Tag Archives: Education

“Wasted no time”

The note was found at 8:35, according to the news reports. It threatened a shooting at 9:30, but didn’t specify a.m. or p.m. College officials, campus security and local police “wasted no time” in evacuating the campus. The local news channel was laudatory regarding the efficiency of the response. Maybe they should have checked their facts. Dozens of people, probably close to two hundred, were stuck in the parking lot logjam. I was there till 9:45. One of my students was there even longer. “I was stuck till 10:00,” she said. “I just couldn’t get out, even once the cars started moving. I didn’t bother to turn my engine on.”

So, if there had been a crazed gun-wielding student on campus, we would have been trapped and absolutely unsafe, probably more vulnerable than had we stayed in the locked classrooms.

Nobody in that jammed parking lot seemed to know what to do. The campus security guards stood around, looking dazed. One of them walked through the lot, yelling something incomprehensible to us. I couldn’t hear what he said, and when I called for clarification, he ignored me and just kept walking, yelling at everyone in the lot. It turns out he was telling people to get in their cars. It turns out he knew the threat was for 9:30. Surely he should have had a megaphone? Surely he should have made sure people understood?

I suppose, I told the students this morning, they’re making it up as they go along. We didn’t have to evacuate the campus the last time a note was found. The note made threats for the following day, and it was found late in the day, late enough that few students were on campus. What these ridiculous threats do is teach us what we need to do if we really do have to evacuate. I’m sure the college will come up with a new plan now. I’m sure campus security will call police before they do anything else, and by the time students are filing out to the parking lot the traffic controllers will be in place to get us moved out. It shouldn’t take more than an hour to evacuate a fairly small campus, and with a plan in place the next threat should bring a smoother response.

But it’s ridiculous. How many times will we have to evacuate or miss a day of classes because of threatening notes? What kind of world is this? I was used to bomb threats and evacuations when I visited my grandparents in Derry in the North of Ireland. I was used to us just leaving the shop on command, our groceries in the cart. I was used to untying the dogs outside, and walking down the road fast, waiting for a bomb blast that never came. (It came for some people, though, and knowing that it could be real brought copperfear to my throat.)

I am not used to having to evacuate my campus on regular occasions, not used to having to think of yesterday’s event as an opportunity to get more prepared for the next threat, the one that might be real. Are all colleges all over the nation dealing with copycat bomb and shooting threats?

Sigh.

Retrospective 10: 1972 — Fromage in Ireland

My father flew overhead in a plane to Ireland, and Ruth May looked up at the plane passing and drove her tricycle into the paddling pool and broke her arm. Was that the year my friend was hit by a car and taken away in an ambulance one day? I don’t remember her name, only that she lived in a cheaper apartment complex than we did, across the road, one with broken lights in the stairwells and the smell of urine permeating the dark walkways. We always walked home from school together, till a car hit her as she was crossing the road, and she was taken away in the ambulance. The EMTs bribed her with chocolate and after a while she went willingly, but I will not forget her tears, nor the smell of burning rubber in the air, which brings back — every time — the lonely wail of the siren and my own sense of complicity in her accident.

Ruth May, howling in the empty paddling pool, looks up to the sky. The plane is gone, carrying my father. My mother picks her up, and off we go to the hospital. Ruth May comes back from some mysterious room with a cast, and she is smiling.

We spend nights in the living rooms of friends who live in a commune. Do I imagine it? The smell of incense; the sound of a guitar playing; laughter and clinking glasses. My mother is touched by firelight, and her long hair glows golden in the shadows. She is far away, although I could touch her if I tried.

And then we are going to Ireland. We are still in school when we leave. No. We have just gone back after the summer, and my father has been gone for weeks, and suddenly Mum says, “It’s time. We’re going to Ireland.” Dad is back, and we pack up the van, and he drives the Volvo. We take the ferry, and he fills the little head with bottles of alcohol, and we have to stay quiet when we go through customs.

Before we left, my teacher gave me a book about a flower. It was called Marguerite, and it was in French, and everyone in my class signed it. I kept it for years, till my mother gave it away in a frenzy, the way she did sometimes. We were each given a new stuffed toy, too, and Ruth May got the biggest one, and Leah the next biggest, and Rachel the next biggest. And I got the smallest one. I loved that little bear, even after the dogs tore it apart years later, and my mother had to sew it together again, make a mouth and eyes for it, and a dress to cover its shredded belly.

