Saturday, April 21, 2007

Our tragedies and others'

I was going to comment at Phantom's on her quite poignant post, but decided what I had to say was too long for the comment box. I have avoided really thinking about what happened at Virginia Tech on Monday. I was so busy on Monday itself in fact that I didn't even know what had happened until I was driving home and heard the story on NPR. I was sitting at a stop light and gasped and put my hand over my mouth. I had to concentrate on the drive home, however, and so it didn't sink in. I talked about it with colleagues at meetings and in the hallways and over dinner. But I didn't really think about it. I analyzed it as an academic. I thought about the whys. I tried not to think about the people, about the real human loss.

In 2000 at my grad school, in the office next to mine, a graduate student locked himself into the office with his former adviser. They argued. The professor, I imagine, tried to fight him off. Then the student shot the professor and himself. I had left the building not five minutes earlier. My current adviser was the one who called 911. I heard his voice, articulate through his panic and fear what he could ascertain about the situation and ask for help, play over and over in a loop on the news. The next day, at 8 a.m., I had to teach. I ran into the former director of the composition program in the mailroom as I gathered copies of my syllabus for the first day of class. I felt numb. The director, a man who should have been long retired, shook his head and in a shaky voice and obviously holding back tears, noted what a sad day it was. That broke my heart. Later, I stood in front of the class, feeling sad. These were freshman. They, too, were somewhat stunned. We spoke briefly about the shooting and then moved on to discussing the class itself, albeit in a kind of fog.

We had a new chair. I was the new Grad Student Association president. Together, we were supposed to be planning a welcome back pizza party, an event designed to bring the faculty and grad students closer together. Instead, we were planning meetings to talk about the shooting, to arrange counseling sessions, to plan memorial services. At one of those meetings, a particularly insensitive dean said that he'd just met with the faculty, "who were now afraid of us," at once dismissing our own fears (we could have easily been targets) and claiming we were all unstable and capable of killing. That is all I remember about the meeting.

I did not know the murdered professor very well. His area was not one I'd studied in, but being next door to his office, I'd often said hello as I passed. Many of my close friends were students of his. I'm thinking about them this week and wondering if the wounds have been opened again.

I've been trying to think about why I cannot take the tragedy at Virginia Tech in. Is it too close to home? Too far away? Am I too scarred over by hearing over and over on the tv, on the radio about soldiers being killed, about Iraqis being blown up? Am I afraid to think about it because it opens the wounds of my own losses--my sister, my mother-in-law? Does grief bring us closer or isolate us? I do think we tend to reach out to people and try to make sense of these events collectively, but it saddens me that even in tragedy, we can end up fighting each other. We fight over gun control, over causes, over our views of the world. And for me, that makes the grief even more bitter. I have essentially already unplugged. I haven't watched the news. I've listened to NPR's interviews of survivors and have pieced together an image of what happened, but I can't look at that image too closely. I have to look away. To some, I know, my reactions to these things seem callous, but it's self preservation in many ways. If I think about it too much, I lose faith and I can't go on. I have no answers. No way to sum this up neatly. So I'll just end here and let others continue the conversation.