Trauma was my professional development this semester in my work as an adjunct professor at Bunker Hill Community College. Well, secondary trauma. That’s a term I didn’t know when the semester began. That’s what happens to people who work with the people experiencing the trauma. Among this semester’s traumas for my students: abrupt homelessness, arrests of family members. A student who dropped my course did his best not to give up. Three different times he e-mailed to explain that he hadn’t done his homework and had been up all night mediating a domestic violence situation, dealing with the police. Veterans – with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injury (TBI)? No time to count. One made a short film showing what it’s like to have PTSD. I couldn’t watch even five minutes. (We are helping that veteran. I will watch the whole film, and “Restrepo.” Those could be my students.)
“Drink lots of water this afternoon. Part of dealing with trauma is being hydrated,” was the advice I got in November from the victim/witness advocate at the Suffolk County Court. I had just finished testifying in the third trial for the murder in 2007 of Cedirick Steele, one of my students. Before I could get on the elevator, the victim/witness advocate gave me a fact sheet, “Common Reactions to Community Violence,” on secondary trauma, made me promise that I would call the Homicide Bereavement Program at Cambridge Hospital, and swear that I would check the website and read the book Trauma Stewardship. Back at work, I bought three bottles of water in the snack bar. I drank all three.
The Trauma Stewardship authors knew me. “Minimizing.” For three years, I’ve been saying to myself, “Well, the worst day of my life is better than any day my students can imagine.” That one’s on the list of how not to cope. Secondary trauma and community college teaching -- add another obstacle to that nationwide issue of helping more students complete college.
In my office after my 7 a.m. College Writing I class at Bunker Hill Community College a few weeks ago, the red voicemail light was on. In these e-mail days, the phone doesn’t ring often, especially early in the morning. The Suffolk County District Attorney’s office. The message just asked me to call back. I did. In a web search, a district attorney staffer preparing for the trial had found a column I wrote here for Inside Higher Ed after the murder. “We need someone to speak about Cedirick,” the county’s victim-witness advocate explained.
On March 14, 2007, waiting outside his uncle’s store in Roxbury, Cedirick was shot. At the time, we thought six 9mm bullets. The autopsy showed eight. March 14 was Wednesday of spring break. That Friday morning, Jasen Beverly, another student in the class, e-mailed me with a newspaper article about the shooting. “How many Cedirick Steeles could there be?” he asked. On my desk at home, I had two of Cedirick’s papers to correct during the break and give back to him. (Bedford/St. Martins published an essay of Jasen’s in a textbook, Real Writing with Readings, by Susan Anker, and yet I can’t find Jasen to get him back to school.)
The first trial had ended with a hung jury. At the second, a key witness took back her testimony. According to a police tape of a prison telephone call, one of the defendants, the witness’s boyfriend, had issued an order for her murder if she agreed to testify. That’s all I knew when I agreed to meet with the DA’s office. The reception area at the DA’s office could have been for a doctor’s office. Old magazines. People. The usual. But the receptionist was behind bullet-proof glass, and the room smelled of disinfectant.
A woman whose title was “executive assistant” took me to the meeting room. She has a criminal justice degree and impressive knowledge of the case. She and the paralegal, waiting in a conference room with the assistant district attorney trying the case, explained that they wanted to give the judge and jurors at the trial a picture of Cedirick as a student, a person. I wouldn’t be able to say much because I was not a witness to the shooting. I agreed to testify. “I just want you to know that of the 29 or 30 witnesses we want to call for this trial, you are the only one who has come in voluntarily,” the assistant district attorney said. The three each had a copy of my column in front of them. They’d found the column in web searches for the third trial. (I’d rather have Cedirick alive. But if my column helped keep the case alive, I guess that’s why we write.)
At the time of that meeting in the DA’s office, my College Writing I students were working with the librarian on research and how to find credible facts to use as evidence. My side of the equation was how to use that evidence to create persuasive arguments. All of a sudden, I was evidence.
Witnesses cannot attend the trial prior to their testimony. In the waiting area for witnesses a few weeks later, the victim-witness advocate asked how I was doing. “You want me to tell you? Really?” I asked. “I do,” she replied. “I’ve felt like I’m going to cry every day since you called. Am I crazy to feel like crying?”
“That’s totally normal for trauma victims,” she said. (From the fact sheet, I discovered later: “Sudden, temporary upsurges of grief: Suddenly you are overwhelmed by intense sorrow and anguish, even months or years after your loss, when there are triggers such as….”) On the stand, she said, I should remember to breathe. Take my time talking. Drink water. Afterwards, she would give me information on dealing with trauma. Trauma? I was the English professor. Isn’t my job teaching the power of the simple, declarative sentence?