Ireland was damp and gloomy after the sunshine of Switzerland. We lived in a temporary apartment, a townhouse in Dublin, and I remember a square outside the front door, a patch of grass, and metal railings. We could have walked to school, but we didn’t. On the first day, the teacher asked me to translate something in French. I remember fromage. Cheese. I could barely read, and everyone laughed, because they thought I couldn’t speak French. It wasn’t that. I was eight, and didn’t read well, and then I remembered that people thought I was slow in Switzerland, and that Mum spent hours helping me learn to read, and I remember that I was the odd one, the hyper one, the one who didn’t track conversations sometimes, because I was living in my own world where words didn’t matter — a place of sensation and yearning.

Years later I learned that Mum wanted to leave Switzerland because they track people vocationally there, and she was sure I would never get to follow an academic path. Not with my reading difficulties. Not with my inability to sit still in a classroom.

Still, in Switzerland I didn’t know I was stupid. It wasn’t till I got to Ireland that I figured it out.

More shootings

Northern Illinois University. At my friend’s house, I looked at the TV, saw blood on tarmac, heard the announcer’s voice. And then….

  • A movement to allow guns on campus
  • The shooter had recently discontinued psychiatric medication
  • Five school shootings in seven days

I left the living room, went into the bedroom, and sat on the bed. I didn’t want to think about it. But the blood on the tarmac. The blood spilled. Just that image, and the words running around my head, and all the implications. And the realization that I hadn’t heard about the previous killings. And the realization that just a week before an angry boy had been stopped from entering a local high school with a gun, just a few miles from my home. And the realization that I had heard about it and not sought out any more information because I couldn’t face the thought of my daughter going to school every day in a place where she might die. And the realization that I go to school every day in a place where some disgruntled student might pull a gun on me. “I try not to make them angry,” my colleague said the other night. But a grade — a kind of judgment — might make anybody angry. And my daughter… And my daughter…

I was crying. My friend came in, held me. Was it Valentine’s Day I saw the news? The day after? I don’t remember. I just know I can’t bear to live in a country where the response to school shootings is to encourage more guns. I can’t bear to live in a country where the response to anything at all in a person’s psychological life is “take pills.” My friend tells me that there’s a movement to authorize counselors with MA’s only to prescribe psychiatric medication. That’s madness. Except for the pharmaceuticals, who profit, profit, profit, on their dangerous, mindless policies.

And I’m living in a country where five school shootings can occur in the span of a week, and it’s so normal now that it’s hardly publicized. And maybe that’s a good thing, because there are copy cat kids out there. After Virginia Tech my campus was closed for a day after a bomb threat was found in a bathroom in my building. Most of the local high schools had a spate of bomb and gun and knife threats. Then it quieted down for a few months. Till now.

I couldn’t write about it. Wouldn’t think about it. I kept avoiding thinking about the irony of our performances on V-Day and the days after, in the aftermath of more shootings. I found myself wondering was Northern Illinois U planning a V-Day performance. So many colleges do nowadays. What horrible irony: on a day set aside for love, and more recently for activism against violence, a man went berserk and killed people and himself.

I’ve been wrapping myself in numbness. It’s all I can do. I don’t know how else to deal with it. Finally, today, I read a little bit about it. I don’t want to simply pretend it didn’t happen, blithely write on as though I have turned my back. But I did. I’m doing it now. I cried and cried and then I walked out and into the dusky night and went to my V-Day performance. My daughter put on my make up (I never wear it), and covered the red eyes, and I pretended everything was OK. And nobody talked about it.

Always, in the past, there has been desire to talk about it, to express horror, to wish it had never happened. We are long past that now. After Virginia Tech, something changed. It’s just part of our day now, in the same way bomb scares used to be part of the grocery shopping experience in Northern Ireland when I was visiting my grandparents as a child. We got used to it, leaving our carts with their groceries behind in the store and walking out onto the street, into the drizzle and mist, or the fleeting sunshine. And now, now, we just move through our days, knowing that when we walk through the door into our classrooms, we might encounter an armed and angry student. Knowing that our kids might walk into a burst of gunfire. It’s a tiny hint of what people in countries like Iraq or areas like Africa live with daily. So small a connection that I feel a rush of denial when I think of it. They have it much worse. Much worse. I could be run over by a bus, could trip and fall and hit my head and be brain dead. All those cliches. In the meantime, what’s a school shooting or two in this vast country, with its thousands of schools? The chances are so small, so minutely unlikely, that it doesn’t bear thinking about.

