Today, I had the privilege of being invited back as a guest on WHYY's Radio Times, where Marty Moss-Coane talked to me about How to Be Safe, teaching, writing, mass shootings, toxic masculinity, locking your windows, and Godzilla. It was fun! Full audio is here if you want to check it out.
What I remember first is his face, the student’s, appearing in the little window in the door at the top of the stairwell. When I told my wife about it later, I described his eyes as crazed, which I acknowledged as a cliché, but I couldn’t think of any more appropriate word. His expression was not a normal human expression. It was the kind of face a bad actor makes to indicate that he is playing crazy right now.
I was teaching in one of the worst buildings on campus, built in the sixties by an architect who specialized in prisons. The college, fearing student protests and the counterculture movement, wanted their new buildings to be riot-proof. The design deters congregation in common areas, and also includes three narrow stairwells, two of which are difficult enough to find that most students don’t even know they exist. When I teach in that building, I take the neglected stairwells, because I can avoid the crowded elevators and gather my thoughts in solitude. This student (let’s call him David) was short, and had to stand on his toes to position his face in the center of that window. I don’t know how long he’d been standing there, or if he’d frightened anyone else away while waiting for me.
I opened the door and smiled and said, “Hey man, you scared me.” I’m usually pretty good at affable interactions with my students, at drawing at least a polite smile. He did not step out of my way. After I brushed past him, he followed one step behind, and said, “Do you think I’m fucking stupid? Do you think I can’t hear what you’re saying about me?” By the time I processed what he’d said, I was in my classroom. I didn’t respond then because it seemed like a bad idea to have this conversation in front of everyone.
I don’t remember much about the 100-minute class period that followed. Probably there was discussion. Some in-class writing. Long stretches where I begged the students to give me more than they were giving me. I watched David the whole time, trying to determine if he would have another outburst, if he had a weapon on him, why he was mad at me. I hadn’t said anything bad about him, as far as I could remember. But maybe. Maybe at home I talked about him to my wife, and he was listening somehow? Maybe he’d been following me? At the end of class, I asked him if everything was okay. He looked at the floor and got fidgety and said yes, and then he ran out of the room.
Two weeks later, as I approached the classroom again, now coming from a different stairwell, now trying to vary my routes and arrival times, I saw David standing in the hall and holding his phone. He pressed on his screen and started playing what I later realized was an Insane Clown Posse song. While doing strange choreography with his arms, like a cheerleader spelling out the home team’s name, he shouted, “2-4-6-8… give me an A, loser!” and then he went into the classroom.
I hadn’t told my wife about the first incident, because I worried I was overreacting; students, especially freshmen, say and do bizarre things all the time. Now, I texted her and asked what I should do. She told me I had to report it to someone. She said I should have reported it much sooner.
* * *
The David story is one I usually tell as a joke. It’s an anecdote to share at happy hour; people love to hear stories about weird students, though usually they want a very safe kind of weird, like the guy from Pittsburgh who had a British accent because he’d taught himself to speak by watching BBC. When I tell acquaintances about David walking into my office a week later, holding fireworks in both hands, it is the setup for a punch line. I asked him why he was carrying explosives, and he looked so confused, it was as if his hands were completely separate organisms, out of his control. He looked at them and said, “Religion class.” At this point in the telling, I usually make a mediocre joke about how we never had that kind of fun in my religion classes in Catholic school. I tell people how oddly calm I felt, considering, but how I was also thinking: he’s small enough that I can push him down. I hadn’t been in a fight in a long time, but I’d had plenty growing up, and I felt pretty confident I could take him if I had to.
Another professor had suggested I offer to walk him to the counseling center and introduce him personally to the staff there. But David didn’t want to go. He told me just wanted help on his essays, so for the next few minutes, we ignored the explosives in his hands and talked about mundane things like MLA formatting. He left having absorbed nothing I’d said, still holding the fireworks. My lack of fear had nothing to do with courage. It was something more like ignorance. Some reckless part of me was convinced I was safe from actual violence. Intellectually, I knew there was no reason I was immune to being murdered, but also there was a thought in the back of my mind that of course I wouldn’t be killed. It would be such a stupid way to die. Ten minutes later, another student arrived for a conference and I talked to her about her thesis, about using more textual support for her arguments. Enough meetings in one day, and the unsettling interaction with the fireworks-wielding student blends in with the rest. It’s all just work.
