It looks like I may have another Sheldon Cooper on my hands.
For the uninitiated, Sheldon Cooper is a character on The Big Bang Theory, a television show folks seem to either love or hate. He’s a physicist best known for being extremely intelligent and only too happy to share that fact with anyone close enough to hear. It’s not that Sheldon is cruel, exactly. He just has issues with being tactful. That’s what I’ll go with, anyway, though it’s actually much more complicated than that.
On screen, viewed from a distance, encounters with Sheldon are usually funny. In real life, and in my case, in a classroom setting, they’re only funny in retrospect.
Around 2008, I had two students I came to call, collectively, The Sheldonati. Not only were both young men in the same class–my 7:00 am Lit/Comp session, if I recall correctly–but they both sat together, on the front row. They arrived early every morning, by the way. And they kept me on my toes.
“That’s the worst paper I’ve ever read in my life,” the first one, a gentleman I’ll call, let’s say, Sheldon, proclaimed during a peer-review session. “And I’ve read lots of papers.”
“If someone’s a bad writer,” said the other one, a fellow I’ll also call Sheldon, during a subsequent discussion about deciding what to share and what to keep bottled up inside, “I’m doing that person a favor. Why would people want to come to college if they’d be better off sweeping floors?”
At that point, it would have been useful to be able to point to the Sheldonati’s own writings and use them as evidence that no one’s perfect. Unfortunately, as you might have already guessed, the Sheldonati were excellent writers. Superb, really. Too bad, that.
Back to my toes, though. On top of the peer-review shenanigans, one of the students had an encyclopedic knowledge of Greek mythology. In fact, he probably could have lectured Bullfinch on a thing or two. This impressive knowledge, along with my unfortunate choice to teach The Odyssey that semester, left me constantly second-guessing my own recollections.
That semester turned out fine, actually, as most do. Since then I’ve had many vocal students. I welcome them, too, mostly because they give me a chance to shut up for a bit, drink my coffee, and listen.
Occasionally, though, a student still comes along who says pretty much anything that occurs to him, without regard for social conventions, propriety, or even plain courtesy. No filters, hesitation, or even brakes. Just stand and shoot.
Recently, for instance, during a break, one of my Japanese students asked if I’d ever been to a Shinto temple while I was stationed in Japan.
On her way out the door, another student, one I’ve decided to call Sheldon, asks “What’s Shinto?” (Okay, the actual Sheldon would have probably known what Shinto was. The actual fictional character, that is.)
The Japanese student explained it was one of the two dominant religions in Japan, along with Buddhism.
Sheldon says, “Well, that’s stupid. Why would someone do that?”
“Do what?” I asked, feeling a panic creeping up my torso.
“Have a religion like that?” she replied. “I’ve never even heard of it.”
What to do in a situation like this? If I had any inkling that Sheldon was being intentionally cruel or rude, I’d definitely call her on it. But I don’t think that’s the case. I’m no mindreader, but I am a decent judge of people, and I can usually tell when someone’s saying something out of meanness and when she’s doing it because she doesn’t know better or even, occasionally, when she can’t help herself.
Upbraiding Sheldon in front of the class doesn’t seem like the way to go. It’s possible she wouldn’t think even twice about it, but that’s still not a risk I’m willing to take. For one thing, it’s rude, and for another, this person may have actual issues. Sure, I have students from time to time who just haven’t had enough regular interaction with people outside their comfort zones to be able to navigate social situations without coming off as a jerk, but there are also times when I suspect there’s more going on. While it’s not my job to diagnose bona fide disabilities, it is my job to maintain peace with minimal damage.
Alternately, I could take every other student aside, separately, and explain to them that Sheldon has issues and that she’s probably going to say mean things to them but that they should brace themselves, buck up, and take one for the team. But that’s not appropriate, either.
And now, the situation is even more tricky. It’s bad enough when one of your fellow citizens embarrasses you, but this poor Japanese woman is now probably considering abandoning her U.S. education and heading back east, away from the mean Americans. What am I to do? How can I intercede and preserve Japanese-American relations?
I’ll do what I always do. I’ll talk to Sheldon privately and attempt to communicate precisely why what she said was inappropriate. But first, and most importantly, I’ll meet with the recipient of Sheldon’s critique and try to impart to her why she shouldn’t take it personally.
Either way, it’s tough, and it’s a part of my job I know I’ll never master.