Twice in my teaching life, I have sat in rooms with students and tried to find the words to convey tragedy. The first time was twelve years ago, in my first year — my first month — of teaching outside of grad school. When I learned of the attacks on September 11, 2001, I was on a long commute through the Texas backcountry and I had a good hour or so to process the events and plan what to say when I met my students on campus. When I did finally arrive at school, I’d decided to simply dismiss class so students could call loved ones or meet with friends and process, but I also left the classroom open in case students wanted to talk as a group. I told them that there are few better places to talk about these sorts of things than a college classroom. And almost all the students did stay, and we talked. I realized later that the resulting discussion was as important for me — maybe more important for me — as it was for them.
When I learned of the attacks on April 15, 2013, I was already in the classroom, down in McMinnville, Oregon, between classes. I had maybe 20 minutes to read online as much as I could about what had happened, and no time at all to plan what to say. My plan for the next class was to conduct a group-building exercise designed to promote audience awareness, language building, and camaraderie in my students’ small workshop groups. We were playing the game Taboo. As students came into the room, I could see that none of them had heard the news — or if any had, they weren’t talking about it — and so I decided, in the space of about five minutes as students arrived for class, that I couldn’t derail that exercise. The communication — and the fun — were too important. So we played the game Taboo. We laughed, and we celebrated correct guesses and earned points, and we had a fun couple of hours. When class was over, one student stayed behind. Last week, this same student had lingered and talked with me about how hard it was for him to make friends, and one reason he’d come to college in the first place was just to meet new people and try to make new friends, and he was having a very hard time doing that. Yesterday, he lingered with a huge grin on his face, and he told me my class was the coolest class he’d ever had. He said I made learning fun. I wondered how differently he might have felt if I’d abandoned the game and discussed the news instead, and I was glad we’d played the game. I also realized that I had needed to laugh, too.
My last class, though, was my creative writing workshop, a small class of bright, thoughtful second-year students, some of whom I’ve taught before. One of the essays we were discussing in class was Susan Straight’s “Travels with My Ex,” an essay partly about racial prejudice and the knee-jerk assumptions we make about people. Just before class, a friend of mine — a scholar in postcolonial Arab literature and culture and an Arab-American herself — posted on Facebook a link to a Washington Post piece: “‘Please don’t be a Muslim’: Boston marathon blasts draw condemnation and dread in Muslim world.” She added to the post the comment, “What it’s like in my head today. *sigh*”
I put that Post editorial up on the projection screen and shared (with her permission) some of my friend’s other comments with my students, and we talked about the essay in the book and the article on the screen and the events in Boston. We didn’t talk a lot about Boston, but we made a space for it. And it was enough.
I value my students so much for that. There’s something special — something that, for me, feels important, even necessary — about knowing that when I approach these subjects in my classroom, I am responsible for so much more than my students’ education: I am a curator of their experience of these events. I am an editor to their stories, working with them to shape their comments and process their experiences. I am a quilter stitching together from their discussion a warm, safe place in which to lie down and cry.
And they are all these things for me.
And I am so grateful for that.
Just one month ago, many of the writers and editors and publishers I know were in Boston. They weren’t there to run — they were there for the annual conference of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs. I didn’t get to attend, but I enjoyed all the updates and photos on Facebook and blogs, because they reminded me of the only time I’ve been to Boston, back in April 2006, for the annual joint conference of the Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association. When I was in Boston, I spent a whole afternoon visiting the Boston Public Library — the first public library in America and a model of public libraries around the world even today — and many of my friends in Boston last month made the same literary pilgrimage.
The explosions yesterday happened just across the street from the library’s north side.
I have no idea what it feels like to run that stretch of Boylston Street, let alone to run it in the Boston Marathon. I have no claim to any special connection with the events of yesterday, other than that the trauma was experienced by human beings like me, and the people who raced in to help were human beings I want to be like. But I know what that area of Boston looks like, what it feels like to walk it in the springtime.
I understand how important it is to preserve that. I understand why people will return to that street, spring after spring. I understand why they will never be scared away.
Here are some other things I’ve been reading today. Not news. Commentary. Reflection. Calls to action. Love.
- Robin Young, the host of Boston public radio’s Here & Now, on the bombings
- “Dennis Lehane: Proud, brokenhearted to be Bostonian tonight” on Salon.com
- “Stunned Silence,” an essay by Roxane Gay, in The Rumpus
- “Overwhelming kindness follows Boston Marathon blast,” from USA Today
- “Good Samaritans take in Boston marathoners: ‘You’re not in it alone’,” from NBC News
- “To Run ~ A Prayer for Boston,” a poem by Scott Poole (this one got shared on Facebook, which is where I first saw it, but you can follow to link to find it on Live Wire Radio’s website)