t know why she picked me, but every day when I rounded the corner from the stairwell, there she would be.
The minute she heard my keys in the door, she’d shake herself awake and accost me.
“I have to talk to you. It’s something *really* bad….” And then she would launch into some sort of bizarre tale. In the space of a couple of weeks, she told me that she had been raped, was pregnant, had learned that she was having twins, had miscarried one of them, that her boyfriend had proposed to marry her and adopt the rapist’s child, that her boyfriend had committed suicide, that she was going to marry her assailant (who was a friend after all), and finally, that the second twin had died too.
In short, Bonnie took the cake. Or rather, she brought the cake, a large, red velvet one, to my office. “I have something to celebrate!” she said as she stormed in. I didn’t yet know that a restraining order would be required. Against me.