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The Boston bombing suspect was my community college student (essay)

Trauma, Teaching and Tamerlan
May 3, 2013

Tamerlan Tsaernev was in my College Writing I class at Bunker Hill Community College in the spring of 2007.  My pinhole view of his life, including a couple of e-mails about why he missed some classes, adds nothing to either the pathological or the geopolitical debates about the bombs Tamerlan and his brother are accused of setting off two weeks ago at the 2013 Boston Marathon. 

What I can tell you is that I’ve felt like crying most of the time since Bloody Friday, the Friday after the Marathon Monday bombings that killed three and wounded 264, when police shut down Boston and Cambridge.  Disclaimer 1: Of course the dead and the injured and their families are the only focus of our love and prayers. I have no words. This is a column about education reform -– or the lack of it. 

Everyone I know of every profession in Boston reported feeling about the same. I now know that these feelings have a name: Secondary Trauma. You don’t have to be one of the injured to feel numb or want to cry. 

How to treat myself for secondary trauma? I had no idea that was a skill I'd learn and need at a community college.

Hydrate – lots of water. Fresh air. No caffeine. Breathe. Have a good cry. J.S. Bach, always. Keep in mind that the national policy debate about the central issue for community colleges, completion, makes no mention I’ve heard of secondary trauma expertise as necessary professional development. Here’s my bookmarked reference web site, Trauma Stewardship.

Here’s my list of student primary traumas I’ve been second to, in a few short years: murder, rape, shootings; sudden and prolonged homelessness; memories of wars in Somalia, Eritrea, El Salvador, the Congo; a father killed in the civil war in Mali; a student for whom I was buying a sandwich at 5 p.m. saying, “I guess you could tell I haven’t eaten since yesterday.” Domestic violence. Stories from veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. All but a few arise from teaching, remember, College Writing I. To this list, I can now add a terrorist attack. Perhaps ribbons for each trauma, as in the military, would cause the completion critics to include consider trauma a factor.

Let me be perfectly clear. Withering completion accountability is fine by me. The solutions just need a load factor for the days that community college teachers need a good cry.

Disclaimer 2: The worst days of my own silver-, no, platinum-spooned life are miles from the everyday trauma of the millions of students in community colleges, and the secondary traumas of their professors. I do not teach full-time. With occasional slippage, I am a generally happy and optimistic person.  I have family, friends, health and, more, health insurance, food, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and the love of Friends Meeting Cambridge for three years of cancer that my wife survived. (Thank you STEM disciplines.) My trauma requires no help.

My point for this column is that at the nation’s 1,200 community colleges, thousands of instructors have a traditional workload, unopposed by any of our unions, of four and five classes a semester with classes of 20, 30 and more students all subject to the primary traumas I’ve described.

I have no words for how these colleagues survive. I have plenty of words, for another day, for the policy makers, legislators, trade associations, and union chiefs who won’t admit to these traumas while whining about low community college completion rates. 

The 1 a.m. Friday bomb explosion and shootout that killed Tamerlan was about a mile from my home.  My wife heard the bomb and the gunfire that I slept through.  By morning, Cambridge was shut down, and we were ordered to stay at home.  After a day with helicopters chopping overhead and Doppler-effecting sirens in all directions, my wife and daughter heard the shooting Friday evening when police arrested Tamerlan’s brother, again about a mile from our home. I didn’t hear the gunfire. 

I’ve discovered I am learning, too, about relative secondary trauma rankings on my Emotional/Trauma Richter Scale (patent pending).  What I can tell you is that my urge to cry last week, and even now, is higher by a bit on my E/T Richter scale reading than when Cedirick Steele, a student in that same class that spring of 2007, was shot seven times and killed. I learned Cedirick’s death was called a premeditated random murder.  The shooters planned to kill someone, it didn’t matter who.  Perhaps tertiary trauma is when we discover a new term for something too terrible to be true.  (Click here for my report on Cedirick’s killing.)

Here’s what I don’t understand in my rankings.  I knew Cedirick very well.  I wouldn’t have recognized Tamerlan on the street.  He missed most classes and didn’t complete the course.  Why I do I feel sadder after Bloody Friday than I did right after Cedirick’s death? 

I didn’t make the Tamerlan connection until late Friday morning.  I hadn’t known the suspects’ names when I went to bed Thursday.  The cat woke me up Friday morning about 5:30 a.m. with a left paw “Breakfast!” to the nose. 

I let the dog out in the yard and looked out the front door. No newspaper. Odd but ok. I fed the cats, made coffee, changed the laundry, put out breakfast for my wife. Still no newspaper. Not ok. Another 15 minutes, and I would call in the missed delivery. I had another cup of coffee and read a book.  My wife was asleep.  I hadn’t turned on the radio.  Still no paper. 

Then, the day began.  A text message from someone at work.  “The MBTA is closed.  How can I get to work?  Do you know what’s going on?”  I had no idea.  Another text message.  Bunker Hill Community College closed for citywide emergency. I turned on the radio and learned why no newspaper delivery that morning.  My neighborhood was the news.  Police were looking for the suspects right here.  And the news said that one of the suspects had gone to Bunker Hill Community College.  

In the next hour, friends e-mailed.  Did I know this student?  “No,” I said.  After the third e-mail, something stirred. I put “Tamerlan” in the search box of my computer. There he was on a class list from 2007, along with two innocuous e-mails about missing class. As a comedy and to raise money for students like mine, two years ago, I ran -– well, completed, the Boston Marathon. (My report.) Oh, can I see the blocks to the finish line where the bombs went off. I guess all this factors into my E/T Richter Scale, terrorist bombing versus premeditated random murder. 

Now, the Iraq tank-driving student in that same class graduated from Dartmouth last spring, and he is on his plan, teaching at-risk high school students.

Of course that cheers us up on a bad day. We, the people, have to chuck the way we mistake such stories for success. Along with head-in-the-sand union chiefs, policy makers and too many education trade associations, do we let ourselves believe that these feel-good, albeit individually triumphant, community college to Ivy League stories are progress?  I did, for years. 

Back to my secondary trauma professional development. Our refusal as a nation to face down the truth about the lives of so many students and their traumas every day in so many of our schools and colleges? The trauma professionals would call our refusal denial and avoidance. An unhealthy strategy. 

On the E/T Richter scale, though, my urge to cry was lower this week than it was back in 2011, when I was called to testify at the third trial of the Cedirick’s murderers. (Click here for my report on the trial.)  On the morning of my testimony, the Suffolk County Victim/Witness Advocate sat me down and asked how I felt. Did she really want to know? She did. I said I’d felt like crying about Cedirick every day since she’d called three weeks before, to ask me to testify.  Normal, she said.  My education on secondary trauma began. After the trial, she made me go see a trauma counselor. 

After the trial, four years after Cedirick’s random, premeditated murder, at last, I had a good cry. Today, I’ll help any student I can. And I’ll say a prayer again, and again, for the three dead and the 264 injured at the Boston Marathon Massacre.

Bio

Wick Sloane writes the Devil's Workshop column for Inside Higher Ed. Follow him on Twitter at @WickSloane.

 

 

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