Court officers, in dark pants and white shirts with brass badges, led me into the courtroom and left me just a few feet in front of the table where the two defendants were sitting. They were two young men, who could have been sitting in one of my classes. I raised my right hand and swore to tell the truth, and walked to the witness stand. The assistant DA went first. I knew the questions. Did I remember Cedirick? What were his grades? As and Bs. What courses was he taking? Psychology. College Writing I. Did I remember what newspaper Cedirick read? the assistant DA asked. That was a detail from my IHE column.
Objection from the defense. No bearing on the case. Sustained by the judge. The answer, though, was The New York Times. I urge students to read The New York Times every day, to see the world beyond and to read examples of excellent expository writing. Cedirick read the paper online and brought in articles to share with the class. The point was to show that Cedirick was committed to education, his own and his classmates’.
The defense attorney in front of a huge calendar, cross-examining me, tried to prove that I couldn’t possibly have known Cedirick. Barely six weeks of classes before Cedirick was murdered on March 14. The class just met twice a week, for 75 minutes each time. Two men at the table might go to prison.
“When was the last time you saw Cedirick Steele?” the defense asked. “Probably the Wednesday before spring break,” I said. He rebuked me and asked the judge to remind me not to speculate. He was right. I wouldn’t have accepted that reply from my students, either. “How many students have you had since then? Thousands?” he barked at me. I’m an adjunct, and I don’t teach a full courseload, I explained. Maybe one hundred, I said.
Somewhere, according to the Boston Herald, I managed to say, “Cedirick Steele was an unforgettable person.” The defense pressed on. What Cedirick was wearing the last time I’d seen him. “You just established, sir, that I don’t remember the exact date of the last time I saw him,” I said. Point scored for me, but this isn’t guy vs. guy. The two defendants, presumed innocent, were sitting right there.
Did I know where Cedirick lived? Yes. The street name? I don’t remember the street. The defense was right in front of the jury now, shouting, “Did anyone tell you he had six bags of marijuana in his car?”
“Objection. Request a sidebar, your honor,” said the assistant DA. The lawyers gathered on the other side of the judge’s bench from the witness box to speak with the judge. “No further questions, your honor,” the defense said when they finished a few moments later. No further questions from the assistant DA. “You may step down,” the judge told me. I walked past the defendants, out into the hall.
I was waiting for the elevator when I saw Cedirick’s mother by the door to the courtroom. I walked over to her. “I have Cedirick’s memorial button on my bulletin board at work. We all remember him every day,” I told her. She began to sob. I gave her a hug. According, again, to the Boston Herald, his mother “wailed.”
Back to expository writing, evidence and arguments. During the lunch break the day I was waiting to testify, I asked the assistant district attorney what brought him to this work. “Public service. I’m just trying to give these victims and their families some self-respect in their lives,” he said.
“You know, that’s why I teach basic, expository writing,” I said. “I figure a five-paragraph college essay making an argument is the same as a job letter. I want them to know their voice can count. I want them to have a skill that might help them have some control over their own lives.”
“Oh, yeah. I understood exactly what you were talking about when we first met,” the assistant district attorney said. An urban community college writing teacher and an assistant district attorney today are doing the same job? One of the others, I don’t remember now who, said to me, “Both of us, all of us, are just trying to keep young black men alive.”
I went back for the closing arguments on Monday after Thanksgiving. The victim-witness advocate sat me with Cedirick’s family in the front row. The defendants’ families and friends were in the row behind. “How was your holiday?” Cedirick’s mother asked me. She’s a kind woman. My holiday?
The defense went first. Their focus was the afternoon of the shooting. The electronic ankle bracelet of one, on parole, showed he was home at 2:15 p.m. the afternoon of the shooting. How could he have shot Cedirick Steele? The key witness, the girlfriend, was a perjurer. Convict on the word of a perjurer? With the argument and evidence the two defense attorneys offered, I couldn’t imagine a conviction.
The assistant district attorney started the story weeks before the murder and described a perceived affront by someone from the gang in Cedirick’s neighborhood to a member of the Mass Ave Hornets, the defendants’ gang. The assistant DA built the case for a motive -- revenge. The ankle bracelet? The data the defense had also showed that the defendant had both entered and left his home at 2:15 p.m. the afternoon of the shooting. The witness and the perjury? The ADA reminded the jury of all the other witnesses and their testimony. Cedrick was not in any gang. That’s why, at last, witnesses had come forward. A choice of all the same evidence available to the defense but for each a different argument with a perspective and time frame. I’d often explained to students that in the end they choose the argument and the evidence. Two people going to prison is beyond what I’ve considered in arguments for College Writing I.
On Wednesday afternoon the victim-witness advocate telephoned. I picked up. The jury had convicted both defendants of first-degree murder. Evidence and arguments. I drank water.
Wick Sloane is an end user of higher education. The views expressed here are his own.