* * *
Our classroom was a rectangular cell, with one long conference table in the middle, ten chairs on each side, and doors on both short walls. There was a phone attached to the far wall. I tried to subtly check it every class period, to make sure it still worked, though the reality was that if David pulled a gun from his bag, I would have no chance of reaching the phone. The better bet was for one of the other students to call security on their phones. But what if David attacked only me? Would they film it first and then call security? Would anyone even intervene?
Everyone in the room knew he was the weird kid. He slept through classes, and when he was awake, he always seemed confused, making the motions of a person who was paying attention while clearly not following what we were doing or saying. He rarely opened his book. Sometimes he raised his hand, and he spoke in a bizarre, halting cadence, seemingly out of his control (he might, for example, say something like “The author of this ARticle makesagood ARGUment”). The other students snickered at him often. Most classes, we broke into small groups, so one day I pulled two of my more mature male students aside to ask them to always be in David’s group, and to try to include him but also not push him too hard. His instability infected everything we did, and when class ended, I left quickly without looking back. The problem was, I didn’t know exactly what I was supposed to be afraid of. Was he capable of bringing a gun into the room and killing me? Was he more likely to just have occasional relatively manageable outbursts? Would he kill himself?
Some days I saw him running across campus, darting among the herds of students migrating from one building to another. His every movement seemed desperate and urgent.
* * *
Everyone who has taught college students for long enough has some stories like this. The female professors I know typically have many more, and worse, stories than the male professors. Most of the women teachers I know have had numerous male students shout at them, corner them in their offices, wait behind in the classroom to berate them when they’re alone. In those cases, the student poses a particular physical harm to one specific person. Based on my friends’ stories, some universities treat these incidents with the seriousness they deserve, while others tell the professor to try to be more understanding, or that they can’t do anything until the student actually commits a crime. One woman I know quit teaching because her department did nothing to support her when a hulking male student began stalking her.
The college classroom is a volatile space. Actual violence in the classroom is rare—though this is a purely anecdotal claim, as colleges notoriously underreport crimes on their campus, making any official stats functionally useless—but it lurks beneath the surface of every college course. I primarily teach freshmen, who are addled in all the ways one can be addled: stress, hormones, sleep-deprivation, prescription drugs, recreational drugs, social anxiety, loneliness. Dorm living, as it functions at most large schools, is a terrible and failed experiment that runs counter to any reasonable educational goals. By the second month of the semester, once grades have started rolling in, everyone is a single raw nerve on the verge of a breakdown. Then they come to my classroom where I push them into debates about race, class, and money. The quality of their engagement in this debate has a direct impact on their grade. I make jokes and I try to keep the atmosphere light, but everything is fraught. In all meaningful ways, I make their lives harder.
I would be lying if I said I feared for my life every day I spend on campus. I teach on an urban campus in a section of Philadelphia that has been in decline for decades. All the problems of poverty and drugs—crime, homelessness, a general sense of despair—bleed onto the campus. But I don’t feel unsafe there. It’s not because of the huge security force deployed by the school; it’s because most people, most of the time, are perfectly safe from being shot. But what if one of our 30,000 undergraduates snaps and comes to school with an arsenal one morning while I’m strolling past the library and staring at my phone? Large college campuses are especially vulnerable to a spree killing because of the high concentration of people, the sprawling layouts, the clustering of activity around specific times, the massive gaps in security. There is nothing you can do to make yourself safer in this instance, except to hope for good luck. It’s like living on a fault line and hoping the big one doesn’t hit while you’re there.
* * *
What I’m saying is: if someone wanted to kill a lot of people on our campus in a very short time, they could. It’s important to state this fact directly.
* * *
Schizophrenia commonly manifests in a person’s late teen years, so it’s likely David was literally losing control of his mind while he was in my class. Our university’s urgent outreach team—established after the Virginia Tech shooting—was able to get him into treatment, and, though confidentiality laws prohibit me from knowing any specifics of his condition, it became clear he’d been heavily medicated, as he was now subdued to the point of seeming tranquilized. He failed my course because he could never stay awake long enough to get any work done. I assume he failed all his courses. When I submitted the F, I worried for months that he would find out where I lived, or that he would be waiting at the door of my office one day with a knife or a gun or both. As far as I knew, the only thing keeping him from going on a rampage was his compliance with his meds.
