The classroom was buzzing with nervous first-day chatter when the pony-tailed and bearded 61-year-old professor walked in.
That's when the room fell into a "chilling" silence, Millikin University freshman Alex Arocha recalled Monday afternoon after Professor James St. James taught his first class since he was unmasked this summer as a teenage killer.
"He wrote his name on the board and said, ‘You probably all know the name unless you've spent the summer in Africa,' or something like that," said Arocha, 18, of Downstate Harristown.
"He giggled a little bit — it was like a joke," she added.
But after the awkward start, the 50-minute class — Introduction to Psychology — was soon in full swing. And as the Decatur college campus sprang back to life Monday, St. James, his students and colleagues seemed to be taking the shocking revelations about St. James' past in stride, the Chicago Sun-Times reports.
Revealed earlier this summer to have changed his name after he gunned down his mother, father and sister in his Texas hometown as a 15-year-old boy in 1967, St. James has received the backing of the Millikin community at every step.
Though Decatur's mayor called for his ouster, the university leadership stood by the professor, praising him for building a successful life and career in the four and a half decades since he was cleared of the murders on grounds of insanity.
Freshman Frank Jones, 18, of Memphis, Tenn., admitted he was "creeped out at first" when he learned of St. James' past, but added, "What happened was a long time ago. . . . It's none of my business."
Fellow freshman Brianna Patton, 18, of Garfield Park, said that after the story about St. James' past broke, her mom considered banning her from coming to Millikin, telling her, "What the hell is going on here that they are allowing him to continue to teach?"
But Patton said she thought St. James' background made his class "even more interesting."
"I'd love to pick his brain!" she said.
St. James declined once again on Monday to discuss his past, as he has since it was uncovered.
But Arocha said she thought he handled his first day back in the classroom with grace and poise.
There was one moment that will likely linger in the memory, though, she said.
When the professor "started talking about psychotic psychology, everyone kind of looked at each other," she said, raising her eyebrows.