Friday, February 15, 2008

Very close to home

I was getting ready to teach my Thursday evening class when I got email from my sister in Boston, mentioning the Northern Illinois University shooting, and checking to be sure that we were OK. Of course, DeKalb is an hour and a half away from us, but I completely understood her need to check in. I turned on NPR, since I didn't actually know anything about what was happening, and that's when the dread started to flood over me.

It's strange to me how a college classroom can simultaneously feel like the safest and least safe place in the world. I love and respect my students so much; once we get to know each other, I almost always feel like the hours I spend talking with them each week are some of my happiest, most intense, and most productive. When students pick up the loose ends of a conversation from the previous week, and use what they've been mulling over during that time in order to create new knowledge about a new set of problems, I feel how precious a simultaneously intimate and open place like a college classroom can be. I remember my own experiences as an undergraduate and graduate student, and I am so happy to be able to create similar spaces for my students. Many of them, I know, will remember their times the way I remember mine.

At the same time, I feel sometimes feel vulnerable--not just emotionally, but physically--when I'm sitting or standing in front of a group of students. I remember how shocked and frightened I was, back when I had my first teaching job in southwestern Oklahoma, to hear some of my students boast to me that they *always came to class armed*. I've had my share of students who blamed me or other teachers about low grades, or who had complicated problems that seemed to affect how they functioned when they were on campus or in my classes. I know that all workplaces, and all public spaces, sometimes feel like there's a bad wind swirling around, and that most of us feel scared at least once in a while. I feel quite scared lately.

After we spent the first five minutes of class discussing the afternoon's events at NIU, my students and I turned (with some relief) to our discussion of Alcott's Little Women--a novel in which family life is bittersweetly flavored by the uncertainty of war and the certainty of personal loss and disappointment. One student said that he had been inclined to find all of Alcott's domestic detail--the cooking, cleaning, knitting, and sewing--a bit boring, until he had tried, the morning before, to sew a button onto his jacket. "It took me an hour!" he said. "I have a lot more respect for those women now." I smiled as I looked down and remembered that my blouse, skirt, and jacket were all handmade (though not the way that Jo March and her sisters made their clothes!). I didn't point out what I had just noticed (partly because I wasn't happy with how the jacket fit, and I didn't want to draw attention to it!), but I asked students to raise their hands if they'd never sewn a button onto a shirt or jacket. More than a third of them sheepishly admitted that they didn't know how; a couple of them said that when they lose a button, they just throw the shirt away. "Here's some homework, then: sew a button on something this week--preferably on something you'd really like to wear again." Some of them giggled, and some of them groaned, and probably none of them will do it. But I don't think I was the only one who felt happy talking about the little tasks that help us keep our things together, especially when we see how easy it is for everyday worlds to fall apart.


Tony said...

I have such difficulty with these school shootings, and other random acts of public violence, that Carrie has taken to warning me when there's about to be some discussion of them on the radio. I just obsess over them so much, grieve so much, that it's way past the point of being productive; I need to pass over these stories when I can.

I'm not sure what else we can do really, to stay safe and live our lives. I face these dangers in my job everyday, maybe more than most people, since I work in politics and serve an appointed body that holds open public meetings. (The recent murders at the city council meeting in Kirkwood, MO were especially scary for me for this reason.)

Seis Manos said...

I know what you mean, Tony. I find that, to a point, I actually need to follow the coverage, because it can help me feel less alone--but then I reach my limit, and hearing the details just makes me too afraid, like the ground is being pulled out from under us all.

Gillian said...

The regular news about mass shootings in the US always makes me glad to live in a country with very tight gun laws. It's simply not a problem here (Australia).

This lets us worry about other things -- like drought and dying rivers.

Thanks for your blog... I'm glad I learnt to sew too. My two daughters (young adults) have commented that the one piece of equipment that their friend's mothers have that none of them is likely to own, is a sewing machine. At least my girls know how to do simple mending and can come home and use my machine!