This weekend I talked about teaching writing after Hurricane Katrina on a panel at the College English Association's conference here in New Orleans. My topic was, "Assessing Student Writing After Katrina," and the primary focus of my talk was the self-disclosures of my students in writing and emails, and my capacity to respond to them effectively after Katrina. I referred to an essay by Marilyn Valentino called, "Responding When a Life Depends on It," in which she outlines effective comments teachers can make when students reveal traumas in their writing. Valentino also warns in her essay that a teacher must not reveal his or her "personal trauma" because to do so makes one a "victim," him/herself.
Because the trauma of Hurricane Katrina has been both deeply personal (and of course, in that sense, widely varied), and wholly also collective (anyone who lived in the storm--whether they stayed or evacuated--experienced the trauma of loss because of the storm), I pointed out that the notion of "personal disclosure" on the part of the teacher doesn't apply in the case of teachers in New Orleans. Students know that we, too, have been victims of this larger trauma. And, in fact, they do, sometimes, appear to use that knowledge in a way that "victimizes" the teacher.
I've kept a file of student "excuses" on my computer for a while now. I like to use it to illustrate some of my students' best persuasive writing. But the content of those emails has changed rather radically since the storm, and this month I have received some of my very "worst" emails. After I contacted two students to express my concern about their persistent absences, one wrote back, "I am mentally disturbed." She explained that she found she couldn't focus since the storm (and I must say, her writing supports that disclosure). Another student wrote, "It's like nothing in life wants me to succeed anymore."
I tried to respond supportively to these students, but I, too, am experiencing what they are experiencing. I find it hard to focus. I find--especially given our house struggles, the lack of federal response, the lack of local leadership, and the ineptitude of the corps--that sometimes I feel as if "nothing in life wants me to succeed anymore." Because my own personal, emotional "compass" is pointing in the same direction as my students', I have a hard time rigidly assessing their work. I feel sometimes like giving a student like this an "F" would put them over the edge (and it does--the way our students so connect their assessment with their sense of self-worth, but somehow rarely recognize that they have the ability to change that, not you/me). I can't ignore their pain, their loss of focus, but I still have to give them that D, that F. It's what I am paid to do...
So today when I learned that the shooter in what is being called the Virginia Tech Massacre was an English major, I immediately wondered about his teachers--whether they'd seen any cues. How had they handled it?
Now, it appears that his writing teachers did witness disturbing clues:
Va. Tech gunman writings raised concerns
4/17/2007, 3:41 p.m. CT
By ADAM GELLER The Associated Press
BLACKSBURG, Va. (AP) — The gunman suspected of carrying out the Virginia Tech massacre that left 33 people dead was described Tuesday as a sullen loner whose creative writing in English class was so disturbing that he was referred to the school's counseling service.
Professor Carolyn Rude, chairwoman of the university's English department, said she did not know Cho. But she said she spoke with Lucinda Roy, the department's director of creative writing, who had Cho in one of her classes and described him as "troubled."
"There was some concern about him," Rude said. "Sometimes, in creative writing, people reveal things and you never know if it's creative or if they're describing things, if they're imagining things or just how real it might be. But we're all alert to not ignore things like this."
She said Cho was referred to the counseling service, but she said she did not know when, or what the outcome was.
Classmates said that on the first day of an introduction to British literature class last year, the 30 or so English students went around and introduced themselves. When it was Cho's turn, he didn't speak.
The professor looked at the sign-in sheet and, where everyone else had written their names, Cho had written a question mark. "Is your name, `Question mark?'" classmate Julie Poole recalled the professor asking. The young man offered little response.
Cho spent much of that class sitting in the back of the room, wearing a hat and seldom participating. In a small department, Cho distinguished himself for being anonymous. "He didn't reach out to anyone. He never talked," Poole said.
"We just really knew him as the question mark kid," Poole said.
The nature of my profession means that I hear all kinds of disturbing accounts in student-writing. All writing teachers deal with this. And I'll have to admit to worrying lately about the volatility of some of our students. I once wanted to be a psychology major, though--and as someone who has first-hand experience with depression, and who has a keener understanding of major depression and suicide than I'd like to, I'd like to think that I could identify a student like Cho, just as his teacher did.
But then what?
What scares me is that major depression and mental illness seems to be increasing, and yet a public understanding of how to deal with is glaringly absent. On UNO's campus, our administration's primary concern has been recruiting students and keeping our numbers up--not in administering to the psychological needs of our faculty and students. In fact, this weekend I talked with my colleagues about how folks in OTHER cities and at OTHER universities have been more committed to researching the real effects of the storm. We here are so mired in just surviving, ourselves, that I think we are incapable of responding effectively to the needs of others--much less our own.
In some ways, I have been surprised that what happened at Va. Tech. didn't happen here. Last Fall. A scary day: I was teaching a writing class in the Liberal Arts building when two ATF agents with guns exploded into the room. Their faces read: "urgent," and one said, "Have you seen a guy in a green checked shirt?" while the other scanned the room for The Guy in the Green Checked Shirt.
"No," I said. "Why?"
"We're looking for a student in distress. We were told he was wearing a green-checked shirt."
My adrenaline was pumping, and my students and I looked at each other all, "What tha!?!?!" Larry K. from Biloxi offered to guard the door. Several students wondered aloud what "in distress" could mean. I allowed a moment for my heartbeat to settle down before peeking my head out the door. The ATF agents were escorting one of my former students away in handcuffs. I never heard anything more about what happened.
That student--the one "in distress" was The Kindest, The Most Ordinary guy you could ever meet. He didn't talk much, but he certainly didn't strike me as a volatile dude. He didn't send emails--he didn't self-disclose. And so I guess the students who I worry about--the ones who disclose their trauma--may not be the ones I need to worry about. I guess I was wrong about Q.A. (the initials of the Guy in the Green Checked Shirt).
Oh, my word, I don't want to be wrong again.