Thursday, September 14, 2017

What I Will Say to the Young Man Who Tried to Steal My GA's Backpack If He Ever Returns

Excuse me. Did you find the office you were looking for Wednesday?

Oh, that's good to hear.

Didn't you say your major was English? I got my BA in English here, too. In fact, I've taught on this campus for many years.

Mind if I sit down and give you some advice?

You remind me of a student I had in class several years ago. His name was C., and he was from Dermott. Have you heard of it?

Yeah, it's a small town. Not many people have heard of it.

Anyway, my first assignment for students was to write a story about something that had happened to them. C. asked if he could write about the way his dad was always teasing him. I said sure, but "give us only one example that shows what a joker your dad is. That's what a story is, an example."

Two weeks into class, he raised his hand and asked me if I could take a look at something. I went back to him, and he whispered in my ear, "I don't know how to make a capital letter." You see, his parents had bought him a Dell laptop as a graduation gift, and he had never had a computer before, nor, I guess, a keyboarding class. I didn't say anything because he was already embarrassed. I just showed him three times how it worked: press the shift key and, at the same time, press the letter.

I still have the story he managed to peck out with two fingers. In it, C. and his dad had gone out to feed the deer they would later hunt on their property. It started to become dark, and his dad sent him to get flashlights from an outbuilding, across an earthen bridge that separated two ponds. And he had a warning, "Be careful of that alligator." From that point on, everything in the water looked like alligator eyes peering at C., and he was terrified. When he returned with the lights, he found his father doubled-over in laughter. There were no alligators, but C. had crossed the bridge so painstakingly it was comical, the effect his dad was looking for.

He struggled mightily with that story and the other assignments, but he passed and took the next class with me in the spring. He was my student for an entire academic year. When we ran into each other between Arkansas Hall and Snow Fine know where that is, right? Anyway, I was happy he had returned for his sophomore year because I worried he wouldn't make it. We chatted for ten minutes or so, and then he said, "Ms. D, I gotta go make sure my friends are studying. I told them I'd help." And I asked if he had recruited them into the same residential college where he had lived and taken classes. He smiled, "Yes, ma'am!" As we parted ways, I asked him to stay in touch and visit me in my office some time. He said he would.

One week.

One week later, four young men, maybe your age, drove onto this campus, and one of them shot into a crowd of people and killed C.

You saw an empty office, an unattended backpack, and an opportunity.

I assumed the fear on your face when I whipped into that unoccupied front office to answer the ringing phone there was prompted by the fact I had leapt out of nowhere. After I put the phone in its cradle, I asked how I could help you. I took you for your word. I wrote down the name of the building and room you said you were looking for and gave you directions on how to get there. I almost offered to walk you to that place, but I was the only one of my colleagues around to answer the phone. Surely, "it's the building right next to the library that way" would be enough to get you there.

I believed you.

Until you came in a second time three minutes later.  Remember? I leaned back from my chair to see who had just walked in, and you immediately turned around and walked back out when you saw me. I scanned the front office and spotted my graduate assistant's backpack lying against the wall, out in the open. I unzipped it and found the MacBook Pro she worked however many jobs (they're on her résumé) to buy so she would be ready for graduate school: $2000.

I took it and all her belongings into my own office, and when she returned from running an errand for me, she was visibly upset: "Where is my stuff!"

"Yeah, I think someone was trying to steal it, so I brought your things into my office. Don't leave them out anymore. This is an open campus; anyone can come up here."

No. Sit down. I'm not done with you.

C. died trying to get an education. The university raised money to help his parents bury him...the laptop probably set them back quite a bit. And you would come here to steal from people like him? People like my GA. Young people who want to change the world, or, at the very least, their world. Seriously?

The next time I see you on this campus, you had better be enrolled as a student here.

And what I meant is this: instead of becoming an ex-con, try becoming a college graduate instead. How about that?

And by the way, you told me on Wednesday your major was history, not English. In fact, you gave every person you interacted with on this floor a different story, which is how we figured out your true project. If you want to be successful in a life of crime, begin by keeping your stories straight.

Here's a blank notebook with a calendar. You can use it to plan your current trajectory, but it also comes in handy for writing down deadlines, taking class notes, and tracking your to-do list.

Now you can go. I hope you choose wisely.

NOTE: there is a memorial to C., and the other young man who died in the shooting, on our campus. You will find me there often. If you would like to give to their memorial scholarship fund, contact me at