Scott* volunteered to go into the hallway first. It was necessary that someone leave the classroom because that’s how you play the game. We had two minutes to decide, collectively, who or what we wanted Scott to be when he returned to the classroom. One student suggested a can of Coke, another recommended he should be a red and black poster on the wall that said, “Make Art Not War.” Another proposed LeBron James. “Let’s make it really hard,” one student said. “We should have Scott be himself.” We had fifteen seconds left to decide.
Most of the students wanted Scott to be the can of Coke. Emily* was the one who suggested Scott be the tree. As the class considered their options, I watched Emily, the most withdrawn student in my class who always sat in a corner of the room. She gazed out the window as though in a trance, her hand cupping her chin, her eyes narrowed, almost squinting, to survey the outside world in between the blinds that were jammed inside the two-paned windows in our classroom. For most of the school year, she had never spoken up and hadn’t worked with others. The day we played the game it appeared, like all the other days, that she wasn’t staring at one thing in particular outside; rather, she was longing for something outdoors that she knew she’d never get in the classroom. So when she started repeating the word, “tree,” over and over, slowly, as though the tree was actually saying something to her, I told the class I had made the executive decision that Scott should be the tree.
This isn’t a story about learning from my students, or having a democratic classroom where students choose what they want to do. It’s not a story where teachers call high school students “scholars,” where the word “classroom” becomes “sacred space,” or where the teacher facilitates “circle time,” using the model she learned in the social justice seminar she took, and where she received a poster to put on the outside of her door that says, “Safe Space Ahead.” It’s not a story where the teacher tells a student that her writing is gorgeous so that the student feels good about herself. It’s definitely not a story that ends with something like this: I wanted to teach my students, but it was they, ultimately, who taught me. It’s a story about a game called Psychologist–or maybe Psychiatrist. I actually don’t know the proper name because I had never heard of it before. I’m neither a Psychologist or a Psychiatrist. I’m an English teacher. I’m not sure it would have made a difference if I were, however, during this particular school year when Emily was in my class. But I’ll get to Emily later. My students suggested we play the game one day as a classroom-bonding thing at the end of our lesson. We had finished five minutes early, the school year was almost over, we were all exhausted, so I said sure.
Once Scott came back into the classroom, he had five minutes to ask the class questions about who he was. Students said they could drop hints if they were clever enough not to give the answer away, and, someone confessed to me, if they liked the student whose turn it was. Scott began:
“Am I a person, place, or thing?”
“Am I in this room?”
“No, but you can see what you are through the windows.”
“Am I that rock?”
“Am I green?”
“Am I the grass?
“No, but you’re close.”
“Am I the tree outside the window?”
When Scott figured out he was the tree, Emily giggled. It might have been the first time she had ever laughed in class. A couple students pounded their hands on their desks in protest, said it was too easy, and that Bill–the student who said Scott could see who he was through the window–gave it away because they’re friends. Then more students started to complain about the game. I told them to turn to a neighbor and share their feelings for two minutes while I figured out how to address a couple things that were going on in the class, like Emily’s giggling, which had become louder, almost feverish, accompanied by an odd swaying of her hips in her chair, a feral shaking of her backside, as though she had a tail.
I feel the need to pause here, to take a step back and explain why I decided Scott should be the tree because of Emily and not the can of Coke, which most of the class wanted. I don’t want to say it for any kind of shock value, because really, it’s been a hell of a school year, but the thing is, Emily is a wolf. The school psychologist said so the day before school started in August. “Sometimes she’s a dog or a horse,” he told the eight of us at the meeting, “but mostly, she’s a wolf.” Emily’s gym teacher said that he had heard of this before, that in fact, several students at the school pin tails to their pants and wear ears on a headband and identify as various furry animals. I had one of these students in my English class a few years ago. Every day, Tom wore a tail. The students got used to it. “It’s just what Tom does,” another student said and I said that, too, especially when a more conservative student scoffed at Tom, who in addition to wearing a tail and ears, was also discovering his gender identity. One day, Tom showed up in a puffy yellow prom dress packed with crinoline and black eyeliner streaked across his eyelids all the way to his temples, but he had on his tail, and no one said a word.