It’s just that something has changed now. In this country. In me. A way of shrugging off what once would have been unthinkable. My own institution’s total lack of reaction. The silence around the acts. My own desire to turn away, to blink my eyes clear of the blood, and walk on into sunshine, without a nod to the victims. There will be more. We all know that. And nothing can be done.

I will pray for them. I will not turn away. And we will go on. We always went back into the grocery shop in Ireland, after the bomb scares were over. We bought our groceries and walked home in the dying light, the dogs happy and oblivious on their leashes, happy for what they did have, rather than unhappy for what they lacked.

Tea time

Stella wrote: What I wish is to sit around a kitchen table with a small group of women, drinking tea, and have long discussions about just such things as you’ve posted about – I miss that so much – I suppose blog/comments exchanges are the next best thing.

Oh, that sounds so lovely. I think that’s what I like about blogging, the conversations that sometimes happen spontaneously over an idea thought through in a post. These days, though, I’m feeling guilty because I’ve hardly had a chance to read my favorite blogs. I drop in, then think I’ll come back and comment, and I don’t. I’ve been rushing, with a particularly busy quarter at work, and the Monologues (0ver now), and just trying to keep up with life.

I’m brain dead. This is one of those posts that says nothing, does nothing except give a glimpse into my life. I caught up on the laundry today, for the first time in weeks. I’ve been living out of piles of clothes tossed on the bed and then into the basket which is wedged in the corner, and then back onto the bed. The floor has been covered in dog hair and dust and tracked in mud. My car has been a disaster area. But yesterday I cleaned the car, and today I got a good run at the house, and tomorrow is a day I have to settle in and get caught up at work. I have a reference letter to write for a student, a college application paper to read for another student, the rest of my syllabus for Victorian and 20th Century lit to finish, an exam to write, and a report to write for the English department. And I have to finish reading the Virginia Woolf essays I assigned for this week, which I haven’t read since the last time I taught the class, something like 10 years ago.

And I’m tired after the energy expended on rehearsing for and performing in the Monologues. But I’ve managed to blog fairly regularly despite this difficult quarter, and doing so was one of my goals, so I’m happy.

Oh, and Stella’s comment reminded me of where I went to undergraduate school, an alternative hippie college without grades, where we studied in programs instead of individual classes, and learning was very much a time of talking over tea, of deep discussions in seminars, and then in individual cluster contracts, and because there were no grades, we never had to jump through hoops (at least, it never felt like it). I remember my first visit to the campus, when I walked into the women’s restroom and eavesdropped on a conversation about Dada and Nietzsche and war and nihilism, and thought, “This is it! This is where I’m going.” I was used to the loos in the community college I’d been attending: “Hey, are you going to so-and-so’s party tonight? God, I got so wasted last night. And did you hear, Dingbat’s pregnant again.” I wanted real conversations, literature, art, philosophy. I wanted to grapple with difficult ideas, to argue, to disagree and discover. And my undergraduate college gave me all that — and then some.

This post is going nowhere, and it’s OK. I’m not going to edit or shape it or press it into respectability. I do not wish to be respectable. I am thinking of confession again, and of my discomfort with it, of how hard it was to audition for the Monologues. (It took me seven years). I am thinking of how frustrated I am that Zeke gets away with texting in class in high school, and with doing math homework in global perspectives and global perspectives homework in choir. I am thinking of how I could NEVER be a high school teacher, because I would do inappropriate things like kick my students out of class if I caught them being so disrespectful. Yet I would feel continual nagging guilt as I watched them walk out: If I am not keeping their attention, their absence of interest is a failing in me rather than them.

One of my colleagues lets the students surf when they’re in the lab and she’s talking. I was observing her and the tic-tic of the keyboard, the click-click of the mouse, the flashes in my peripheral vision as a new website loaded — these all drove me nuts. I was distracted the whole class. “If I’m not holding their attention,” she said, “then that’s my problem.” But how can we? Really? They’re used to texting and talking and keyboarding and iPoding all at the same time. Their attention flicks from TV to computer to PDA to iPhone. They pull white earbuds out of one ear to respond to a parent’s question. Am I old-fashioned to insist on them turning off the technology and looking forward to the doc-cam where we are discussing the strengths of a student paper? Am I old-fashioned to insist on respect for each other? Not just me. Each other. Surely doing six different things at once is disrespectful. It is the opposite of sitting down at tea, and looking at each other, and really listening.

