Finding a Way Forward, Together

John Locher, AP Images

Faculty members at Umpqua Community College embraced upon their return to the campus several days after the shootings.
October 15, 2015

The students flinch. The sound of the projector shutting down is a crisp little beep. The power light flashes once, and the entire class looks to me with huge pupils.

"I’m just shutting down the projector, it’s not the alarm," I say, and there is a collective sigh. A young woman glances at the emergency alert light next to the projector and swallows loudly in the sudden quiet, "Oh! Oh good, that’s good." Her face is red, and her eyes are lined with fatigue. She has just completed her first exam for my writing class, and she is ready to go home.

"Have a great weekend," I tell my students as they file out. One young man waves, but mostly I received grim smiles. "We’ll try," someone says, and then I am alone in the classroom.

The Umpqua Community College tragedy has stolen my students. There is a heavy fear that weighs in silently in every classroom discussion. Students have asked for advice on the best way to flee the campus, and one young woman asked me what she should do if she freezes in a situation like Umpqua, what should she do if she can’t run? I had no idea what to say. Practice? Do your best? Read up on survival situations and report back to the class on Monday? The next question was: Hey, Cody, why don’t you carry? Meaning conceal and carry. Their eyes locked on to mine; they wanted to know.

This is new. This shooting was closer to home for my Portland Community College students. Some of them know survivors, some knew those that didn’t. There is a sense that this will happen here. That it is simply a matter of time before they will need to flee, or hide, or shoot back. They want to know that I can help, that I am trained and ready to help them make it through. Am I?

My training consists of a video and a quick talk by our public-safety personnel. The gist was hunker down, fight back, run if you are able. Ask for volunteers to help you fight off the intruder if he tries to come through the door. During the presentation, an elderly instructor asked what would happen if someone broke in during the lecture and her back was turned. The official answer was that we should react to the situation as it unfolds. The unofficial answer was that the professor is usually shot first. Several audience members muttered about body armor and bullet-resistant whiteboards. "Oh, those won’t help if the shooter is using a higher caliber. These brick walls won’t stop a high caliber." Someone in the audience asked what caliber was.

There have been so many of these tragedies, so many letters from college presidents about coming together, about grief counseling, about reaching out to students. Vigils have become commonplace. When my students learned of the shooting at Umpqua their response was simply, "How many?" No shock, no surprise, they simply wanted to know the casualty report.

I have been thinking about trigger warnings, Title IX, and assessment committees this past month. About how frequently our students’ emotional well-being is considered on paper. We have a larger problem than how many of our students graduate, transfer, or get lost in our byzantine layers of requirements. We need to keep them safe. We need to make our campuses a place of safety and discovery again. I want my students to laugh again, to explore again, not to wince when the door opens in the middle of lecture.

There is a heavy fear that weighs in silently in every classroom discussion.
How do we do it? I don’t know. I can’t see a clear way forward, but I do know we will accomplish nothing by continuing to smash our political beliefs together. I also know that we must listen, not only to one another, but to our students. I gave each of my classes half an hour to discuss the shooting, ask me questions about PCC policy, and voice their own opinions and concerns. There were tears, anger, fear, and much confusion.

But there was also hope. A student raised his hand in the middle of our class conversation and said, "We need to come together, we need to talk. If you’re hurting, talk to your family, your friends, talk to us, to Cody. Talk to someone. You’re not alone, and you don’t have to be alone. It doesn’t matter why, you can just talk to us."

There was a brief moment of silence, and some aspect of the fear that had held my class earlier dissolved. I don’t know the way forward from here, but I think my student does. If we can’t come together, can’t reason together, feel together, than we will be lost to the violence. If we can reach out, like my student did, with immense courage and kindness, we can decide together how to proceed.

For the next few weeks I have decided to turn the projector off after my students have made it to the door. The immediacy of the Umpqua tragedy will fade, but perhaps we will have another chance to come together and find the better way. I’m ready for something more than repeated speeches, political grandstanding, and gentle emails from my campus president. Aren’t you?

Cody T. Luff is an instructor of developmental education and English at Portland Community College.