“That’s not what this is,” the school psychologist said. “Emily really believes she is a wolf.” Emily had a 504 plan, the official document at public schools that gives students certain accommodations within a general education environment. In order to qualify for a 504, students must have a mental or physical limitation that requires additional support. It didn’t say on the 504 plan that Emily was a wolf, but that she had a “major depressive disorder.” Typical 504 plans include accommodations for students who benefit from extra time on tests, for example, or need to draw or fidget with clay during class because they are anxious, or get up often and take short walks. Though Emily’s 504 plan didn’t state specifically that Emily transitioned into a wolf, we had to meet the day before school started so the psychologist could explain to us why Emily might crawl around on all fours, become nonverbal, and lick her hands. The psychologist said that Emily is a therian, or that she practices therianthropy–the term defined as “the mythological ability of human beings to metamorphose into other animals by means of shapeshifting.” Of course, in Emily’s situation, this wasn’t a mythological phenomenon, but a real phenomenon to her.
Our meeting lasted for two hours. I was still busily preparing for the other 119 students I was going to meet the next day, each with their own complex emotional baggage. About thirty of my 120 students also had 504 plans, and around twenty-five had an Individualized Educational Plan (IEP), the document that is developed for students who are eligible for special education. Half of my students receive free or reduced breakfast and lunch because their families are low-income. Some are homeless. One year, one of my wealthier students who lived in a big house along Lake Michigan had a butler.
At the meeting, the psychologist told us if Emily passes gas in class, “this could be a sign that she is shifting,” or that once she has transitioned into the wolf, she won’t answer if you call her by her name Emily, but might respond to “Shanti,” her wolf name. If she’s shifting, you have to refer to her hands as paws. Emily’s biology teacher, a cute, twenty-three-year-old new instructor with long red hair, sat to my right. She wore a white mini-skirt with white wedge sandals that made her legs look quite tan, and her eyes were very wide. Perhaps I’m projecting here, but I was pretty sure she was thinking that graduate school–she had just graduated–had not prepared her for this. She was a serious new teacher, and asked very seriously with her pen in her hand, ready to take notes, “Does she have a horse name or a dog name, or only a wolf name?” The psychologist said that was a good question, and the biology teacher nodded and said thanks and wrote something down in her yellow notebook with her green pen. Emily didn’t have a dog name or a horse name, we were told, because she was mostly a wolf. We should sit Emily near the window because she likes to look outside. “Of course she does!” her math teacher blurted out, and I smiled because someone had cut the tension in the room with some humor. I knew we had to take this seriously, of course, and being in a public school, we had a legal obligation to accommodate Emily’s “major depressive disorder” which, for reasons we would never discover, reasons that lived deep in the folds of her growing brain manifested into Emily believing she was a wolf. I looked around at the others at this meeting: the biology teacher; social worker; an art teacher; history teacher, her counselor; the dean; a Spanish teacher; and a few others I didn’t know. An older man–I think he was Emily’s health teacher–leaned over to the math teacher and whispered, “I can’t wait to retire.” The school psychologist said if she transitioned to a wolf and subsequently disrupted the class we should give Emily a pass to go to the social worker. “If she’s receptive to you sending her to the social worker’s office, she might go down the hall on all fours,” he said. I looked around the room, convinced that a camera crew was going to come out and start laughing at all of us.
The next day, the first day of school, I stood at my classroom door and welcomed Emily along with all my other students. Emily wore jeans and a blue University of Michigan t-shirt. In an effort to connect with her, I told her I liked her shirt, and that I was looking forward to getting to know her. She feigned a smile, looked down at the floor, rounded her shoulders, and slithered past me.
Most days throughout the fall, Emily was quiet. She rushed through her work. It was clear she wasn’t interested in writing essays about who was ultimately responsible for the death of Romeo and Juliet, for example–though I thought perhaps she perked up once during Act Three, scene five, when Juliet feels alone after Romeo has been banished. Unable to rely on the Nurse, Juliet feels she can no longer say what’s in her heart. “Go counselor. Thou and my bosom henceforth shall be twain,” Juliet declares, just before heading to the Friar for help. I wondered if maybe Emily could relate to Juliet feeling so alone, unable to say her true feelings out loud, but it was hard to tell. She didn’t care for the videos we watched about the Little Rock Nine when we read Warriors Don’t Cry, or the spelling bees we had. She’d look down or outside, rocking in her chair. She wouldn’t work with other students, and often wore the same clothes to school. Her hair was stringy, greasy. It was clear that she didn’t bathe regularly. One afternoon in mid-winter just before the bell rang, several students approached me. “We don’t want to be offensive,” one of them said, “but such a strong odor is coming from Emily. Could you please do something about it?” I opened a couple windows in the room–even though it was freezing outside, lit a vanilla candle on my desk–and said loudly enough so that Emily could hear, so that she wouldn’t think I had opened the windows because of her, that it had become quite warm in the classroom. I wondered if, like Juliet, Emily felt alone. The students got used to Emily not engaging, and started to bond as a class without her. She did an average amount of work for class, but it was often rushed and messy. It was hard to tell, too, whether she enjoyed the descriptions of the outdoors when we read Ovid’s Four Ages in our mythology unit.
