The Ordinary Instant

A shooting at a college can damage one's sense of identity, assumptions about safety and beliefs about the holiness of education, writes Megan Doney.

June 6, 2016
 
Vigil at UCLA

“Life changes in the instant. The ordinary instant,” writes Joan Didion in The Year of Magical Thinking.

I call April 12, 2013, “my” shooting, to distinguish it from all the others -- the more than 23 that occurred on college campuses last year alone and now the terrible murder of a professor at the University of California at Los Angeles. No one died in the shooting at the college where I teach, although two people were seriously injured. Few people outside my area remember it. For me, though, it possesses startling power: 10 minutes of one afternoon bleed into the 1,000 days that have followed. I went to work that Friday morning with plans to spend the weekend with my father. I ended that Friday afternoon in shock, mutely scrawling a witness statement in red ink.

Like Didion, I turned to information as a way of managing my grief and dislocation: “Read, learn, work it up. Go to the literature.” I spent hours on the library databases, keying in terms like “professor” and “school shooting.” As though I were a patient with a rare malady, I needed an expert to explain the prognosis. What symptoms would ensue? Was I going to be able to continue teaching? There was plenty of research about the psychology of school shooters and assessments of campus safety but nothing about the long-term impact on professors who survived a shooting. That was another shock: if there was no research, maybe I wasn’t going to be OK.

I turned then to a different kind of literature. I read Bessel van der Kolk’s The Body Keeps the Score, Peter Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard, Emily Rapp’s The Still Point of the Turning World, Sonali Deraniyagala’s Wave. I read Parker Palmer’s affirmations about the necessity of courage and integrity in higher education. I read Vivian Gornick’s The Situation and the Story and pondered what would emerge from my disoriented grief. I moved to South Africa for a year, finding equilibrium in the middle of cultural dislocation.

David J. Morris, in The Evil Hours: A Biography of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, describes how early cultures regarded trauma as a moral and spiritual crisis rather than as a neurological disorder. Trauma, he argues, was a “social wound, a damaging of the intricate web of relations that keeps a person sane and tethered to the world.” Rather than a pathological reaction to extreme peril, trauma is a natural response to a world of incomprehensible brutality.

It was through an existential lens that I had to address how the shooting had damaged my sense of identity as a professor, my assumptions about safety and my beliefs about the holiness of education. I wasn't concerned with the logistical aftermath; I needed answers to questions that few were willing, or able, to discuss. They remain an endless echolalia: “Is this the cost of teaching in the 21st century? And if so, can I pay it?”

The costs emerge over and over again; the bill is never settled. I have nightmares that my dog is being mutilated and I’m unable to save her. She is the stand-in for my students, the precious thing that I am unable to protect. I prepare myself for a nightmare whenever I speak publicly about that day. I endure the heavy silence that descends when I tell other professors that I have witnessed a school shooting.

I shudder when I recall the campus as it was the morning after: bullet holes in the doors and walls, computer stations littered with students’ abandoned mugs and notebooks, yellow crime tape, plastic sheeting in the doorway. I feel a sickening empathy when I see the faces of other horror-stricken students and teachers on television. I wonder how I will protect my students who use wheelchairs the next time. I am always aware of the ordinary instant in which it all crumbles.

Though a fellow survivor once reminded me that there is no hierarchy of suffering, my story is nothing compared to what others have endured. Yet stories need a listener. Witnesses to campus violence remind others of the toll that these events enact and demand that we have hard conversations about what it means for educators to be expected to accept violence, injury or death as part of their professional lives.

In 2017, despite widespread opposition, Kansas will also allow concealed carry at all public colleges and universities, the ninth state to do so. Supporters invoke the usual rhetoric of preserving public safety and providing defenseless people with deadly recourse in the event of an active shooter. Opponents decry the impact on academic freedom and the potential for impulsivity to overcome reason.

My reasons for opposing campus carry are personal: I do not want another professor to become like me. I do not want anyone else to have to write a document called “Post-shooting lesson plans.” I do not want anyone else to have to spend three years in therapy to find ways to let those 10 minutes settle into the rest of their lives. I do not want anyone else to witness the fearful, childlike, exhausted looks on their students’ faces the day they return to class. I do not wish this journey back to “normalcy” on anyone.

Guns have no place on campuses and in classrooms. One gun made April 12, 2013, the worst day of my life. More guns would not have improved it (and in my case, there was no “good guy with a gun”: the shooter was subdued by an unarmed off-duty security officer who shouted at him to put the gun down). Beware the people who proclaim that they could kill a shooter, if only they were allowed to carry their guns to school. To employ a military analogy, that is the bravery of being out of range. It is swagger masquerading as courage.

No one knows what they will do until it happens. It has already happened to me, and I don’t know what I am going to do the next time. I don’t know if the choices I made that day will always be the right ones. Nor do I even remember consciously choosing. I heard the gunfire, and I acted.

I've been asked so many times, “Don't you wish you’d had a gun that day?”

No. I only wish that he had not had one.

In spite of the label “post-traumatic stress disorder,” I am not disordered. I am the natural response to a shooting in a place that should be a place of inquiry, vulnerability and transformation. What’s abnormal is a country in which students are given active shooter training and teachers are expected to be human shields. What’s deviant is a culture in which witnesses are blamed for not rushing a shooter and derided for not carrying a weapon themselves.

None of us are safe. The challenge for us and for our students is how to dwell in that awareness and still be courageous enough to live and learn unarmed, both literally and figuratively.

Bio

Megan Doney is an English professor at New River Community College. She wrote this article while on sabbatical at the University of the Free State, South Africa.

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