You can’t skip this episode

In the spring of my senior year of high school, my AP psychology teacher kept me after class. It had been an especially hard day, mental-health-wise — I had barely made it to school in the first place. He waited until most of the students had cleared out for the next class and leaned over my desk, towering over me in his blue collared shirt.

“Were you using your phone during class?”

When I nodded, the corners of his mouth twisted up like bending spiders’ legs. I began to dissociate as he accused me of detracting from the class environment and nearly exploded when he told me how he regretted writing my college recommendation, because I didn’t deserve it.

Having never been disciplined by a teacher before, I lost my mind. My entire identity as a student was under fire. His words shot through my long-preserved confidence like a rock through a snow fort. I could hear him echoing over and over in my head, confirming my worst fears and worries — that my identity was composed of the symptoms of my illness. I was hurt and shaken. And then I was angry.

After collecting my thoughts, I sent my teacher an email:

I’ve had some time to think about what you said to me, and after getting over the initial emotional distress it caused, I’ve decided to apologize. I am thoroughly sorry if it seems as if I don’t care about your class or the content because that is simply not true.

I went on to explain how psychology is my favorite subject in school, because I was planning to pursue a career in the field. I told him I might have been acting differently the past few months because I was struggling with clinical depression and generalized anxiety, which made it hard to get through the day and complete assignments.

I am currently working with both a psychiatrist and a psychologist to get through this problem, and it distresses me as much as it distresses you that I am unable to motivate myself or put the same care and effort into my studies that I have for my entire life.

I let him know that I wish he had asked what was wrong or if anything was up rather than assuming I didn’t care. He didn’t seem to understand the implication of his stinging and degrading words on his students, considering their future and worth to be contingent on the superficiality of my focus on his lecture.

He responded to my email with an apology. I could imagine him writing it: curled over his desk with his chin in his palm, flicking his eyes back and forth across the computer screen. He told me how he had misjudged the cause of my behavior, that he was sorry for what I was going through, that he wanted to erase the “episode” all together. I didn’t believe him, so I asked to meet in person.

I was relatively optimistic, happy that my email had made even some impact and ready to discuss. I wanted to have an honest dialogue about mental health, but I was met with rehearsed politeness. He sat across from me sipping nonchalantly from a coffee mug, monologuing unjustified advice about curing my depression. As he elaborated on some paper-thin connection between my suffering and the disorders unit from last semester, I could tell that he wasn’t really listening.

But he should have realized that as an educator, he has the responsibility to assist and empower all his students regardless of any illness or circumstances, not shame them or misrepresent the conditions they struggle with. This role is even more important to him as a psychology teacher — someone who should be aware of the symptoms of mental illness and the educational barriers they can present.

He needs to listen because he is in a unique position of power as a teacher, with influence over malleable adolescents.

As he stood up to straighten his shirt, running his tongue against his thin, unremembering lips, I knew that nothing would really change.

Isabel Lichtman writes the Thursday blog on mental health. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @isabellichtman.