I’ve been an adjunct writing teacher at a major university off and on for more than 25 years. I teach the freshman-level classes — College English I and II.
In College English I, students learn how to organize a variety of essays around thesis statements. The reading for this class consists of essays from a nonfiction anthology. In College English II, the students learn how to incorporate outside sources into their own persuasive documents. The reading for this more advanced course consists of a number of full-length texts organized around a particular theme.
One year, the theme was banned books. Students read I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, by Maya Angelou; Of Mice and Men, by John Steinbeck; Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger; and The Bluest Eye, by Toni Morrison.
For many years, I used the theme “disability literature” — novels, plays and memoirs about characters who deal with their own mental or physical disabilities. Examples of books I used in that class are Born on the Fourth of July, by Ron Kovic; Girl, Interrupted, by Susanna Kaysen; One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, by Ken Kesey; and The Elephant Man, by Bernard Pomerance.
Although I frequently teach writing using the disability theme, I make it a practice never to speak about my own disability — bipolar illness. I don’t disclose my mental illness to my students (or to the staff, for that matter) for multiple reasons:
- I might lose my credibility. People might think I have bad judgment or am out of touch with reality.
- My disclosure might encourage students who need real psychiatric help to rely too heavily on me. I might give students bad advice.
- Disclosure would cause me embarrassment. I am not the only person who feels embarrassed when grappling with my illness.
- Students don’t need to be encumbered with my problems and issues. They are in school to learn the material, do the work and move on.
- People can use the information against me. I am not so naïve that I don’t know that university politics can be awful.
- People are prejudiced, and the stigma is just too great. Even though it is almost 2016, mental illness is seen as a negative character trait.
- It’s no one’s business. Enough said.
I have been tempted many times to break my own rule. Once, a female student revealed to the class that she had been suicidal. She confessed that she’d tried three times to throw herself in front of a bus. Thank God she hadn’t succeeded. She was obviously suffering.
It took everything in me to keep from commiserating openly with her. I know how bad depression hurts. What damage would it have done to tell her that I knew the feeling? Still, I resisted the temptation; I just couldn’t risk revealing this very important aspect of my life. For her sake, I kept quiet.
Another time, I had a student who had recently been diagnosed with anxiety disorder. I could tell she wanted to talk about this with someone, but I knew it shouldn’t be me. One has to establish boundaries as a teacher. One needs to maintain some distance from one’s students.
Am I positive I’m doing the right thing?
College photo available from Shutterstock