I drove to school in a fog of exhaustion. Visiting New York City last weekend was good, but certain parts of it were hard, rubbing on old insecurities, and so I plunged myself into routines this past week with the blind determination of a person who refuses to stop trying to do the thing they aren’t quite cogent enough to do anymore. I knew that at some point I would need a good cry, and I reasoned that if I could get through classes, I might get a chance to have that cry when the week was done.
Thursday was the day I was dreading the most: two classes, one of which was always half-awake and overly familiar with each other from high school days, and this week they were a little ahead of my other section on their work, so I needed to come up with something extra to fill the time. The second class is usually a little more easy to engage, a little more willing to jump in and discuss a piece, but that day we were reading the Harlem Renaissance poets, and I was aware that I was going to have to pull back the curtain on the reality that our group was made up of a white instructor, 5-7 white students, and one Black student. It would take finesse.
My heart is in the work, it always has been, but I’m tired. Tired of standing up for myself, for asking for what I need and not getting it. My time in NYC felt like a lot of that. Being a millennial in the gig economy is a lot more of that. Teaching sometimes can feel like that, when you ask for the same thing over and over in every way you know how to describe and it’s still not getting through. That’s often on me, though, so I keep trying. I know there’s a way through all this, so I keep trying. I went to my first class.
As I started taking roll on my laptop, a series of text notifications began to roll in. Are you ok? Are you safe? Are you home?
I closed the laptop to lecture, ignoring the worry that waited in those messages. We finished our section on cover letters. I handed them a short essay to read and discuss. It didn’t land well. We discussed it anyway. I let class out and went back to my office.
The texts were about a shooter, an ex-Marine who had just killed his girlfriend, who was on the loose in the neighborhood next to mine. Classes at the sister community college to mine, the one that was close to my home, were cancelled. They thought he was hiding in the woods behind that campus, or in the neighborhood between there and mine. “Stay indoors,” the news urged. Businesses down that way were under lockdown. People hiding in their homes, unable to leave for work.
“I’m fine,” I wrote back to people. “I’m at school, over an hour away! Totally safe.”
I carried on with my afternoon, finishing prep for my next lesson, wading through the vocabulary I knew I’d have to introduce.
In class, waiting for a last student to arrive, we watched the press conference in Roanoke about the shooter. One of my students had a friend in that neighborhood, and everyone was curious if the shooter had been caught. We watched a few minutes—he was armed and on the loose, but they didn’t have good leads on where he was. He could be anywhere still.
Our last member arrived, and we turned to the poets. I began explaining the Black writers for Black readers dynamic at play with the Harlem Renaissance, the role of whites readers as eavesdropping on these poems, these conversations. We talked about white fragility, we talked about how fucked up it is that these poems still feel relevant, a hundred years later.
We got interrupted by the alarm system: Shelter in place. Because of the events at Alleghany High School, we are on lockdown. Shelter in place.
My student lurched out of his seat. His child was at that high school. They’d taken the child’s cell phone away that morning. Now they didn’t have a way to reach their kid. He was upset.
Another student began getting call after call—her mother was worried she’d be hanging out at her old high school campus with friends. Was she safe?
I froze mentally. I’m sure I was letting out a stream of chatter, affirming my students’ decisions to answer calls or place them. All I could think about, though, was the poem that AFP wrote about the Boston bomber, from his perspective in the time he waited in the bottom of the boat to be found. She’d gotten so much hate for that, but here I was, thinking about the ex-Marine hiding in the woods after he’d killed his girlfriend. And then, as we learned what was going on at the high school—a former student had shown up with a weapon and threatened to kill himself in front of someone he wanted to make suffer—I thought about him, too.
How many times have we as a nation publicly fantasized about this scene, replaying the stories of Columbine until it became a national mythology? How many times do we hear the stories of those who kill, how many press conferences have we watched with sobbing parents, siblings, classmates as they paraded their pain and begged for an end to it all. How all of it is different ways of begging for an end: the holding of the guns as insurance just in case you need to play god, the political statements, the protests, the walkouts, the pleas for us to mute the names of those who destroy and elevate the names of the victims.
So I, too, hit pause with the power available to me. I could see my way through this. Here was a way in, a way to connect, a way to illuminate.
“Okay, we don’t know how long this is going to go, so let’s do what poets have done for generations and take out paper and something to write with,” I said.
“Pick a perspective around one of these situations, and write a few lines, maybe ten, in the voice of someone other than you who’s involved in what’s happening right now. A teacher, a cop, the dead girlfriend, the shooter, the teacher of the shooter, the grandmother, someone. Take on their voice, using whatever form you want from the ones we’ve studied.”
And so they wrote. A quiet fell over the room. Things were scratched out. Rewritten. I could feel a migraine (thanks, PTSD) begin to come over me, gripping the back of my neck and pushing its slow spikes through my eye sockets to my forehead. I waited.
As they finished up we got the all clear, and they wanted to read what they’d written. One took the voice of a classmate. One of a teacher. One spoke as the shooter’s father.
We felt a little better, listening to each other read. And we finished the original lesson, circling back to where we’d left off, finding a stopping place until next time. My migraine settled into a heavy thrum, attention tunnel vision locked in place until it decided to leave me be, hours later.
I needed to cry still, for everything and for nothing. I wondered if I had made the wrong call with the poem assignment. I wondered if that was too exploitive, if it was fair. The work was good, the students eager. But was it overstepping, a flippant use of my power as instructor? I don’t know. I know it was all I had in me, so it had to be enough.
Driving home, I listened to Ocean Vuong read from his book On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous with his voice soft, tiptoeing into descriptions like a ballerina, sweet and light. I got home and took some medicine and napped briefly. I drove to my old school to attend a reading and meet a friend. The author looked like if Helena Bonham Carter were a sweet summer child, and she laughed and settled us into her stories like she was teaching us to play a game with her that she was very good at. I began to feel euphoric, the adrenaline and the relief coursing through my body with hot kind pulsations. My head felt light again. I could think. I felt like, for the moment, everything was enough.
After the reading, one friend wouldn’t say hi to me, and left early. Another was warm, offering me a hug. I muddled around, saying hello to people, but I couldn’t match anyone’s pitch, finding myself in a social descant cadence after everything. So I left, drove back into town.
On my bedtime walk with my dog, the moon loomed large. There might still be a murderer in the woods behind the dog park where we were walking, but at least right then I was so very alive.