I want to be clear: this is what it has been like for me in the last week. There are over 30,000 students, faculty, and staff at UNC Charlotte and I’m pretty sure there have been over 30,001 reactions to a gunman shooting our students last Tuesday.
So far, I’ve had students yell at me (via email) that they are PERFECTLY FINE AND NOTHING HAS AFFECTED THEM. I’ve had students share that they were in therapy first thing the next morning after the shooting. I’ve had students close to my age share that when they try to work, they can only stare at their computer screen. My colleagues are writing publicly and privately as they try to process all we are feeling. I’ve seen faculty and administrators that once they stopped helping everyone else, they fall into a funk where all we want to do is sleep and sleep is the last thing we can do, where it’s not clear when this is going to end, and wondering if or how we are ever going to be whole again. Yes, I switched from “they” to “we” on purpose.
To paraphrase one of the colleagues I most admire for her smartypants way of saying things: The kids are not alright. The adults are not alright. It feels like a demand for resilience to see “UNCCharlotteStrong” everywhere we look. We are not there yet and we don’t know when we are going to feel strong again.
I find comfort in Glennon Doyle’s maxim: First, the pain. Then, the waiting. Then, the rising. She shared this most recently as her reaction to the death of Rachel Held Evans. To me, it is the story of the Phoenix among other, more mainstream religious beliefs. I am still very much in the pain. I haven’t even started “the waiting.” At some point, I hope to be in the rising, which currently is an image of me at the NC Legislature demanding gun reform.
But that is not where everyone is. And even that idea that there will be rising is offensive to some of my colleagues as yet another call to demanded resilience.
So this is my story. This is what I feel, perhaps with observations that I’m not the only one feeling these things. Because there is no way on earth that I can share what everyone is feeling here at UNC Charlotte.
But the first and the strongest thing I’ve felt? Love and responsibility for my students. Another colleague first pointed out that although the students in that classroom are not “mine,” they are all absolutely mine. On Facebook, I saw a graduate PhD instructor come to this realization herself as an undergraduate ran onto her bus during the shooting saying she didn’t want to die yet.
When we teach, our students are vulnerable. We have to help them open them up to put the information inside and then get the knowledge out. They may fear that they are going to fail or that they are not smart enough to understand the material. I frequently call my students my kiddies (undergraduate, usually) and my little bunnies (graduate, mostly). I’ve heard strong pushback from some faculty that giving our students such nicknames infantilizes them. That is bullshit. I call them these nicknames as a signal that they can try, they can not do well, and I will still be here to help them succeed. They can be vulnerable in stretching and trying to learn and even if they miss it, I still care for them as humans and I will help them as students.
My students are growing, thriving humans who have the capacity to learn something new that might actually change their lives. They might learn how to think deeper and more critically about themselves, their lives, and even their research. It is hard and it is scary to go deeper in thinking. The fear of failure makes them vulnerable and I want to let them know they are safe to try harder when they are learning.
They should be vulnerable when they try to learn. But they should not be vulnerable to bullets.
I can hear my heart beat louder after writing that sentence. For the last week, I have considered all our UNC Charlotte students to be mine; other faculty have just been borrowing them. Last week, our students were not safe. My colleagues, whom I care very deeply about and identify completely with, were not safe.
I was driving my twins home from after-school tutoring when I got the alert on my phone that shots were reported near Kennedy and to Run, Hide, or Fight. I had to pull over to the side of the road to text “Are you ok?” to the colleagues I knew were on campus and all the students I thought might still be. Over the next few hours, I received dozens of texts me asking me “Are you ok?”
As the hours progressed, the circle of students I contacted continued to widen from my research lab to my current students to my program students to my past international engineering students who (as I correctly suspected) are good friends with one of the victims. I would have emailed last Fall and last Summer’s students to check on them if I could have figured out a way to do so. I tried. They have changed our Canvas email abilities.
Just typing all this has increased my adrenaline level again. No, I wasn’t there. But so much of what is my heart on this job was. We care for your children when they are our students. We care for them a lot.
The kids are not alright. The adults are not alright. And it may be a long time before we are “alright” again. When I can talk about this and not hear my heart beating, maybe then I’ll be “in the waiting.”