A typical day in a public high school is exhausting. You manage students’ emotions, which are constantly changing, and you try to get everyone to stay on task and work through the day’s lesson. You know that at any second an administrator could walk in and evaluate you. The lessons you’ve designed and the way you teach will be placed onto a corporatized rubric by the administrator, even though teaching is an art form. I know that everything I’ve planned will fall apart at some point. Some days involve trying to shift the group’s consciousness, creating the conditions behind the scenes so that students make discoveries on their own. I know that the best teaching is the kind you get no credit for, the kind where I plant a seed one day and the next and then four weeks later students begin to make connections, seemingly by themselves. For example, at the beginning of the year I mention the idea of disillusionment, when you think the world is one way but then something happens and you realize it’s not what you thought, not at all. And I continue to bring this up in tiny ways. And then when we read Romeo and Juliet months later, students discuss the disillusionment Juliet experiences–in her family, in love, with the Nurse and the Friar, because the seeds were planted and then they grew. I know that this style of teaching is unlike the archetype of the charismatic teacher like Mr. Sacks down the hall who just wants to lecture–he leaves his door open so everyone can hear him. He’ll win Teacher of the Year for being goofy. The students don’t yet realize that he’s making their learning experience about him–they just think he’s eccentric that he gives extra credit when they give his outfit a name, like Fire Engine when he wore a red suit. At the awards assembly, Mr. Sacks will say, in a piece of canned teacher inspiration, “I wanted to teach my students, but it was they, ultimately, who taught me.” But what do I know? Maybe I was just jealous of Mr. Sacks. It sure seemed that his students liked him more than mine liked me.
I was worried that I could not reach Emily. A teacher is told to use the tools in the teacher toolbox–another overused educator cliché–but I was distressed that I had not been successful. I became an English teacher to help students feel a bit less lonely in the world through the literature we read. Identifying with other characters who also were lonely, like Juliet, sometimes seemed to work. How odd it must seem that one’s isolation might dissipate when reading about someone else feeling lonely, but there it is. It happened to me when I read Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. Crooks, the stable hand, cries, “I tell ya a guy gets too lonely an’ he gets sick.” Our life experiences, of course, were completely different–Crooks is a poor, black man working on a ranch during the Depression in a fictional book. Yet I related to his feeling lonely–to the notion of loneliness as something deep and palpable, something that others experience–and at age fourteen, a metaphor was born. I never said so in class–what teenager will admit to feeling lonely? It’s just a private moment when something outside of you clicks with something inside of you. But who knows, and perhaps I’m just as selfish as Mr. Sacks, for imposing on my students what I think worked for me. I’m much older now and maybe I have it all wrong, but I still look to literature for help. “[T]he older a person gets, the lonelier he becomes,” Haruki Murakami writes in “A Walk to Kobe.” “What I mean is,” he continues, “in a sense our lives are nothing more than a series of stages to help us get used to loneliness.”
Towards the end of the year, the day we played the Psychologist or Psychiatrist game in class I wondered if Emily would become the wolf, for she hadn’t yet. In fact, I asked myself every day if this would be the day she shifted. Admittedly, having a wolf in your class gets you a certain amount of street cred among the faculty–even staff I had never spoken to before. One time, a football coach walked by my class during a passing period–I was standing at the door–seconds after Emily walked into the classroom. “Hey, how’s Teen Wolf doing these days?” he whispered, smiling, bumping his elbow into mine. Another time, I walked past the dean in the hallway on the way to the main office to check my mailbox. “Has you-know-who changed into you-know-what yet?” he asked me. “Uh, not yet,” I answered awkwardly. A few weeks later, I ran into her math teacher in the copy room. “It’s just so fucking weird,” he said, with genuine concern on his face.