* * *
In most of my classrooms, there is only one exit, behind me. If a shooter entered the room, my students would see him first, I would be shot in the back, and they would have no escape. For reasons I cannot remember, I said this aloud to my students once. They laughed, but it was not a joke. I shouldn’t have said it.
* * *
Two years after David failed my class, someone graffitied a bathroom wall in my building: “April 20th I'll bring honor to Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold… April 20th you will all learn the meaning of suffering." The date was a Saturday and also a famous day for smoking pot, which, from the perspective of an aspiring mass murderer, would be a poor choice to try to rack up a high body count. It was probably a college guy sitting on the toilet thinking it would be funny to freak a few people out, and then things go out of hand. Still, students told me that parties were poorly attended that weekend, and campus was unusually quiet.
Two years after that, in the aftermath of the shooting At Umpqua Community College in Oregon, someone posted this message on 4chan: “On October fifth, at 1pm Central time, a fellow robot will take up arms at a university near Philadelphia." Every area university sent warnings to their communities, but all stayed open. I had scheduled one-on-one conferences with my students that afternoon, and it would have been complicated to reschedule them all, and besides, I didn’t want to give some 4chan troll the satisfaction of disrupting my life. Half my students emailed to cancel anyway, and I couldn’t blame them; there are much better causes to die for than trying to make it to a meeting with your freshman comp professor.
From my office, I have a view of the center of campus, where there is a large bell tower that serves as a gathering place. If there were a shooting spree, I would probably see it unfolding. I imagined the mobs scattering through the heart of campus as gunshots popped behind them. The gunman stomping past the bell tower, scanning the area for clusters of killable people. My office is across the hall from the main department office, so usually it is a bustling place, but fifteen minutes before one o’clock, a silence that can only be accurately described as eerie settled over my floor. Nobody walked down the hall. The elevator did not ding. Every door but mine was closed. I decided I should close my door too, knowing it wouldn’t stop a bullet. My office is on the tenth floor, so as long as the shooting started at ground level, I would have time to barricade my door with file cabinets and my desk. I would crouch in a defensive position and text my wife. I would not text my mom, who still calls me every time she sees a news report of a crime on my campus. I envisioned all the possible outcomes, from my cowardly death to my heroically stopping the shooter. Sometimes when I imagine the shooting scenario, I get shot while I’m hiding. Sometimes while I’m charging the shooter. There are so many different ways to get killed. Most often, I imagine being caught in a stairwell, panicking and trying to run. Being shot in the back. And as the shooter steps over my body, I have just enough strength left in me to send a single text to my wife, to tell her I’m sorry, but I’m dead.
* * *
I was in high school when the Columbine shooting happened. Afterward, a friend’s mother kept asking us if we knew anyone in the Trenchcoat Mafia, as if they had chapters in high schools across the country. Later, when I distributed an underground “newspaper” (really more of a pamphlet) that insulted most groups of people in the school, I was accused of being a potential school shooter. They sent me to counseling. They asked if I’d ever had thoughts of suicide or murder. I was seventeen and listened to heavy metal; almost of my conversations then were about suicide and murder. I wouldn’t even know how to hold a gun, let alone have a desire to shoot it, and I was not a threat to go on a rampage. But how could they know for sure? One afternoon, I found a note in my locker warning me that if I tried to “do a Columbine,” I would get my ass kicked. I knew it was written by the guy who cheated off me in AP English. We never spoke about it.
Like most schools, my university has an emergency alert system designed to quickly contact everyone on campus by text, email, and phone call. The majority of the messages are about robberies after midnight on party nights, drunk students walking home alone and getting mugged. I can no longer, in good conscience, ask my students to turn their phones off in class (not that they would do it anyway). They need to be able to access the emergency alert. I count on them to blurt out that there is an active shooter so that we can … what? Run? Hide? Fight? All three at once? It’s still better to know, I guess.
