Reflections on campus violence given recent events (essay)
“ … yet he can kill
As Cain could, but with multitudinous will,
No farther advanced than in his ancient furies . ..”
--Richard Eberhart, “The Fury of Aerial Bombardment”
I had not taught “The Fury of Aerial Bombardment” for a while, but an inner yearning to do so struck recently. I explored the text with mainly transient students in a community college summer writing class. When I teach such a poem, I re-explore it through the eyes and ears of students. Works of verbal art sometimes can say – or ask – what we cannot articulate. This poem consists of four stanzas and some of the perennial questions we ask ourselves about violence; it is a gunnery teacher’s lament upon the loss of two more students during World War II.
Violence is a topic I move toward and then shy away from; that is not uncommon. Driving home recently, I was behind a car with a red heart commemorating the resilience of those who survived a deadly shooting at a high school in Chardon, Ohio. The date was five months in the past, in the slow motion, fast-forward time that is marked by trauma.
I have read that the amygdala within the brain runs “red alert” when trauma occurs; recollections are etched deeply. The brain is also plastic and can learn and can adapt. But that does not mean forget.
A contact of mine likes to say when I share my heartache of violence occurring near campus or by someone connected with a school: “it’s far more dangerous on the outside. Schools are among the safest places to be.” And she cites statistics. But given that violence has encroached upon what seemed like safe havens before, I am not reassured by her comment.
And ever since my first inkling of violence on campus – the actions of the University of Texas sniper when I was close to 10 years old – I have been unable to gain much comfort in answering the “why” of willful destructiveness. People strive to pinpoint motives (rejection? hurt feelings? revenge? delusions?) but the drive to “punish” those remotely connected with some wrong – real or imagined – doesn’t pass my logic test. It’s a disconnect from fairness; we are connected as human beings, sharing both strengths and vulnerabilities.
I wonder about circumventing violence while maintaining vigilance. Is there some way that self-help groups, if not the Internet itself, can provide community support for those at risk of straying? Can colleges do more to frankly discuss the perils of violence without creating a culture of paranoia? Must we settle for what we hear so often:“There’s nothing we can do ... a violent person will be violent, if she or he really wants to be”?
A friend who used to work in college human resources squeezed in a few minutes to eat lunch with me some years ago. She was always swamped, and we were discussing training she received on the job. To my surprise, she said that workplace violence was a hot topic for those in her field. That was before Virginia Tech’s tragedy and several local incidents. I did not say much, but I was thinking: “It’s one thing for a disgruntled employee to strike out in a mind-numbing setting in a remote location. But on campus…with all this brain power and insight around? For sure, we’ve got better self-control than that.” This woman was a mind-reader and said to my unspoken exclamation: “You would be surprised what can happen here when someone is let go.”
Intelligence is no deterrent to impulsive action, or immoral action, as history and circumstances have proven time and time again. None of us should be complacent: not with ourselves, not with others.
Pervasiveness of Violence
“Today I bought a gun” read the student’s journal entry in pale pencil, and before I panicked I read on. He was among the most well-mannered students in my classroom—an attentive listener and always prepared. Continuing to read, I learned that there had been many break-ins and burglaries in his apartment of late. He wrote that he knew that there were situations in which he could be found culpable if he defended himself, but he decided to take that risk rather than being caught without a means of self-protection.
Reading that was a eureka. And safety I took for granted in my own apartment was not necessarily the norm a few miles away. As it turned out, not long after, a murder occurred right across the street from where I lived.
Another eureka occurred when a student disclosed to me that she had been raped at another college; she pressed charges and left that school. She submitted a paper on the topic of personal change and wanted to let me know that she was purposely vague in one section. “That’s fine,” I said. “Write within your own comfort zone.” And then she told me some of her omissions. I was in awe of her courage to talk and to persevere in college. I try to learn about what colleges can do to prevent such violence. There are many stories of anguish that push my view of human nature to the edge. And I was full of anger at what had happened, as she described it. Strong emotion is not an end in itself. It can spur me – us – into constructive action.
