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Struggling to find the right lessons in tragedy (essay)

The First Class After the Bombs

April 18, 2014

I had been teaching college freshmen for eight months when the bombs went off at the Boston Marathon on April 15, 2013, but the research writing class I taught two days after might as well have been my first day.

I teach at Emerson College on Boylston Street, just a few blocks down from the devastated finish line. After the explosions, I felt my newness as a teacher, at a loss for what to say and what not to say. At that point, Wednesday morning, we had no answers, no security footage, no Twitter accounts to psychoanalyze. All we had was shock and silence.

I began class, as I often do, with a YouTube video. Instead of fainting goats or Star Wars characters singing “Call Me Maybe,” I showed my students a clip of comedian Jon Stewart from an episode of "The Daily Show" that aired on September 20, 2001, the first after the attacks on the World Trade Center.

During his opener, Stewart’s usually mocking glare had been washed away by tears. And he told his audience:

I’m sorry to do this to you. It’s another entertainment show beginning with an overwrought speech of a shaken host – and television is nothing if not redundant. So I apologize for that. It’s something that, unfortunately, we do for ourselves so that we can drain whatever abscess is in our hearts and move on to the business of making you laugh, which we haven’t been able to do very effectively lately.

I knew Emerson College didn’t pay me to make my students laugh, but I had relied on humor all semester to engage my students in critical thinking. As I am a 20-something fresh off her master’s of fine arts, laughter is one of the only buffers I have to protect what little authority is granted by the  mere seven-year age gap between me and my students.

I teach first thing in the morning, so I knew that this was everyone’s first class back. I couldn’t not acknowledge the tragedy, nor my unusual seriousness at 8:30 in the morning. Like Stewart, I made a shaky speech not really for my students, but for myself.

I opened the mic to the class: “Does anyone have any thoughts or concerns about Monday that you wanted to share? This is a safe place.”

Not surprisingly, there was a pained silence. I knew I should have come up with a more specific, profound question. I knew my students weren’t interested in group therapy. I knew they would be hearing the same proposition in each of their other classes for the rest of the week. And as an instructor I failed to make it relevant to our curriculum.

So we all sighed and leaned back to the original lesson plan. Over the weekend I had assigned a free-write asking them to reflect upon the relationship between names and identity. After the news broke, I had sent an email telling my students that the assignment was now optional, so in class we workshopped the work that was completed. Most of the essays were about nicknames and online usernames and what they would rather be called.

But one student, Haley, took a different approach. She didn’t write about herself. She wrote (and I quote with her permission):

Oftentimes we avoid, in such awful horrible acts of terror, to repeat the name of the killer etc. Uttering it is giving them an importance they don’t deserve. Right now we cannot hold anyone responsible for the events that occurred yesterday, but we do know the names of the survivors, those who instead of running away from the noise ran toward it. We have the name of the eight-year old boy that died. We have the names of those who provide hope. Of those who covered the scene, watching as blood covered the ground, as bombs rocked their vehicles, as those with missing legs and arms were carried on stretchers, so we at home could see it all. We have the names of those who will continue to run races, and marathons, and get to the finish line despite obstacles, despite a handful of people, a sliver of a sliver of a sliver of humankind who tries to stop them.

The workshop then turned into a productive conversation among her classmates about the legacy of tragedy. Haley had succeeded where I had failed -- she connected the dots from our textbook to Boylston Street. Though instead of beating myself up as a teacher, I felt proud that I had given an assignment versatile enough to spark these sorts of connections.

Haley didn’t write this essay for me, or for an A. I may not be a teacher with all the right answers, but I can certainly strive to pose the right questions. She wrote the essay for herself, so she could drain whatever abscess was in her heart and move on.

Bio

Susannah M. Clark teaches first-year writing at Emerson College.

 

 

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