Compassion from students

Last Thursday, when I read the first news reports of the shooting at Northern Illinois University — less than 150 miles from my campus here in Wisconsin — I started considering ways in which to address the situation with my students. My initial impulse was to dedicate the next class period to discussing the shootings and giving my students a chance to air their feelings, to share news, and to ask questions. I did the same thing ten months ago following the Virginia Tech shootings; I did the same thing six and a half years ago following the Sept. 11 attacks. But I realized last Thursday that one of my classes would not meet the next day, and the other four were scheduled to do group research in the campus library — we wouldn’t have a chance to discuss the shootings until the following (this) week.

So I jumped online to our web-based course site and set up a public discussion forum for my students to share their feelings in writing. Several did, almost immediately.

As I did last April following the Virginia Tech shootings, I set up a discussion forum in my classes’ online course material for my students to discuss their thoughts about the NIU shootings. The comments have been fewer than they were a year ago, but they have been interesting. A lot of my students knew people attending NIU, and the earliest comments were simply fears about their friends’ safety and requests for victim lists. Once they all knew their friends were safe (none of my students knew any of the victims), the conversation turned to general fears. One student, from a class in which we’d discussed violence in the media and its influence on serial killers, wrote at length about her concerns:

This is so scary. We were just talking about violence and what makes people kill in class on Wednesday and now this. I’m not going to lie . . . I am scared. I always make sure that I lock my door and I found myself sitting in my calc 3 class and thinking about how scary it would be if someone came in with a gun for no apparent reason, like these other shootings have been happening. I know it seems like, and I have been reassured many times, that it probably wouldn’t happen here at UWP, but that’s probably what the students at Virgina Tech thought and that’s probably what the students at NIU thought. The truth is that no one thinks it could happen to them until it does. Just thought I would contribute my fear and other feelings about the shootings.

Other students took the opportunity to write mini-essays on the subject, some of which I’ll include here, because I think their perspective is perhaps more relevant right now than mine:

This NIU incident comes at a quite interesting time. Just last week, my mother and I were talking about how time has evolved, and society really hasn’t. Somehow the topic went to suicide and how when people were depressed, they would take their own life, which is tragic in itself. As society evolves, troubled people seem to feel the need to take as many people with them as they can, when they are having trouble, and I would like to know what the point of that is.

[. . .] My heart goes out to all the families that have lost a loved one in this tragic event. It breaks my heart to know that something like this can happen to people who are just doing the right thing, by attending class. What I would like to know is what this world is coming to. I personally am scared to have children. How am I going to know that they will be safe? In parts of this country, you can’t go out on your front porch without the danger of being killed looming around you. Your children are suppose to be safe in school, but how can that statement even be made now-a-days when my high school is having bomb threats every other week, or there is college shootings . Can we even leave our houses? I’m truly scared for my children’s generation of people because they will all live a rough life. With the economy going the way it is, and all the violence, not only between Americans, but between different countries as well.

Some people will try to say that because of video games and TV shows these days the crime rates have grown. I don’t think that is the truth. I think that there is just the same amount of crime now as there was 50 years ago. The thing is, we have more laws, making more things illegal and therefore a crime. I personally think that the whole judicial system needs to be looked at, and reorganized.

I don’t think that laws that were in effect when Washington was president should still be present now. Times have changed and so should the system. I think that it is ridiculous that someone that is caught on a minor position of drugs sits in jail, while someone who has allegedly killed someone goes out on parole. I’m just one little person, whose voice may never be heard, but these things like the NIU shooting and the constant threats to schools, are not going to stop , and are only going to continuously get worse, unless something is done about it. I hope this problem is noticed and something is done about this, before it is too late.

Another student wrote the following:

It is very scary to hear about school shootings. Virginia Tech was tragic, but hard to grasp because I was still in high school, and my high school is very small. NIU is easier to relate to now that I am at a University. When I first heard of it I was walking back to my dorm and my mom was telling me about it on the phone. I was in shock. It was scary. I instantly wanted to get back and get online to see if I could find more information on it.

[. . .] It would be great to live in a world where you did not have to worry about doing something as simple as attending a lecture without having a crazy person come in and do something tragic like happened at NIU. It is scary to see how dangerous of a world we live in. However it is a good opportunity to step back and to evaluate our lives and to see if we are living them to the fullest. Live is too short and we never when it will be gone. The students went into their lecture hall, were just about ready to get out and then instantly young lives were taken. It is crazy and we need to make sure we all live our lives to the fullest with no regrets.

The only guy so far to join the discussion wrote this:

The question that I ask myself is why. Why would anyone want to take the life of others and take their own life? We live in a world where there are so many people you can contact to help you. In a lot of these situations the shooter is one who is having a hard time getting through life. [. . .] I can’t imagine what goes through a person’s mind when they feel they have to take someone’s life away. It’s very unfortunate to see this situation happen, and more than once. We have seen this in Colorado and at Virginia Tech last year. When something like this happens, it shakes up a community. It affects everyone in many different ways. It makes people scared and makes them feel very uncomfortable everywhere they go. It does make people not take life for granted, but something like this shouldn’t have to happen for people to see how valuable our lives are.

It’s hard to believe someone would do this under any circumstance. The world we live in is full of chances to succeed. Sometimes people can get lucky and score big, but most people have to work hard. These hard working people are usually rewarded. But yet some people feel it is not for them. Our lives are so very valuable. When someone loses their life, families and friends ask the question: why us? People’s lives are taken all the time, and the worst part about this situation is that no one way doing anything wrong. I’m not saying when you do something wrong your life should be taken. I just wish this individual would of stopped and asked himself why? I don’t know if the individual was mad at these kids for doing something, but there is no valid reason for taking someone’s life. There is just no reason. If someone makes you mad, just try your best to forgive them. No one wants to have that on their conscience. Maybe that is indeed the fact the shooter took his own life.