“What is your view of human nature?” One night we formed discussion groups to tackle that tough question, posed by the professor.in a counseling theories class I was taking “How does he expect us to answer what even theologians and philosophers grapple over?” Then, he explained that our view could influence our stance as future clinicians. One classmate in my group of four viewed humans as “basically good,” and two tilted in a sunnier direction, too. I spoke hesitantly. My early exposure to a different social classes and the traumas of immigrants from all over the world – many of whom fled to the U.S. to create a new life – made my childhood populated with historical demons. I invoked the power of “free will” – even as I know the range of personal choice narrows rapidly in a totalitarian regime.
There would be no consensus in our group, and luckily there did not have to be.
One fall, a student of mine threw a fit when his paper marked “D” was returned -- and some students lingered in the room, instinctively. I took that as genuine concern for him and me, which I appreciated. Yet, I shook inwardly for days, divided on the decision to fold in a dean. I could have, but I did not. I recall the student’s attempt at making amends soon after, running up to me in the parking lot, as my armload of research papers and books was about to fall. I could live my life afraid of him -- or not. I learned at his funeral a few months later – an accident took him and a friend of his -- that he was thought to be hotheaded. Unlike some students who emote and then back down, he seemed to work himself up further. I had never seen that in a classroom before.
Another time, I was more afraid, perhaps remembering that experience subconsciously. A student had body language and a way of talking that might be a matter of survival in a brutal environment but seemed out of sync in our small seminar. Graded projects were soon to be returned, and his work was subpar for the group..I told a colleague I wondered about his possible reaction. I did not expect her to do more than listen, but she showed up at the remote place where the class was being held. I felt less alone. We rarely want to express vulnerability and reach out to colleagues, even when our intuition may signal something is awry. The student did not react angrily, but I did not regret that I folded in one person I trusted.
“Who did you want to kick?” I asked one of my sisters, upon learning that she had recently broken a toe. She began a story about someone behaving in a way that was maybe kick-worthy, at least metaphorically. In our family, we internalize. Make us mad enough, and we might just get the flu. Make us really mad, and we’ll fall down the stairs. We are not saintly; we eschew confrontation.
There are so many other options beyond fight and flight – and I am not thinking of overeat, get drunk, or indulge in some other escape mechanism. There are creative alternatives, but fear or anger shuts them down. Could the topic of hostility – its diffusion and expression – be more widely taught? I wonder, with an eye toward our personal and cultural patterns.
Summits on violence are a good idea, but it’s important that ideas don’t just cluster at the top of the summit. Our students need and deserve information that can help and protect them, too.
Trauma and Its Aftermath
In the ache of the news coverage following a local tragedy, the refrain “This is not who we are …” permeated many comments. And the “we” that epitomized the best of human potential – selflessness, altruism, personal initiative – is what many of us would prefer to consider our traits. I did not shout at the TV, though I sent the same kind of telepathic message I did with my friend in H.R.: “Maybe ‘this’ is not who you are – a group marred by a terrible tragedy -- but violence has changed victim and perpetrator.” No one can return to the world before. And some may ultimately push for change in public policy or create remarkably creative legacies in an effort to circumvent similar tragedies in the future.
In May 1970 I was jolted by a news report about the deaths of students at Kent State University. One of my sisters was a student there; her fiance was in ROTC. In my mind flew black-and-white news reels of violence at faraway universities in countries wracked by violence, perhaps protesting oppressive political regimes. “Is this what happens when one goes to college?” I thought with my eighth-grade brain.
Only recently have my sister and I shared explicit notes on what she remembered and what I did. Both of our lives were profoundly altered. And each time someone asks her: “Where did you go to college?” and her answer is “Kent State,” the next question is typically “Were you there then?” or “Were you there when the students were killed?”
There are no facile directives for dealing with campus violence. I am offering the best of my thoughts, and I invite any reader inclined to add more:
- If carrying emotional wounds from a confrontation or a disappointment, get help.
- If rage is building – whether through a real affront or a magnified one or even an imagined one, get help.
- If you are depressed or burning out, seek support as soon as you can. Such feelings are more common than many might think.
- If you are strong and unmarred by violence, learn to help. Be active in cultivating a healthy campus environment.
- Notice the people on your campus; offer nonverbal support, a kind word, a smile.
- If reports of violence elsewhere cause distress, connect with colleagues for emotional support.
This is part of a column, A Kinder Campus, that explores human relations in the academy. It offers anecdotal and research support for the idea that when we work kinder, we work better. Workplace morale, civility, and collegiality count. Goodwill is free, so stock up and spread it around. Topic suggestions are welcome. Contact email@example.com.