* * *
Think, for a minute, of how blithely we’ve accepted the regularity of mass shootings that I don’t have to name the shooter or the victims or give any other context besides the location, and every reader automatically knows what I mean. That I can say Sandy Hook and Aurora and Columbine and Pulse and Sutherland Springs, and San Bernardino, and you can quickly call to mind the basic details of the mass killings and organize them in your mind, either chronologically or by body count. Think about how diseased our culture is that we know these shooters and their body counts the way I used to have memorized batting averages and RBIs. Think about the phrase “active shooter” and its widespread acceptance into the lexicon. Before Columbine, that phrase only turns up in newspaper accounts describing hockey games or gun clubs. It was crafted, post-Columbine, to describe the new phenomenon of angry young men with access to military arsenals. It took less than five years—of shootings and meaningless platitudes from Congress and thoughts and prayers and then more shootings—for us to begin talking about the possibility of an “active shooter” as if it’s the weather, as if active shooters have always existed and will exist long after us.
* * *
It's been said often since the Sandy Hook shooting that if the mass murder of children couldn’t change the way our culture discusses guns, then nothing can make us change. But I think this is wrong: it did change the way we talk about guns, in that it made the NRA and its supporters more militant. It spawned a cottage industry of accusing murder victims of being “crisis actors,” employed by George Soros, paid to stage elaborate hoaxes of mass murders. For some men, it’s easier to believe that all gun murders (besides the ones in inner cities) are actually complicated frauds perpetrated by a cabal of rich liberals who hate guns more than anything, but also, for some reason, have done nothing specific to eliminate guns.
It’s not that we’ve stayed the same since Sandy Hook, it’s that we’ve gotten worse.
* * *
Some questions: If there were a shooting at my school, how many bodies would you need to see in the headline to click through to the article? If only three or four people died, how much coverage would it get? Would you see the tweet and shake your head sadly and then keep scrolling to the next atrocity? If I were one of the bodies, how would they cover me? I don't have a fascinating backstory. I'm just a guy with a pretty good life who goes to work and then goes home; I don’t even have any good selfies for CNN to run in the background while they debate nothing vs. nobody vs. nothing else. Does a life have value if it can’t go viral?
For me, the answer is five. I need to see five or more dead in a headline to click through. Otherwise, it’s just run-of-the-mill murder. It takes more than ten for me to feel surprise.
* * *
Every time there is another shooting, there is a push for more guns on campuses, following the same logic that if you’re attacked by a bear, what you need is several more bears to neutralize that first bear. Why, after all, would you want be alone with one snake when you can lie in a pit of snakes, just reveling in how safe you are? My campus is in a progressive, liberal city with strict gun laws, and, though we’re once again reaching record highs in shootings, the victims are largely the sort of people that progressive, liberal cities have determined are disposable. Right now, our campus is in the midst of pursuing a ban on all tobacco products, so it seems unlikely to me that we’re anywhere close to allowing guns, but I have some friends who teach on open carry campuses. The theory is that someone who wants to commit mass murder won’t be stopped by a restriction against guns, so the Good Guys on campus may as well be armed. I don’t know if I would be able to teach effectively, knowing I was surrounded by people who perceived themselves as Good Guys With Guns, but who might only be one or two bad days away from becoming some other kind of guy with a gun. The myth of the good guy with the gun relies on the belief that our essential nature is predetermined and static; you’re born good and you stay good and that’s that. They say an armed society is a polite society, but what they really mean is that an armed society is a dominance society; the boys with the guns establish dominance, and everyone becomes subservient to them.
* * *
The real violence that plagues college campuses isn’t spree killers; it’s sexual violence, stalking and harassment and rape and all the related crimes. My own college reports only 36 incidents of “sex offenses” or domestic violence on our campus since 2014, a number so ludicrously low it is impossible to believe. I’ve personally known seven female students who were victims of ongoing harassment and stalking; none of them were willing to report it to the university for fear of reprisal, and they only told me because they thought I would keep their secret. Domestic abusers terrorize their victims, and even when a woman does seek help, they run into roadblocks from a culture that refuses to understand male anger as the root problem.
It has been well-documented that nearly all spree killers and mass murderers have histories of domestic violence. Many of them, like Elliot Rodger, leave behind notes detailing their sexual frustration. In a lightly covered recent mass murder, Spencer Hight killed eight people in Plano, TX in order to exact revenge on his ex-wife. Steve Stephens livestreamed a murder of a stranger as a twisted revenge on his ex-girlfriend, repeating, “This is your fault,” into the camera. Just this week, in the quaint suburban town next to mine, three women were stabbed to death by a jilted ex-lover with a restraining order. Regardless of who is doing the killing or who is being killed, women are left with the blame: if only somebody would have just fucked him, he wouldn’t have been forced to murder people.