Another student wrote:

You always think that a school shooting will never happen to you or anyone close to you. Truth is it happens more often then anyone likes. When it’s someone you know that gets killed, things change meaning. Even if you don’t know them well. I don’t claim to know this person well at all. They were just a person that I would see every time I worked and that I would talk to. Her husband was the principle at Weston High School. I never knew that’s who her husband was until I went to work the day after and found out that it was her husband who was killed by the student. Now, Weston isn’t that far away from my home. I had played in basketball tournaments there since I was little and I had a lot of friends from there. So did everyone from my school. I had classmates that had transferred to Weston and vice versa, but on that day everything at school stopped. An announcement came over the intercom that the entire high school was in a state of lockdown. We had the TV’s on. We were all watching the news about it. There was a girl who had just transferred from there to my school not 2 weeks earlier. She was in tears. No one knew how many people were hurt but we were all called to the auditorium an hour after lock down. By then the whole school knew more than the teachers because of text messaging. Our friends from Weston were texting us telling us what was going on. At the massive assembly we found out that the principle was dead and that’s about all they knew. Class didn’t resume as normal that day or the days to follow. Neither did work. That lady that I always talked to wasn’t there. She was on the TV sobbing. She was in the court room fighting for justice to what had happened to her. She was doing everything she never wanted to do. I didn’t see her in person for 3 months. When she first came back you could tell she was different. She looked tired. Maybe that was how I viewed her, but she wasn’t the same. She was still the nice lady that always talked to me and made sure I stayed awake while I worked but I felt so bad. I wondered how anyone could ever do that. Can’t those people that kill others for no reason see the pain on the victims loved ones faces. Can’t they see what they are doing? They aren’t just tearing a person apart with bullets but they are tearing apart a family, a community, a county, a state, and the US.

NIU is just a subtle reminder to anyone that’s ever been close to a school shooting or been affected by a school shooting to remember the pain it causes everyone involved. NIU will never be the same neither will how people view it. The only thing that will change are the memories of the people that died and where they were that day and exactly what they were doing how they found out about it and who said what.

One girl wrote simply, “I do not know what scares me more: that school shootings are occurring more often, or that the shooter was an honors student that no one would expect to commit this horrible act. School shootings can occur anywhere.”

Then there is the girl who took a broader view of the situation:

The shootings at Northern Illinois University are just another in the ever growing list of incredibly horrifying episodes of violence that have plagued the United States going back to the shootings at Columbine High School in 1999. Hearing about the shootings is always scary and shocking, but sadly it isn’t as surprising as it once was. When the shootings at Columbine happened, the whole country went into a state of mourning. Ordinary citizens across the United States knew many of the names of victims that had died and sent countless numbers of flowers, letters, and prayers to the families of those who had died that day. Even now about nine years after the shooting if you hear the title, Columbine, most people immediately remember that day and remember hearing about that terrible tragedy.

Now, however, I feel that the citizens of the United States still feel that same sense of shock and sadness when a shooting like this happens but I think it’s not quite as profound. After a couple days the deep feeling of alarm and grief wears off and people continue with their daily lives and generally almost forget about what happened. For example, I know that there have been several school shootings in the years between Columbine and Northern Illinois and except for the instance at Virginia Tech, I can’t remember any specific examples. To me, this knowledge is both scary and sad. It tells me that we, as a nation, have had so many instances of school shootings that they have almost blurred together in my mind to the point where they all seem the same. Where I am able to remember specific names of the victims at Columbine, I can barely even name the specific city in which certain school shootings have taken place in the past couple years. It’s almost as if the school shootings aren’t as big of a deal as the once were. I think that sounds absolutely terrible because to the families and friends of the people who perish as a result of the shooting, the effects are astronomical and their lives are changed forever. However, for the rest of the people that aren’t affected as close to home, their lives seem to move on fairly quickly.

[. . .]

I feel that because this specific school shooting hit closer to home for me than what many of the others did, I will remember this one better. However for people who didn’t know anyone at the school or only briefly heard that there was another school shooting, they will forget it more easily. They will unintentionally disregard it as “just another school shooting” and go on with their daily lives as if something this terrible never occurred. In saying this I am not blaming American citizens for this. I feel that I am the same way (unless I am directly affected by what happened). However, I am simply stating the sad truth that because there have been so many school shootings in the past nine years we, as citizens, have almost forgotten how truly terrible a school shooting really is.

As for me, I’m not looking over my shoulder or trying to guess out any “weirdos” I might pass on the sidewalks. Instead, I try simply to process the news and to take what opportunities I can to help my students do the same, to try and teach them, within the limits of my curriculum and our class discussions, some degree of compassion. I also try to learn from them, to understand their perspectives.

And I agree with you about the issue of gun control: As in Texas, gun control is a very touchy subject here in Wisconsin, and most people don’t want to hear about it — they’re much too attached to their firearms. But in all these panicked questions about how we can prevent these scenarios from happening, the only logical answer is to remove the weapons that allow such mass destruction. We can invade on privacies and screen for mental health, we can arm our teachers and turn our campuses into locked camps or paramilitary compounds of “education,” but in the end, the only freedom it makes sense to restrict is the freedom to kill, and I am very much in favor in banning handguns and assault rifles and severely restricting all other firearms. Period.

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