Thoughts by Richard Bleil
And then the phone rang.
The year was 1981. I was in my first year of college, and to give some perspective, I was a geeky awkward kid with no real friends. Back then, the technology was not quite up to today’s standards. This was before cell phones, the internet existed but not the web, and almost nobody had home computers. The only phones were all attached to walls, like the one in my dorm room. Back then, in fact, having a room at all was the height of luxury.
As per usual, my roommate was out one night being his usual obnoxious self. He was an interesting character, actually. All of our female classmates loved him, until they went out with him once and realized he wasn’t just trying to be funny. He actually was a monster. So, I was sitting there along, doing my homework, and then the phone rang.
“Hi,” she said. “Hi,” I answered. She asked me if she knows who she is. She sounded much like a young woman I had met and, frankly, I was hoping it was her because I did find her very attractive, but, no, she said she wasn’t her. As it turns out, she was not one of the students at the university, and no, I didn’t know her.
She knew the exchange for all campus phone numbers. She, as it turns out, called the campus phones until she found somebody willing to talk. If a female answered she would just hang up, and if it was a man but he isn’t willing to talk, she dials another number. I was willing to talk. And we did. For a couple of hours. And, no, it wasn’t sexual or romantic at all, and no, I never met her in person. She wasn’t looking for a date; she was looking for a conversation.
Some people are just plain lonely. She needed an ear, and I was that ear. I had that same room for the four years I was there (and, yes, that’s an exceptionally nerdy thing to do), and for four years she would call me every couple of weeks for another marathon conversation. I never even knew her name. But was she the lonely one? After all, I routinely spoke to this stranger for hours on end and frequently.
Over the years, I’ve had many troubled students, troubled for many different reasons. Sometimes they have relationship problems, drug problems, family problems, heck, I’ve even had a student with a legitimate dyed in the wool kleptomaniac roommate problem, and one with a brain injury problem. When I have a student with problems, one that wants to share with me, I see it as part of my job to be there for them.
I’ve been warned not to do this from so many people for many years and for good reasons. I get it; I really do. I am not a certified or even trained therapist. If anything goes wrong, I understand that this could lead to lawsuits and all kinds of complications, but in my opinion, if a student has a personal problem then it will impact their studying and ability to learn. It might not be the wisest move, but I feel like it’s the most humane. I know when a student needs something beyond what I can offer.
I had a suicidal student once confide in me. I spoke with the student for quite some time and tried to convince the student that they needed to go see a professional counselor. This is a huge step, and for somebody who has never been to a therapist it’s a very difficult thing to do. But you also don’t want to push too hard. The difficult part is that I had no idea what this student’s support system. If I am the only person this student felt comfortable speaking with then I certainly don’t want to harm that relationship. What we did decide is that I would accompany the student to their first therapy session just to get started. Once the student was comfortable that everything was okay, I left so they could proceed.
Trust is not something that can be given. It must be earned. I learned this through many years of therapy. For me, it was a process. We would have relatively meaningless sessions, until eventually, something would come out that was from my “danger” zone. Then, back to safe zones for another few weeks, almost as if I was waiting to see what she would do with that nugget, and when I realized it would be okay, another nugget would come out. I was learning to trust her. So how can I play it safe? If I have students that need me, I don’t know what their support network looks like. I may not have the training they need, but I can be a decent human being. I can listen and help them find the resources they need. Is this really such a bad thing?