The automatic pistol, it’s all right to have invented it, but it should have never been allowed outside the army, and then only in war time-Oklahoma’s own Will Rogers
This is a post about why as a full-time tenured college professor here in Oklahoma I’m against allowing students to carry guns on campus, and how I get personally terrified whenever there’s a school shooting spree incident reported widely by the media.
I will begin with a story. It’s a sad story. Are happy stories even worth telling? I make a lot of money. I own a very big house. I’m completely satisfied with my life. All my desires and future desires have been or will be surely realized. According to the late E.M. Forster in his wonderful novel A Passage to India, “. . . a perfectly adjusted organism would be silent.” I believe that to be true. I digress.
Once upon a time, a long time ago, I knew John The Student, who died way too young. John was a graduate student, and I was his main mentor. On the day John took his comprehensive essay exam to earn his master’s degree, he lost his words. He couldn’t find his words. John was a handsome and intelligent young man who wanted to become a professor one day. But for one moment on one day it went wrong for him. John apparently left the testing room distraught.
I will describe his telephone call to me shortly after he left the testing room with the tone of his words: Self-loathing and panic. But, at the time of the call, I probably wasn’t paying close enough attention. I simply explained to him that we could easily rectify the situation the next day, that he could retake the exam and that I understood he had lost his words and would gladly sign off on giving him another chance. I don’t think I even thought about it the rest of the evening, I thought he and I would just talk about it the next day, and it would be fine.
The next time I saw John he was in an intensive care unit at a hospital. He had been in a single-car wreck in a rural area many miles away from the Oklahoma City area the previous evening or earlier in the next morning after the test.
What happened over the next few weeks, and it does relate to the main point of this wordy post, is that John, as he entered rehabilitation as a quadriplegic, engaged me in a lively, intense, intellectual discussion about whether he should want or desire to stay alive or not. He asked, What would you do if you were in my situation? This is when words really matter.
After a few weeks or so, John died. Some of my colleagues attended the funeral with me. A university psychology counselor was brought in to talk with some of us in the English Department about John, and she used some good words on us. They were clever, sensible and beautiful words that were so brilliantly true.
But I think more about my words to John. I didn’t record them, of course, but this a truly honest recollection of the tone of my words to John:
Have hope, man. The possibility of spinal chord injury cures is in the news all the time. Research it yourself. (By then, he was using a voice-activated computer, even back in those days. He could listen to books.) Didn’t you tell me yesterday you thought you could lift your arm a little bit? You can teach from a wheelchair. Your mind is still there. You’re still sharp in THE MIND. Hope. You have a voice. Spinal chord injury research continues. Stay alive. I’ll wheel you in myself to next week’s poetry reading down in the Paseo. We’ll go together.
John’s main argument: “I’m not a man anymore.” Now those were his EXACT words, how HE put it. What he meant, as we talked about it more, is that he couldn’t feel much physically below his neck at that point and maybe forever. That was an important deal for him. He was a handsome young guy with probably a lot of desire, a not unusual occurrence among Homo sapiens, but now he couldn’t even feel that desire entirely as he used to or act on that desire in the ways he had done in the past. It was his main point, a perfectly logical point. In retrospect, I don’t think I listened close enough.
Perfunctory me in the tone of my words: But maybe later? A cure? Stay positive. Have hope. You have a lot to live for. The MIND. Well, I have to go now. The MIND. Remember, the strength and intelligence of your mind.
This by far was one of the biggest failures of me using words in my life.
I called him before one particular poetry reading, but he never answered his phone. Then he was gone.
This is an extreme case. But universities deal with words, and these words must be passed on to younger people trying to find their journeys, and people trying to find journeys are in transition, and transitions beam up moments of incredible emotion, of what’s possible or what’s not possible.
So I need to tell another story. Once upon a time, there were conservative lawmakers throughout the country, and especially here in Oklahoma, who wanted to make it so students could carry guns on college campuses and shoot it up if anything goes down. Backpacks filled with guns. Guns holstered around student shoulders. Glock is a name for a gun. What an awful sounding word. I hear it as gluuuh. Gluuuh. People want to argue about why it’s perfectly normal to allow students to carry guns on campus, and all I hear is gluuuh.
Do the actual bill numbers and their sponsors even matter year after year? Here’s the Facebook page about it. The larger issue is not the latest bill here or elsewhere about allowing guns on campus. Locally, it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if the Oklahoma Legislature and Gov. Mary Fallin approved a bill allowing students and other non-law enforcement officers to carry guns on college campuses. The National Rifle Association has made it the larger issue.
John was an incredibly sweet young man. He turned his emotion inward and despaired. But what about the student who turns that emotion outward and enters the abyss of violence, a student who rages, not cries, making one decision, one moment in time, just like when John, after freaking out over his M.A. exam, drove off never to be the same John again?
They may not look like it from the outside, but schools and universities are incredibly emotional places, and now here we are, the teachers, exposed each day in the dark shadow of the potential school shooter, the specter who haunts us as each incident unfurls year by year. Columbine, Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook. Is it the shooter ghost? I don’t believe in ghosts, or do I? Is it a weight on our shoulders? Are we sinking under the weight? I don’t believe in figurative language in a reality sense or do I, do you? Can words physically “weigh” you down?
Those who want to arm our students argue they could protect life with their guns, take down that shooter, take him down, man, right between the eyes, then blow away the smoke off the pistol afterwards. They are heroes in the making, everyone. Thank you, brave madam, for saving the day. Is that the story we should believe in?
What about the story where a student encounters the walls and difficulties of life, and, on a whim, just like whims can whimsically happen, shoots his whimsically unarmed, goofy professor in the head. What if he doesn’t drive OFF like John, but drives IN to the campus fuming instead and armed in full compliance and encouragement of Oklahoma law and its brilliant lawmakers with a Gluuuh. Then he decides to go for broke.
Three years ago, for the first time in my teaching career, I started telling my students wha
t we would do in case there was a shooter roaming my university’s hallways in our building. We would lock the door. Cover the door window. Move everyone into that corner. My students laughed initially. I’m known to use humor in my classes, but I shook my head. Everyone got quiet. This isn’t funny, people. Listen. This is for real. We WILL go to that corner of the room. I have a version of this conversation with my classroom students each semester now. I try to keep it light. But it’s not really funny, is it?
I support people owning guns for protection and/or hunting, but allowing guns on campus isn’t right as I try the best I can to prepare students for realities, walls and changes.