I also got some cache in my personal life for having a wolf in my freshman English class. My father, an infectious disease doctor, was fascinated by Emily’s therianthropy. As a child, I was trained not to bother him during his busy work day. Even now I rarely contact him during business hours. The ability to text each other allowed this rule to bend a bit, and once in a while in the middle of the day I’d receive a message from him. “Anything new with the wolf?” he texted. “I’m in a meeting with curious doctors,” he texted another time. “What’s the name of the thing the wolf has? Atherian–something like this?” One time, I texted him late morning, sure he’d be swamped at the hospital. “I have a wolf story for you, Dad,” I wrote. “Call me tonight?” But he beat me to the punch. “Call me immediately,” he texted back a few minutes later. Teacher friends of mine who taught at different schools got a kick out of it, too. Mark, a friend who teaches English in Houston, called me once from a bar with his colleagues. It was happy hour, and he was a bit drunk. “Hey guys, can you believe this?” he said to them while I was on speakerphone, “this one has a wolf in her class.” Then he said loudly, “You’re a rock star–not one of the teachers here has ever heard of this kind of thing!”
It was difficult to imagine–impossible really, even to fathom–how difficult school must have been for Emily. The academics alone were burdensome, of course, but so was the very act of sitting still in different classrooms inside a large institution all day, just moving from one type of stillness to another. One morning, I arrived at school early to finish some grading. It was winter, and the sun was just coming up as I sat in my empty classroom. I love quiet mornings at school. Just dawn, the sun moves yellow and pink streaks across the vacant room. I feel less lonely, sometimes, when I’m alone. I looked at Emily’s desk near the window and thought about how wild and feral and alone she must feel in her classrooms, these tame and domesticated spaces, unable to run around, free and untethered. That school even existed at all contributed to her “major depressive disorder” diagnosis listed on her 504 plan. Parents sign off on these 504 plans, and when I asked about Emily’s parents at the meeting at the beginning of the year, the psychologist told me that he had met them once, and that they, too, weren’t sure how to reach Emily. They had started taking her to a dance therapist, the psychologist said, and were hopeful this might help her.
In English class, we had begun reading Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. It was late winter, the end of the third quarter. Snow filled the courtyard. The light in my classroom was sharp and white as the sun reflected off the soft snow. I’d watch Emily stare out the window, her eyes following the squirrels chasing each other up a tree, in circles and down again, the birds landing on the snow and taking off seconds later, the way the ice hung on branches as though about to break free. In Alexie’s book, the main character, Junior, is a fourteen-year-old who likes to draw. He’s a Native American living on a reservation with his family and decides to attend a white school off the reservation. One of the drawings has a line down his body, the words “Indian” on one side and “white” on the other, and he explores these different parts of his identity. As an assignment in class one day, I asked the students to think about the various aspects of their identity and to write them down or draw them. I could tell Emily liked this assignment. She grabbed a pencil from her red pencil bag and held it in a tight fist, sitting on her feet, squatting in her seat, more focused than I had ever seen her. Like Junior’s picture, she drew herself with a line down the middle. She wrote, “How others see me” on one side and “Who I am” on the other. Others saw her as “weird,” “dirty,” “a freak,” “bad student,” “smelly.” On the “Who I am” side of the paper, she drew a horse, dog, and a wolf. She wrote the words “witch,” “bad girl,” and “the real me.”
I told her I really liked her picture, that she was really good at drawing, and that it’s cool to get to know different parts of oneself, to develop an awareness and balance of how you see yourself and also how others see you, that this consciousness would serve her as she got older. “I don’t care,” she mumbled as she gave me a funny look and gathered her backpack at the end of the period. I regretted the lesson before she left the room. I was worried the assignment had somehow amplified her already feeling marginalized. Given her “major depressive disorder,” I felt I needed to report concerns. I stayed late, made copies of her drawing and filled out paperwork documenting everything that would be sent to the psychologist, social worker, and counselor. Given what she drew, I was worried, I explained. I had tried to provide an opportunity for her to get to know herself, and I feared I had made it worse by asking her students to highlight, as the character Junior had done in Alexie’s book, the differences in how we’re seen.
It turns out my instincts about Emily’s depression were right. The next week I received an email from her counselor saying that Emily was in the hospital. The email didn’t state why, but I had a gut instinct about it, and I felt terrible. Emily’s teachers were told to send homework to the school hospital liaison who would make sure Emily got it. Supposedly, the liaison told me, Emily had ninety minutes a day to do school work. She didn’t do any of it. I sent Emily some emails, too, said I missed her, that the class was asking about her, and that we all hoped she was OK and able to come back to school soon. She didn’t respond.