Changing the dream two

Continued from here:

None of this, of course, is a complaint against my mother. She simply did what everyone did back then, made an association between maths and Latin and getting into vet school. It’s false, at least in this country, at least now. But back then, if you wanted to get into vet school in Ireland, you got high grades in everything, including (especially) maths and Latin. She was saving me grief, saving me from a dream I could never have realized.

But her not believing in me, and my dad’s view of me as not too bright, colored everything. When I told Mum I won the English prize, she told me not to lie. It was impossible, in her world, for someone to get C’s in both the exams (composition and literature), and win the English prize. She only believed me when the picture came out in the Irish Times, me holding the certificate and the check, with two of my friends flanking me. Why didn’t I show her the certificate? Because by the time I had evidence, she had denounced me as a liar. It didn’t seem worth it.

But it’s not that bad, really. A few years later, when I was in college in America and made effortless As in every class I took except English 101 (hah! What irony…), I realized that she was just operating under perfectly reasonable assumptions. No one in the U.S. who got C’s in a class would win an award for that class. C’s aren’t very good grades. A B is OK. A’s, well, even those are often barely deserved. So it made all the sense in the world for her to assume that I couldn’t possibly, ever, under any circumstances, win an award when I’d received C’s in my exams. And when I realized that fact, everything else fell into place too. No wonder I was never good enough. My perfectly reasonable Irish grades looked like failures to her. And because I couldn’t please her, I gave up.

Dad, on the other hand, knew better. Why did he never say anything to convince her differently? I suppose because he went to Trinity and Oxford and worked at CERN and found maths and science easy, because he truly believed “Anyone can do English. It’s a soft option.” Because he was scathing of what I loved. In the end, I gave up trying for him, too. Early on, oh so early on, I simply gave up dreaming.

It’s easy, looking back, to realize how own’s right-meaning and perfectly loving parents (and they were), were simply shaped by what they understood of the world. In Dad’s world, everyone knew that English was a soft option that any moron could do. There was no point being proud of getting a good grade on an English essay, of winning the prize for English. Anyone can do that. Splitting the atom. Probing the mystery of the nutrino. Those are worthy goals.

In Mum’s world, grades of C were tantamount to failure. It’s just the way things were. A “B” elicited, “Is that all?” She didn’t mean to be discouraging. It’s just what she knew of the world, in the same way that she knew me going to a little regional university for my MA in English was a waste of time because it wouldn’t “mean anything.” She had high expectations because she came from a world in which everyone overachieved. Just being normal wasn’t good enough. It didn’t mean she didn’t love me. In fact it was a mark of her love.

It’s easy to say, “Just change the dream.” It’s not easy to do it. Others have changed my dream for me all my life. When I did leave home at 17, and eventually came to the States and went to college, I pursued my own dream, such as it was. Now, in many ways, I have realized what is a perfectly reasonable dream. I have a job I like, my own place, a loving daughter. The dream I can’t change is my family. I love them. It’s true I want to be able to smash the walls down, to assert myself, to say, “Things will be different now.” Some days I make progress towards that vision. But some days I don’t. I can’t beat myself up for not changing the dream because part of the problem is that I’ve always beaten myself up for it. I just have to accept what happened, whatever failure I brought upon myself — once again — and try to move forward.

So I failed, on my birthday, to connect to dad. Norman is right. I’m sure he was thinking “Happy birthday.” He probably mumbled it. Even if he didn’t, we did celebrate my birthday the night before. He made me a chocolate cake using “Mum’s special recipe.” These things mean everything. It’s my own hopeless paralysis that kills me, time after time. But I shake free of it. I take another step. I commit to trying again. That’s what I’ve always done.

A’s in the U.S. don’t mean much to those raised in Ireland. But they mean a lot to me, because they got me here, to graduate school and beyond, to a tenure track job. OK, it’s “only” a community college, a real disappointment for my mother whose father was dean of the medical school at Vanderbilt, for my father who worked at CERN. But I love teaching community college students. I understand my students’ struggles, because they mirror mine — in some slantwise way.

Over the years, I’ve made my working life into my own dream, changed my parents’ dream to my own. It’s a start. Other dreams will follow, do follow, slow though the progress is.