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Restored Innocence


I just looked it up. White lilies signify “restored innocence after death.”

If only it were that simple.

I’ll give you a trigger warning right now: this is not a pretty post. It is not a gardening post. I’m writing it for myself, really. There are violence and death, and way too much sorrow. Proceed at your own risk.

It was the last class on the last day before our last exam. As I began my lecture I noticed a buzz in the classroom and in a second a student was standing right in front of me saying, Something’s going on that you need to know about.

Just a few minutes prior, while I’d been playing solitaire in my office and my 2:00 students were walking toward class, just a few hundred yards from the place where we now stood, a random act of horrific violence had left one student dead and several injured. Of course too many of them had seen it.

They rushed to tell us what they had witnessed, more shocked than terrified, their accounts very matter-of-fact. (The feelings would come later.) I looked to my TA as if he might have an answer.

If you want to leave, I told them all, leave. We aren’t covering much today and we will get you the material for the test. 

No one left.

One student said, we should text home to let people know we’re okay. A flurry of texting ensued. We kept waiting for a text from the university warning system, but that would be very slow in coming.

We managed a brief review, my head splitting with the stupidity of it and at my feeble efforts to keep things feeling “normal.”

It is a terrible thing to live in our world and have no clue as to the meanings of a violent episode. Was it an act of racism, homophobia, relationship jealousy? Were we in danger? I, having spent over a year visualizing an armed shooter charging into our classroom, never took my eyes off the classroom doors. Did I imagine myself ready? (Will you believe me when I tell you that in news stories over the following days I would read that our stellar legislature was discussing legalizing knives? Because more weapons are always the answer? Never mind: I don’t want to believe it myself.)

In what can only be called circumstances of malicious irony, it happened that there was another stabbing at this same time across campus. Unrelated, though we could not know that then. There was also a rather vocal protest going on, a la 1968, with students marching and chanting for a cause I never quite apprehended.

The center was absolutely not holding.

As I walked to my parking garage there was that leaden silence I have experienced several times on this campus of over 50,000 students. I was relieved that a massive construction site blocked my vision, or else I could not have resisted looking to my left to the place where a first-year student had been murdered not an hour before.

I can tell you this: I drove up to my office, saw three patients, and managed to hear them somehow. We do what must be done.

Then I climbed into my car and sobbed all the way home.

I want our schools to be safe places, where the worst things that happen are flat bike tires and disobedient students who refuse to dismount in the dismount zones. Gum on the pavement. The same tired excuses for work not handed in.

I hate it when that safe space is violated, as it is far too frequently.

Over the next 24 hours I received many text messages from students describing what they had seen, heard, done during that unthinkable episode. I’ll spare you, but trust me when I say their accounts were shattering.

I refuse to spare my fellow faculty members who too often failed completely in their role as mature caring adults in charge of young people. According to my students, most of their teachers said not one word about the event. One student reported walking past the death scene to take an exam along with her shaken classmates. Midway through the test the teacher announced, Update. The guy died. Back to work.

I could go on, I’m afraid; perhaps it will suffice to say we could have done much better.

Some people did in fact do better. A student told me that one of her professors was holding the young man as he lay dying, and a student standing close by dialed the young man’s mother at his request. He would not live long enough to speak with her.

My TAs and I decided that the least we could do would be to allow our students to use their notes for our last exam. (A comment from one instructor upon hearing we were doing this: What? Why? And ours is a department of educational psychology.) Realizing that many of them had rushed to their apartments, locked the doors, and pulled down the blinds, it seemed a little over the top to expect them to memorize course material.

Then we did this: when our three classes filed in on our last day, I told them that this would be a collaborative exam. Not only could they use their notes, they were expected to help each other with the answers. All day long our classroom buzzed with energy and excitement, and people going back and forth to consult with other groups. All day I heard narratives of the event and watched eyes brim with tears.

It was a small enough gesture to restore some sense of their beloved community (and yes, if you have ever been to our school you know it is a beloved community). So many of our students are graduating; for many this would be their last exam in college. I just couldn’t let them leave without an hour of sheer collaboration. Welcome to the exam of your dreams, I told them.

I’ve always said that college is only about 20% what you learn in the classroom. Just as most of therapy happens far from your therapist’s office, most of college happens in dorm rooms and apartments and cars and nightclubs and on cell phones and in huge stadiums. We really didn’t need to be reminded that life runs the full gamut from infuriating to priceless, and that it can be radically changed in a nanosecond; but we were, and we got it.

The students came together by the hundreds and thousands, in informal and formal memorial ceremonies, and I have to believe these were helpful.

Travis came to school with me on that last day, and that helped too.

Lilies may symbolize innocence, but nothing symbolizes comfort like a snuggle with a perfect dog.

Many, many hugs were given. Travis is very good with hugs.

Bon voyage, Class of 2017. Remember all the things about your college life, but especially remember that it was a place where people from everywhere in this world worked together with energy and excitement – and all it took was the slightest suggestion. Make it a collaborative exam.

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