Requiem on a Semester {0}

This is not how the semester is supposed to end. And yet we have ended this way before. A gunman on campus.  Senseless murder. Suicide. This is not the goodbye post I intended to write to you, my students. But my blogs are nothing if not honest, and I must write from where I am.

Last Thursday, Reading Day, I took the morning off to sneak in a long run. Long runs are difficult to sneak and it was nearly noon by the time I arrived at my office, with just enough time to prepare for an academic advisors meeting in Derring at 1 PM. As I walked across campus with a colleague, the sirens began blaring. We waited for the follow-up announcement, “this is just a test”, but as you know, that announcement never came. We met up with other people headed to the meeting and one of them received the first VT Alert that a person with a gun was reported near Cassell Coliseum. We began walking quickly, and then running into Derring Hall.

After sending out some messages to cancel the meeting, I headed up to the SCALE-UP class. Gary Kinder was there with some of his students who were giving their final presentations. The atmosphere in SCALE-UP was calm. The students seemed to be OK, but I realized that I was not.

Many friends have described Thursday as surreal, and I would agree. I felt myself simultaneously experiencing the crisis of the present and of 2007. I told myself I had come to SCALE-UP to ‘check-up’ on the students, but in reality, I believe I went there seeking comfort. In SCALE-UP, I have spent the very best moments of the semester.

On Thursday, I was surrounded by students in SCALE-UP, great kids, but they were not you. Except for Angelica, who was working that day in her role as teaching assistant. As always, so strong, so positive regardless of the circumstances.  Later that day, I received an e-mail from Jae, who was safe in his apartment and checking to see if I was OK.

As my mind flailed and tumbled back to that dark, terrible time, Angelica and Jae provided me with a safe landing.

After the shootings on April 16, the Virginia Tech community reeled for about a week, then classes were resumed. I was teaching Developmental Biology to about 50 students. SCALE-UP did not exist back then, but my classroom was just down the hall on the third floor of Derring. We met Tuesday and Thursday mornings, and on that first Tuesday class after the shootings, I did not know how I could possibly face my students. I realized that they had come back to classes on Monday, and had experienced each and every professor exposing his or her deepest vulnerabilities to them. Most students view their professors as authority figures, and most professors view themselves as such. None of my colleagues felt authoritative after April 16. Most trembled and cried on that first day back to class. I decided my students had probably had enough of that on Monday and so I kept my comments very brief on Tuesday morning. I told them that I was sorry, so so sorry, and that I cared for them. We discussed the range of options they had for completing the semester.

And then I panicked. Almost every student had come back for class, even though none were obliged to be there. All 50 pairs of eyes were looking at me expectantly. I didn’t know what to do. “Well,” I finally stumbled, “I have some material prepared that we could discuss, if you’d like.” The room was silent.  Then Yi Zhao, who always sat directly in front of me, reached under his desk. He brought up his notebook, opened it to a blank page, took out a pen, and looked up. One by one, the other students did the same. Zhao did not say a word, but in that quiet act, he gave me what I needed to go on. He was not restoring my supreme authority, something I do not believe a teacher ever really has. Zhao gave me hope. Hope that no matter what suffering, tragedy and oppression we face, the desire for learning prevails. Perhaps that desire and the promise of learning IS our hope.  Thank you Zhao. I doubt that you realize what an impact your quiet act of grace, strength and leadership had on my life.

Everyone who experienced April 16, 2007 at Virginia Tech was changed. Some have never recovered and I am so terribly sorry for that. I struggled for about a year to find meaning in my work life. Eventually, I realized that I needed to do more for students and with students, and gratefully found opportunities to match my desire. SCALE-UP is one of the outcomes. In SCALE-UP, the role of students as authors of their own learning is explicit. In SCALE-UP, I have the best opportunity I have ever had to know my students as individuals, with amazing, multi-faceted personalities and lives. In SCALE-UP, I never take for granted what a privilege it is to play a role in the education of the next generation, and to be grateful for all that I learn from my students.

To my classes of 2007 and 2011, thank you for being a part of my life. “I cursed the gloom that set upon us, but I know that I love you so.”

The Rain Song by Led Zeppelin

This is the springtime of my loving – the second season I am to know
You are the sunlight in my growing – so little warmth I’ve felt before.
It isn’t hard to feel me glowing – I watched the fire that grew so low.

It is the summer of my smiles – flee from me Keepers of the Gloom.
Speak to me only with your eyes. It is to you I give this tune.
Ain’t so hard to recognize – These things are clear to all from
time to time.

Talk Talk – I’ve felt the coldness of my winter
I never thought it would ever go. I cursed the gloom that set upon us…
But I know that I love you so

These are the seasons of emotion and like the winds they rise and fall
This is the wonder of devotion – I see the torch we all must hold.
This is the mystery of the quotient – Upon us all a little rain must fall.