A month later, with only a few weeks before the end of the school year, Emily was back. She looked older and her hair was clean. She was still withdrawn and quiet, and when I asked her how she was, she said only, “Fine.” This was the day we played the game as a class, the day when Emily started saying “tree” repeatedly and I made the executive decision that Scott should be the tree.
A few days before the last day of school, it happened. We were playing the game again. This time, Maddie went into the hallway. Tom said she should be the Twix candy wrapper on the floor near the waste basket, but Wyatt said that was too hard. I looked at Emily, who was following a squirrel in the courtyard with her index finger. I tried to engage her. “Emily, do you have any ideas for what Maddie should be?” I asked her. “I don’t care,” she mumbled flatly, looking out the window, pointing at something else with her hand. It was spring. Grass had replaced the winter snow in the courtyard. Green buds and green leaves and thick twisty brown branches dotted the area. Soon, it would be summer, hot, and the students would be out of school. Jordan suggested we finish the game out in the courtyard. Emily jumped out of her seat and said something that sounded like, “Yayaya!” and I couldn’t say no. With ten minutes until the bell rang, I figured it might do everyone some good to get a little fresh air before the next period. Before we left the room (and without Maddie hearing), Maya suggested that Maddie be a blue rubber band on Maya’s arm, and the class agreed.
It was cool outside, warm in the sun, the grass soft and fresh, the earth spongy underneath us. It was the kind of day we had read about early in the year, when we read Ovid’s Four Ages during our mythology unit:
Spring was forever, with a west wind blowing
Softly across the flowers no man had planted,
And earth, unplowed, brought forth rich grain; the field
Unfallowed, whitened with wheat, and there were rivers
Of milk, and rivers of honey, and golden nectar
Dripped from the dark-green oak trees.
We sat in a circle under a large oak tree while Maddie had five minutes to guess who she was. While the students played the game, I noticed Emily hadn’t joined the circle, but was off in a corner of the courtyard. She was sitting in a beam of sunlight like a cat. Maddie was getting frustrated that she wasn’t guessing what she was–though she had figured out she was a “what” and not a “who.” Maya offered a hint, snapping the blue rubber band on her arm. They had bonded well as a class. A couple students gave Maddie tips and eventually she figured out she was the blue rubber band. It was only a game, but it was also part of the tapestry of being a teenager. The students were, unbeknownst to them, playfully imagining themselves as different people or objects, trying on different identities, figuring out who they were. The next day, Maya would pin the rubber band to the bulletin board and the class would smile when they saw it because they knew that to anyone who wasn’t there, it was just a rubber band. To them, it represented playfulness and sitting outside and the end of a school year and the unspoken ways a class gets close. These kinds of things just happen sometimes when you teach. Something stupid like a rubber band becomes a metaphor, becomes its own universe, an inside joke they’d all forget by next year. I still didn’t know if the game was called Psychologist or Psychiatrist, but it didn’t matter.
Besides, I was much more interested in watching Emily, who now was lying on her stomach. She moved into a cobra pose, leaned up on her arms, and lifted her head towards the sun, squinting her eyes towards the warmth. She got up on all fours, stretched wide, and began shaking her head the way a dog does when he’s become wet, or is trying to shake something off of himself. Then the shaking moved down her body, whip-fast and feverish but also kind of slow-motion, too. She had gone inside herself to find herself, and it was beautiful and otherworldly and sacred and private. I felt bad for watching. For some reason she reminded me of a peacock, spreading her feathers wide in a surge of confidence–a brilliant fan of turquoise and orange and red and yellow and green and pink. When the bell rang, everyone got up, grabbed their backpacks, and went inside to their next class. Only Emily and I stayed back, neither one of us wanting to go back into school.
*Name and details have been changed.
Liz Rose Shulman’s work has appeared in Litbreak Magazine, Los Angeles Review, Mondoweiss, Punctuate: A Nonfiction Magazine, the Smart Set, and Tablet Magazine, among others. She teaches English at Evanston Township High School and in the School of Education and Social Policy at Northwestern University. She lives in Chicago.
Kathleen Frank has a BA in Design from San Jose State University, a master of art degree from Penn State, and has studied woodcarving and printing. In Pennsylvania, she taught printmaking and costume design and she co-founded the Printmakers Studio Workshop of Central Pennsylvania. Frank’s work has been published in Southwest Art, Western Art Collector and the Santa Fe Travel Insider, and exhibited at Jane Hamilton Fine Art, Desert Caballeros Western Museum and the Susquehanna Art Museum.