The day the student showed up at my office door armed with a baseball bat, I had been reading about multiculturalism in the classroom and ruminating on the fact that I taught at one of the whitest, ruralest, most inland universities in the U.S. Diversity was more of an idea than a fact here.
But this student, who had made it clear that discussing the hegemony of whiteness was an eye-rolling concept, appeared at my office door, wielding a bat. He stood in the doorway, not knocking.
This was the same student who, in our crammed, sixty-year-old classroom, just the other day had lifted his legs one army boot-clad foot at a time and rested them on my desk as I was speaking. We were talking about Michael Vick and the dogfighting ring, and there had been a heated discussion between one of the only two black students and a couple white students about whether dogfighting was animal cruelty or a cultural tradition in the black community. “Could it be both?” I had asked, “and does that make it okay?” I said as the boy with the boots stared at me and rested his feet on my desk inches from where I leaned against it.
The room grew quiet. I looked at his feet, then at him, and said, “What are you trying to communicate? Should we unpack the rhetoric of your boots?” There was a smattering of laughter. “Let’s unpack that,” I’d always say to students. I maintained eye contact with him until his feet thudded back to the asbestos-laden vinyl on which all our chairs rested. I looked away first.
“Anyway,” I said.
And so here he was at my door a few days later, wearing black from head to toe if you count his hair and beard (skin so pale behind it, you’d think he lived in a cave), tapping a baseball bat menacingly against his other palm.
In the future, I would spend years teaching at a men’s state penitentiary. I had students with teardrop tattoos and students who flashed gang signs and lots of students with skull tats that came and went depending on how recently they’d shaved their heads and a student who brazenly drew an illustration of a naked woman who bore some small resemblance to me (but with much larger breasts), and I had more than one student with a swastika permanently etched on his freckled white skin. None of them fazed me as much as this 220-pound specimen experimenting with the power that comes with being 18 and white and male in America.
“Are you coming from or going to baseball practice?” I asked him brightly, ignoring the black cargo pants and unwashed waffle-knit shirt, hoping my voice would carry over the wall into a nearby cubicle where another harried grad student-cum-teaching assistant could hear.
He paused. “No,” he said, gruffly, looking at the floor. There must have been a bulk sale on that asbestos tile because it was here too in the English building, halfway across campus from our classroom.
“Well, you must like it then,” I said, “to carry around a baseball bat!”
He didn’t answer. The sound of papers shuffling across the wall stopped.
I watched him expectantly while I inventoried my desk of anything that I could use to defend myself. The large book I’d been reading, Cross-Talk in Comp Theory, seemed my best bet.
His real name was prophetic and biblical, as I recall. Isaiah or Nehemiah or Jedediah or some such -iah, so named by parents I imagined to have a pack of boys with similar rhyming biblical names. I pronounced his name clearly and carefully. “____-iah, won’t you sit down and tell me how I can help you?”
He stood in my doorway for a long second, and I had the sense he was testing himself more than me. He still held the bat in his left hand, resting it in his right (I hadn’t realized he was left-handed until now).
And then he sat. “You can put the bat in the corner, there,” I said, still enunciating precisely. “We won’t need it right now.” When he followed my direction, I said, “Thanks!”
Papers began to shuffle again one cube over.
He hadn’t taken off his backpack and was perched, obviously uncomfortably, toward the front of his chair. Neither had he spoken, aside from the singular “No”.
I put a finger in my Cross-Talk book as if marking my place, in order to have a hand on it, should I need to pick it up suddenly, and then I looked at ___-iah and waited.
He turned pink, suddenly. “I, uh. Hm. Forgot what I wanted to talk to you about,” he mumbled.
“That’s okay,” I said. “You can come back later. Or–” I seized on this idea with more energy than necessary– “email me! I try to answer as soon as possible.”
“Right,” he said, standing to leave. “I will.”
“Okay!” I said. “Have a great day!”
He’d forgotten the bat in the corner. I picked it up gingerly and set it outside my door, then closed my door and locked it. Turned out the lights. Put my head down in my arms and sobbed silently on top of Cross-Talk. When I left my office later that night, the bat was gone.