I hated him. I didn't plan on it. In fact, I wanted to like S. I wanted him to like me. Before teaching my first college journalism class at a private university in Virginia, I expected to forge friendships with all my students. I'd be that young cool professor, approachable and informal. I'd have my students call me Eric. We'd laugh and hang out. And they'd love my class.
Then the first day of the semester arrived, and there it was -- this invisible line I wasn't sure how to cross. The students were on one side of it. And I was on the other. I tried to chat with a few of them, but it felt forced and awkward. I had this unnerving feeling that I was a stand-up comedian hoping to win their applause. In the corner, S. looked as if he was about to fall asleep.
Each week, I would try new things to engage the students and make the class fun. I created mock news conferences. I took them on a walking tour and had them write about it on deadline. But S. rolled his eyes with each new project. One day I asked the class to write about an important person in their lives, an assignment designed to hone their use of details. S. let out a sigh that echoed across the room.
He became my nemesis. The night before class, I'd lie in bed thinking about how I had to endure him the next day. I could see his moppish hair dangling over his eyes, his slouch, his bored look. I dreaded him. Yet somehow I still thought I'd win him over. Instead, as the weeks rolled by, things got worse. S.'s disdain for the class and for me grew more open. He was a virus, and he was con-taminating everyone around him! A lesson would be flowing, the students enthusiastic, and S. would bring it to a halt with his downer vibes.
One day in class, I met with the students individually to talk about their projects. The others waited for their turn. But S. grew impatient and started to walk out before I caught him and asked him to sit. He did so reluctantly. His e-mails to me began to get ruder.
Finally, I'd had enough. I called him to my office and told him I wanted him out of the class. I had no other choice. He was infecting the other students with his derision, I explained. Surprisingly, he seemed to understand. He didn't argue or get belligerent. Instead, he nodded and left.
After he dropped the course, I felt terrible. And terrific. I wasn't making friends with my students, I was giving them the boot! Yet I knew this had been the right thing to do. S. had forced me to take back control of my class. And in the process, he'd taught me something valuable: Sometimes, you need to be tough to be a good teacher. My fantasies about college teaching had been naive. My students and I weren't going to be buddies. But I could create and maintain an environment where they could learn.
I ran into S. months later on campus. I looked up and saw him heading my way. I wasn't sure what he'd say or do. Would he swear at me? Would he give me the finger? Instead as we got closer, he smiled. He was pleasant and asked how I was. We didn't talk about the class. Instead he just shook my hand. It was the nicest he'd ever been to me.
Eric Wee is a journalism fellow at Georgetown University and founder of Journalismnext.com, a job Web site for minorities in the media industry.