In all measurable ways, the lives of aggrieved men are given more weight and value than any other category of people. If they’re white and Christian, they get in-depth profiles of their motivations. If, like Dylann Roof, they publicly announce they’re doing it because they believe black men are raping hundreds of white women a day, and they want to incite a race war, it leads to a search for other explanations. It becomes impolite to even quote the killer’s own words.
* * *
It has become trendy to criticize colleges for coddling the students, for creating safe spaces and issuing trigger warnings, and otherwise trying to accommodate the desire of young people to feel cared for. These articles portray college as a place paralyzed by fear of offending others and incapable of ever grappling with anything difficult. Most of this anti-college hysteria originates either from people who know better but want to make an easy profit, or from people who spend their days in reflexive fear of whatever young people are doing. For all the talk about millennials being afraid of challenges, there is little to no tangible impact in the classroom. The trigger warning conversation has made me more conscientious about how I present course materials, and how I put them into context. It has made me more cognizant of the complex histories each student brings with them to my room. It has made me a better, more aware teacher, better able to draw students into informed debates about sensitive issues. For those actually working with undergraduates, those who are listening and respecting their lived experience, college is basically the same as it has always been. There are good students and bad, students with open minds and those with closed minds. It’s just that there is now some more room for the perspectives of women, international students, people of color, and people who don’t identify as heterosexual. It’s a more interesting place to be. But now, more than ever, it would be easy for one angry young man to acquire enough weaponry to kill a couple hundred people in a few minutes, and nobody seems to give a shit about that. For active shooters, we get text alerts and thoughts and prayers. For young women of color demanding better representation, we get scores of editorials about how pampered young people are.
* * *
I don’t know if David ever graduated. Over the next several years, I saw him on campus, still subdued, carrying a bag way too large for his frame. When we crossed paths, I tried to avoid eye contact, though I wasn’t sure he would even remember me, given all he’d been going through.
The psychological problems he’d encountered had derailed his whole life. In his case, at least there were resources available to stop him before her harmed himself, or someone else.
* * *
In 1991, Gang Lu, a graduate student at the University of Iowa, killed five people and then himself. This incident is detailed in Jo Ann Beard’s “The Fourth State of Matter,” which may be the only perfect essay ever written. Fourteen year after that shooting, I was teaching my first-ever creative writing class at that school, in a building only a few blocks from the site of the shooting. A student turned in a story that was well-written but deeply derivative of American Psycho. I was 23 then and barely removed from my own phase of using violence as a shortcut to conflict in my stories. I was still listening to a lot of heavy metal and most of my writing involved fire and bones and melting skin. It didn’t even occur to me that the student could represent a threat, but a woman in class contacted me privately to say the story had dredged up some horrifying repressed memories for her and even the thought of attending class again made her physically ill. I allowed her to complete the rest of the course via email, but privately, I scoffed at her inability to distinguish between fiction and nonfiction. I still believe the male student did not represent any specific threat, but I should have taken the woman’s concern more seriously. My failure was one of empathy, but also of pride: I was convinced that if someone were truly dangerous, I would be able to read it in his eyes.
But murder can hide behind anyone’s eyes. You look and you see whatever you want to see, until it’s too late.
* * *
It’s a dangerous precedent to set, to think all of your students are suspect. It’s not fair to them, and it’s not healthy to walk through a campus trying to rank the people around you by their likelihood of committing a mass murder. I know all this. And most days, I’m too preoccupied with more banal concerns to think about it. But sometimes, I look out into my classroom and I think: maybe today’s the day. I think: there is nothing I can do about it.
* * *
When I tweet about these issues, I get responses from gun owners calling me a pussy and a libtard. I get lots of messages from men shrugging and asking, helplessly, “What the hell do you want them to do?”
Here’s what I want: I want my rage to matter as much as the rage of the man with the gun. I want the gun to have fewer rights than I do. I want to go to work every day and know I live in a country that cares whether its citizens live or die. I want to be in front of a classroom and not look for potential hiding places and emergency exits. I want to know that just because some boy is not having adequate amounts of sex, I won’t have to bleed out on the floor of my classroom in order to make him feel better.