The Chronicle Review

Prime Suspect, Second Row Center

Joey Pulone for The Chronicle Review

March 06, 2011

He was supposed to have been indicted in June. His father had been hacked to death in his own bed with an ax the previous November. His mother was similarly brutalized and left for dead with her husband but survived. On the last Monday of that August, after several months and many investigative twists, turns, and fumbles, there sat the son—the prime suspect—in my literature class, the first class I would teach for the semester.

Not only was the young man under suspicion for the murder and attempted murder of his parents, but his parents were acquaintances of mine. My husband and I exchanged news with them at school concerts and waited behind them in checkout lines. Their son sat near ours in band practice, and their house was on our running route.

His mom, an employee of a local school system, is the kind of woman who would agree to model clothing at the church fashion show; his dad was a guy who, when his boys were preschoolers, exchanged a private law practice for a public-sector job, a swap that must have meant less money but more time with his two sons. The couple mowed their lawn, arranged play dates for their kids, and carpooled to sports and lessons, just like the rest of us.

The killing and assault created a fault line for a while in our subdued suburb, with its fine schools and well-behaved citizenry. There were those in our town who "knew" the son did it and those who "knew" he didn't. The college kids' grapevine was ripe with stories, which, even if only half were true, revealed in the son a dangerous charisma and an Olympic-size ability to lie. His guilt was less frequently debated as family e-mails were reprinted in the news­papers, as cameras and computers he allegedly stole and sold on eBay were located, and as security-camera videos of his familiar yellow Jeep came to light.

He had already washed in and out of a prominent private research university and my community college. Like a number of students at many two-year colleges, he had enrolled possibly to "earn" his way back to where he wished to be, perhaps to appease his parents. Unlike those students, he allegedly forged a transcript and gained readmission to his original university, no one the wiser at the time. Then he became a "person of interest" in the killings, and he wound up back at my community college—while the district attorney's office was building its case—nearly a year after the crimes had been committed.

Tall, straight-backed, and handsome, he looked as if he had stepped out of an Abercrombie & Fitch ad. With hair always gelled just right and trendy Harry Potter glasses, he sat in the center of the second or third row, invariably where the most confident students sit.

My instant reaction to his presence concerned the safety of the other students in the room. Was there a risk? If so, could I ensure my students' safety? Could anyone? How much time would it take for security to respond to a call for help? Of course, I obsessed about my own safety and my family's, too. But the rational part of me knew that we were all just placeholders for him—he probably didn't care who we were or what course it was. He just needed to be there so that he could call himself a student.

I did not use his last name in class, but several students—tightlipped and stone-faced—knew exactly who he was. They struck me as uncharacteristically, almost eerily reserved, right from the start. At each class meeting the first week, some of the seats around him were empty.

With the syllabus set, group projects in the wings, and daily discussion imminent, what's a teacher to do?

In our darkest moments, when our students have taxed us beyond taxing, when an outburst or a threat or a student stunt has rattled us, we who teach in community colleges will joke privately—only as a way to vent and find some perspective: Well, at least I don't have an ax murderer in my class. In other words, whatever has happened, it could have been worse.

But now a suspected ax murderer was one of my students. What should I do?

I scanned the syllabus. I had prepared it in late May, as I usually do, fresh from teaching the course, with lots of notes in my journal about what to keep, what to fine-tune, what to delete, what to deepen. Perhaps I should change it all overnight, or at least drop the group-project requirement for this term.

As I considered eliminating one story after another, however, I confirmed what I had sensed would be the case: Every story on the syllabus had some degree of relevance to this crime and to these students. Each story seemed crucial for students to read and for me to teach. Even if I revised the syllabus, the textbook's table of contents listed comparable stories. In fact, the course came to seem like an emergency measure, something akin to academic triage. The universal truth and central questions within the literature invariably circled around some aspect of this student and the crime. In the end, I believe the stories we read helped many of us achieve some degree of understanding of the horror that had taken place in our community.

Willa Cather's "Paul's Case" found us discussing whether tension between fathers and sons is inevitable, and the lengths to which some people will go to get what they want, if even for the short time of a flower's "one splendid breath," as Cather puts it. Through Tobias Wolff's "Smokers," we looked at the airs that some private-school students assume and how and why young people strive for a life different from that of their parents. We looked at theft and at lying as measures people routinely use to get to where they want to go. Only one student would risk discussing the inextricably dark nature of Arnold Friend, the presumed killer and rapist in Joyce Carol Oates's "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" But all appeared electrified by the real-life details of the serial killer Charles Schmid, the "Pied Piper of Tucson," Oates's inspiration for the story. No one floated the term "sociopath." But it took no imagination to connect the dots between the issues examined in the fiction and the reports emerging in the news media that semester.

And so it went, day after day, story after story. Why do people lie? What happens when people act in anger? What lurks beneath brother-to-brother conflict? The stories hit it all. A "bloody hatchet," for us a sick double entendre, even surfaced in Frank O'Connor's "Guests of the Nation."

The nature of students' comments told me right away which students were aware that an alleged ax murderer was in our midst. Class discussions are generally free-flowing, dynamic, open. That semester we ground forward with the help of a few students who must have been in a blessed news blackout and a few others with exceptional courage and heart. Some struck me as frozen in place—always in class but never wanting to engage with the horror of the outside world that had found a physical and emotional presence in our classroom.

As for me, I did not hold back. I taught as though my life depended on it, and I had to believe that my life did not. My students needed those stories and the subsequent discussion and reflective writing. I needed to help them understand that, through literature, they were experiencing life in all its darkness and all its light, without suffering any of the consequences. Literature was fulfilling its best purpose, as I see it now.

In November, in response to a subpoena, I turned in my class records. The indictment was handed down the next afternoon. Finally I let out my breath.

Class the next morning was the most important hour, and the hardest, I have ever taught. The classroom was full. The one notable absentee was behind bars. I skipped his name when I called attendance, but his absence was the elephant in the room—the indictment was major local news. The students seemed expectant. What should I say?

Brian, who always sat two rows to the left and a little behind the accused murderer, raised his hand: "That was him, wasn't it?" He continued, "I'm sorry. I haven't said anything in this class all semester, because I was scared. I usually talk a lot."

And so it began. A discussion of truth and fiction, of lies and vengeance, of evil and good, of families. Questions about bad seeds, greed, and money's role in success, corruption, and ruin. Those themes were all there in the stories we were reading, and most certainly in the story that was continuing to unfold in real life that had affected us so directly in our classroom. Students spoke—some for the first time all semester—with passion, fear, confusion, relief, and deep, deep concern. All of us wanted answers; none of us had any. But we found a way to raise and to discuss the questions: through literature.

I still open my teaching year with that course. And each fall semester, as I begin teaching it, I think of the young man and his parents and reflect on how vital literature is to my students' lives and to my own.

My one-time student now resides in a maximum-security prison, as he has since his conviction for murder and attempted murder in the second degree. He appealed his conviction to an appellate court. That court wrote the climax in the latest scene in this particular story: The trial court's "judgment is affirmed."

My students and I have long needed that line to believe in the truth of our fiction, which confirms, of course, the truth of our lives.

But the ending has yet to be written: The case is now on appeal to the state's highest court.

Ellen A. Laird is a professor of English at a community college and a longtime contributor to The Chronicle Review.