“I’ve been waiting to do this for years,” the Umpqua Community College killer is reported to have said to the professor he shot dead last October, before turning to the classroom of students, quizzing them regarding their religious beliefs, and shooting many of them, too.
People I have spoken with about recent massacres express grief, dismay, horror and a strong sense that something must be done to stop this violence that President Obama has called, "routine.” In my fellow professors, however, there is something else brewing, hot, thick and dark, beneath the outrage and sorrow.
After Umpqua, “all staff” emails fluttered in and out of boxes on college campuses where I teach as an adjunct English professor, just like the late Lawrence Levy. That immediate discussion wasn’t about gun laws or mental health; it was about student safety: Should we discuss the killings in class? Could classroom doors be locked from within? Is our security armed?
These all-staff emails were frighteningly specific, some with a disturbing edge of panic:
“There is a back room my students and I can go into that locks. It has rock samples, picks and axes in it.”
“I don’t want to lock tardy students out, so I lock the door, but leave it ajar. That way a student can pull it closed quickly.”
“My classroom door can’t be locked! What do I do?”
No one except me seems fixated on the last words heard by Professor Levy, “I’ve been waiting to do this for years,” but they linger in my mind. Not, “wanting,” but “waiting.” Not days or weeks, but years.
These eight words have sinuous implications. They suggest that Levy was singled out for assassination and that the perpetrator had been holding a grudge against his former instructor. They imply that the grudge, hidden and nurtured for years, had metastasized into something far uglier than a thumbs down on “Rate My Professor.” Somewhere in the killer’s twisted mind, Levy had become the enemy, someone who must pay.
When a student has a grudge against a professor, a grudge that lasts “years,” we must consider what stumble by the professor, what misstatement in class or perceived character flaw, could have engendered it. An overly liberal comment about politics? An off-handed gesture to brush away the student’s shallow response to a deep question? A D+ on a paper the student had felt sure would earn an A?
We all have had dissatisfied students. We all have had students who behave differently from others. They are “loners," "angry," “brooding," even "scary." Some students exclaim in frustration when graded papers are returned. Some burst out with harsh comments in the middle of lectures when they disagree with the content.
"Stop, stop, just stop!” one student crooned in a literature class, rocking in his chair, when I read aloud a poem with a distressing theme.
Twenty years ago, a student threatened me during a Saturday class, when security on campus was sparse. Another young man walked me to my car that day. I was concerned, but when the angry student didn’t return to class the next Saturday, or ever again, I let my concern go. I don’t believe I thought of it again until I read CNN quoting the Umpqua killer: “I’ve been waiting to do this for years.”
Here is the thing: Professors in the free world make provocative remarks on purpose to stimulate students’ minds, to encourage curiosity, to stretch the limits of their comfortable realities. It is our job to challenge with material that rankles. It is part of the life work we have taken on, usually with passionate affection for the discipline we teach, rigorous enthusiasm for the beauty of truth, and a little rueful impatience at the injustices of the academic world.
We aren’t out to make friends. We are out to make thinkers.
One result of these shootings is a new voice whispering “Careful!” in our ears. I fear professors may soon not feel safe teaching the way we were taught ourselves. When the first troubled student writes a "D" paper and a professor marks it “C+” just to be safe, we will have lost this battle.
It may already have happened.
Barbara Parsons is a college English instructor and writer who lives in Tacoma’s North End. She is one of six reader columnists who write for this page. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.