He was an eager student who started waiting outside my office every afternoon. Sometimes he hung around for hours, talking to anyone who’d listen. Eventually, you couldn’t warm up your coffee without getting the latest updates on his epic personal struggles.
He usually talked about how much he hated his family, and how betrayed he felt by them. When he was done, he apologized for wasting your time. That would eat up another ten minutes of your day.
You wanted to say something, but you had no idea what. You were so busy with your own problems…
Maybe if someone had listened to him, it would’ve made a difference. Then again, he had a way of latching onto you. The more you gave, the more he wanted. It felt eerie.
We tried our best to make him feel at home.
He was a doughnut person.
Even when he was quiet, my student had an unending restless energy that made it impossible for him to sit still for five minutes.
If he wasn’t barraging you with small talk, he was asking if you needed anything. Could he photocopy something for you? Could he organize your shelves? Could he grab lunch for you?
It was too late before we saw what was really going on. The guy couldn’t stand to be alone with his thoughts. He was desperate to make himself useful somehow. His life lacked meaning and purpose, and he was trying to fill it the only way he knew how. He wanted connection. He wanted somewhere to fit. He wanted somewhere to be.
In short, he was a doughnut person.
One big hole in the center.
He was overenthusiastic in the classroom.
Anyone who’s ever taken a college class knows that guy. He’s the one who wants to be the best student, but never quite understands the material. He starts everything with tons of energy, but never truly listens to anything he doesn’t want to hear.
He stays after class every single day.
He has so many questions. He loves his teachers and treats them with stupefying amounts of respect, as long as he can impress them with his intelligence and dedication.
If he can’t, then they quickly become a problem. See, the point of education is to confirm what he already knows about the world.
His favorite professors respect his views.
They don’t try to change him.
He had problems with authority.
Sometimes, he would ask me to arbitrate grade disputes with other professors. For example, one semester he got an C- on a paper he thought was brilliant. It really wasn’t. At the same time, you could tell how many hours he’d spent working on the thing.
“Would you critique it?” he pleaded.
Our chat turned into a long, complicated conversation about how to meet different people’s expectations even if they sounded unreasonable, a point which he grudgingly accepted after thirty minutes of me tap-dancing around his fragile ego. Something like this happened every week, and it quickly became an exhausting chore.
He briefly had a job on campus, but lost it because he couldn’t get along with his boss or his coworkers.
“They were just a bunch of idiots,” he said.
He had deep anger issues.
My student had served in the military. He rarely talked about what he did, but it clearly left him scarred.
After a couple of months, people started noticing the trigger on his temper. He blew up at other students for interrupting him or breaking his concentration. Word got around, and people started dropping classes just to get away from him. He made one girl cry for talking too loud.
“That guy scares me,” she said.
At some point, he started friending every single person he knew on Facebook. That’s when we got a full view of his life. We saw his love for guns, his love for John Wick, and his love for Trump.
Guns. Trump. Wick.
We tried not to jump to conclusions about his character. It was getting harder and harder to actually teach him, though. We couldn’t give him any real advice or feedback, because he would either blow up or act deeply hurt for a week. You never knew which one you were going to get.
Still, he was incredibly polite.
He had trouble dealing with women.
That year, we hired two office aids. They were popular and attractive. My student noticed them on their first day, and started spending even more time around the offices than usual.
He asked them where they lived, and suggested he start escorting them to their dorms after work. “Campus is really dangerous,” he insisted. “No offense, but you look like you could use protection.”
When the girls said no, he got angry and complained to our department chair. He wanted them to be more polite toward him in the future.
He also wanted them to “open up” more.
We explained that you can’t force women to be polite or share personal details about their lives if they don’t want to. He nodded, but you could tell he didn’t like what he was hearing. A few weeks later, he popped his head into my office and said, “I just wanted to let you know, you’re a very special person to me.” He paused. “I’m sorry. That sounded unprofessional.”
That’s when I started closing my door.
He started stalking other students.
In the spring, my student started posting photos of a girl he claimed to be his girlfriend. We were all relieved at first. Now that he had someone else in his life, he would give us a little peace and quiet.
He called her his soulmate.
The posts looked harmless on the surface, just selfies and group photos with captions talking about how beautiful and kind she was.
He never posted any couple photos.
Nobody seemed to notice.
It wasn’t until the police showed up looking for him that we found out the truth. My student had built quite a reputation around campus. Students avoided him on sight. The girl on his social media had actually filed restraining orders against him. He had attacked some of her friends and family, and now he was getting expelled.
After that, my student’s online feeds quickly returned to their normal loop. Guns. Wick. Trump. Bible verses. Except now there were desperate pleas to his imaginary fiance mixed in, interspersed with threats of violence to anyone who got in the way of their “timeless love.”
He was allowed back on campus.
None of us felt safe anymore. My student was making constant threats against the university. We reported them all.
The police did nothing.
He had the right to say and do whatever he wanted. He could post photos of guns and make vague plans to return, as long as he actually didn’t get too specific. He was allowed to terrorize us, and there was nothing we could do to stop him. In fact, we were warned against saying or doing anything that might provoke him further. After a month, they allowed him back on campus for the last two weeks of the semester. They said he still had rights as a student, and we had to allow him to finish his classes.
Talk about an easy A.
Nobody was going to risk their safety to give him a fair grade.
So he sat in our classrooms, reprising the role of eager and attentive student. We had to act like we knew nothing was going on. The head of academic affairs told me more than once, “Treat him like everyone else.” He wouldn’t even say if I should unfriend him. So I didn’t.
I was scared he would notice.
He finally disappeared.
My student kept harassing people until he got expelled again, this time for good. He didn’t go quietly.
He kept stalking young college girls.
At some point he got several of our phone numbers and started calling us, asking if there was anything we could do to help him. Each time, we had to walk the fine line between coddling his ego and telling him, no, everything was completely out of our hands now.
Finally, the phone calls stopped. The Facebook page disappeared. A few months later we heard he’d finally had some kind of awakening and admitted himself to a mental health clinic.
That was the last I ever heard about him.
He gave us all a crash course on Trumpism.
This is what Trumpism looks like up close.
You can say it’s about white supremacy and fascism. For a lot of his radical supporters, it certainly is.
But that’s just half of it.
The other half is what you just read. At their core, the kind of people who stormed the capitol are lost souls. Nobody can save them once they give themselves completely to violence, but demonizing them isn’t helping us deal with the problem either.
Angry ideologies fill up doughnut people.
America is full of sad, lost people like my student. They can’t find any purpose or meaning in their life anymore.
They try and fail.
Each time, it gets worse.
Finally, some cult leader or corrupt politician finds them. They see that hole. Instead of filling it with something good, they pack it with hate and conspiracies. They breed entitlement.
Doughnut people come from broken homes. They come back from military service to an alien world that can’t understand them. They fall into traps run by con artists who promise to help, but really just nurture their worst impulses while manipulating them for personal gain. You wind up with someone who can only speak through violence.
A question without an answer.
It’s almost impossible to reach someone once they turn into a violent zealot for a political cause. Most of us know we can’t appease or reason with someone once they’re that lost. The only thing less effective is screaming “evil fascist!” in their face over and over.
Neither approach seems to work. The first one excuses their actions. The second one only dehumanizes them, which I suspect is something we should avoid doing to anyone.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned from being a teacher, it’s that sometimes a good question is worth more than the right answer.
So, my question is this:
How do you help the doughnut people, before it’s too late?