A true story from early in my teaching career. Sometimes, students need things from us that we simply do not have to give.
Names have been changed (except mine).
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
“May I speak with you Mrs. Anna?”
“Yes of course, Adnan. That’s why I have office hours. Come in.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Anna. I have some questions about the assignment.”
He stood out from the start. Most of his English-as-a-second-language classmates had come to the university high school on student visas, bent on getting a Canadian diploma to expedite admission to Canadian universities. They hailed mainly from well-heeled families from Malaysia and Hong Kong. Adnan was a thirty-five year old political refugee of the Soviet war in Afghanistan.
We spent the hour poring over his paper, talking about thesis statements and the finer points of English grammar. The tutoring session made me feel very teacherly. At twenty-five, I was acutely aware of being younger than many of my students. I deliberately dressed to look older and wore my recently acquired “Mrs.” as a badge of maturity.
“Thank you for your help Mrs. Anna. May I come another time?”
“Of course. See on my schedule where it says ‘Office Hour’ – those are the times that I will be here to answer your questions.” I headed off to my next class, leaving him squinting earnestly at the timetable taped to my office door, carefully noting my office times in the front of his student handbook.
He started coming regularly. At first I didn’t think much of it. Most of my students were reluctant to ask for help, so there wasn’t exactly a lineup at my office door. And he seemed so keen.
One late October day I called in sick. Propped up in bed with my book and my cold meds, I left the ringing phone to my husband. I could hear his side of the conversation in the next room, but couldn’t make enough sense of it to guess who was at the other end.
“Who the heck is Adnan? And why is he calling to ask why you aren’t at school?”
“Seriously? He’s a student.”
“You give your home phone number out to your students?
“No! I have no idea how he got this number. I’ll ask at the office tomorrow.”
The receptionist looked like she might throw up. All I said was, “Do you have any idea how Adnan might have acquired my personal phone number? Because he called my home yesterday to ask why I wasn’t at school.” The blood drained from her face and she looked down at her desk.
“I’m so sorry Anna. I know I shouldn’t have given him your number, but there was no one else around and he was so threatening I didn’t know what he would do if I refused. He was in the Afghan military, you know. He’s trained in hand-to-hand combat! I was just so scared.”
Adnan showed up on cue for my next office hour, expressing concern for my state of health. I struggled to convey the inappropriateness of his behaviour. He clearly didn’t understand the nature of the boundaries he had crossed, so I finally just said point-blank that he must not call me at home. Ever. He seemed to be willing to respect a direct command.
My cold lingered, and a few days later I stayed home again. At suppertime, my husband arrived home from his on-campus job and appeared in the bedroom doorway with an expression of wry amusement. “I met Adnan.”
“He figured out I worked on campus and tracked me down at my office. You told him not to phone you at home, but apparently he took that literally and found another way to check up on you.”
“Oh crap. I’ll try talking to him again. This is ridiculous.”
“He does seem kind of… intense.”
I was inclined to agree. The next day I was back at my desk, plodding through a mountain of marking, when he appeared at my door bearing two large Styrofoam cups of cafeteria coffee. “Hello Mrs. Anna. I thought since you have a cold you would enjoy a hot drink.”
“Uh. Thanks, Adnan, but you really don’t need to buy me coffee. What I mean is, you really shouldn’t buy me coffee. And why did you seek out my husband yesterday? I told you that it wasn’t appropriate for you to be trying to contact me outside of school. And you really shouldn’t be bothering my husband when he’s working! Ever.”
He smiled sheepishly. The coffees sat untouched between us on the corner of my desk. “I am sorry that I have upset you Mrs. Anna. When you are not here it is difficult for me. You are always very helpful.”
“That’s another thing Adnan. I want to talk to you about the amount of time you are spending in my office. You know that I am always willing to answer your questions about the course, but you need to start trying to work more independently. My office hours are for all of my students, and it isn’t fair for one student to monopolize my time.”
“But Mrs. Anna, your other students are not here. Clearly they do not want to talk to you, but I do.” He looked pleased with this ironclad logic.
Sigh. “Adnan, perhaps they are never here because you are always here. Besides, I also need to use some of this time to mark assignments… for all my students.”
The arrival of December mid-term exams meant less time in the classroom and more open-ended office time. I was working my way through grading a set of papers one afternoon when he appeared unannounced with, improbably, a Christmas gift. “Uh… Adnan, we’ve talked before about you not buying things for me.” But he insisted. And so I opened the tiny box to reveal an exquisite pair of silver and mother-of-pearl earrings.
“Adnan, these are lovely, but it’s a very, um … personal gift.” He looked puzzled. I grasped unsuccessfully for the right words to make him understand my hesitation. He insisted on leaving the earrings with me, wished me a happy holiday, and left me there wondering what on earth I was going to do next.
I still had second term to get through. There was no other class he could be transferred to, and it seemed impossible to make him understand my discomfort with his constant attention.
January came and went and Adnan continued to be my best office hour customer. While his English skills were clearly improving as a result, his grasp of personal boundaries was not. But I could never quite put my finger on what the exactly the relationship meant to him.
Finally, with spring in the air and final exams looming, I mustered the courage to ask. “Adnan I need your help to understand something. You are spending so much time in my office, but I really don’t think you need so much help to do your work. What is it that you really want from me?”
Panic flickered across his face, and then he blurted, “I want you to be my mother.”
“What? Adnan, I am ten years younger than you. What on earth do you mean by that?”
He put his head in his hands and started to shake. Then, composing himself, he whispered hoarsely, “I am a refugee. I can never go home. I will never see my parents again. In my country, parents are very important. There are certain decisions that parents must make. If I want to marry, I must go to my parents and ask them who should I marry. If I want to take a job, I must go to my parents and ask them what is the right job for me. If I want to buy a home, my parents must advise me. I want you to be my mother because my own mother and father can never again do these things for me.”
“Oh, Adnan. This is Canada. Here, when we become adults, we make those decisions for ourselves. You are asking for something I cannot give you.”
“Then, what will I do?” His lip quivered.
“You will need to learn to make your own life decisions. You can’t expect to find someone who will do that for you.”
I watched him visibly shrink. This man who could take down an opponent with his bare hands looked up at me with the fear-filled eyes of a small child who had just been told he was now alone in the world.
He continued to drop in during office hours, even when there were no more assignments to discuss. When my last exam was marked and all my grades submitted, I sat down across from him in the cafeteria and told him firmly that, since I was no longer his teacher, he must not try to contact me any more. Ever.
I saw him on the bus once. He never made eye contact.