One of the challenges of teaching is negotiating students with severe psychological conditions — of which we teachers are sometimes informed, but never trained for. Sometimes these students are disruptive (as in the case of a student with Asperger’s who offended and alienated other students with her socially awkward comments) but often they just suffer quietly, withdrawn and/or mysteriously absent from class.
I make an effort to bring a lot of enthusiasm and energy into the classroom. Sometimes, I’m even goofy in an effort to lessen the tension and seriousness that accompanies the difficult work I assign. For me, these past few years have been ones of almost unmitigated happiness and good fortune; I like to bring that happiness to my students. Often I forget that this could be someone else’s dark time.
Last month, at the end of a particularly jovial, engaged class, I realized that one of my students was quietly weeping in the front row. Unseen by the other students, she quickly got up at break and rushed into the ladies’ room. After class, she explained she was experiencing severe anxiety and depression (medication eventually helped). Earlier, I had attributed her stern countenance to a dislike of me, or a lack of interest in the class. I felt mildly ashamed at my assumptions and embarrassed at my overbearing humor, my need to jolly everyone into a good mood. I’m reminded of Barbara Ehrenreich’s critique  of America’s relentless promotion of positive thinking, particularly how the seriously ill are encouraged to combat their sickness with good thoughts.
So I sat with my student for a few minutes after class, not offering therapy (which I am not qualified to give) but keeping her company for a minute and letting her know that her distress was not embarrassing or shameful. Since then the student has been noticeably more animated in class, making great efforts to participate, and she smiles at me gratefully whenever I see her. I’m embarrassed at her gratitude because I did so little, but professors’ small gestures often have bigger impact than we realize.
I understood this more fully after I experienced a brief, inexplicable depression this past week. While this certainly does not qualify as a serious illness, the strength and suddenness of it knocked me flat. This was not sadness, which is painful but specific, but a darkness that seemed to cover the past and the future. As F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote: “in a real dark night of the soul it is always three o’clock in the morning.” Mercifully, my malaise lasted as short time, but in that time every accomplishment seemed hollow, every future goal pointless. Luckily, I know enough about myself to know that it would pass, and it did. But while it lasted, it was as unbearable as food poisoning. I tried to comfort myself as best I could: doing “fun” parts of work, walking, and shamelessly asking my friends (and husband) for comfort. But most of all, I just accepted it. And am thankful that I’m not one of the many people who carry this burden every day.