Teaching a Tragedy

One of the things I appreciate most about my current university is the purposeful community building I see taking place on this campus, the attempt to engage students outside the classroom in ways that challenge their hearts in addition to their minds. Here I’m thinking of the performance of Bach’s Mass in B Minor that brought master musicians to our campus last month or the freshman debates I’ll be attending tonight. That sense of community beyond the classroom is particularly strong in the honors college where I teach, but last night I saw it on a larger scale in the form of a prayer vigil held for the victims of the Boston bombings. The image of hundreds of students, faculty, and administrators coming together in response to this tragedy has been much in my mind this morning as I prepare for class.

In a few hours I’ll be teaching a room of freshmen, all of them 18 or 19 years old, many of them hundreds of miles away from home and the support structures they have known most of their lives. I mention this because I’m trying to wrap my mind around how my responsibilities to these young people and our larger community intersect with the educational tasks of the classroom. Frankly, I’d rather not talk about Boston at all today. I’d prefer to forget it for at least a few hours and apply my mind somewhere a little brighter. Perhaps that’s what many of my students would like as well.

It’s so easy to despair in the wake of a tragedy like this, or to say something trite and meaningless in an attempt to explain it. One alternative, perhaps, is to let someone else speak for us. I thought for a while about sharing Seamus Heaney’s “Funeral Rites,” a poem that so vividly imagines communal mourning as a healing ceremony that your hands shake when you read it. But should I really give my students more images of death right now?

Instead, I’m going to read Richard Wilbur’s “Running,” which includes an extended description of the Boston Marathon and generally celebrates life, the pleasures of running and seeing others run, and the communal joy of sharing that experience. In the last section of the poem, the speaker goes jogging and asks us to join him.

“You whoever you are,
If you want to walk with me you must step lively.
I run, too, when the mood offers,
Though the god of that has left me.

But why in the hell spoil it?
I make a clean gift of my young running
To the two boys who break into view,
Hurdling the rocks and racing,

Their dog dodging before them
This way and that, his yaps flushing a pheasant
Who lifts now from the blustery grass
Flying full tilt already.”

I suspect what my students and I need most this morning might be that simple gift of young running.

I’m interested in how others will respond. To what degree do you feel compelled to answer yesterday’s suffering for your students? How do you make sense of senselessness? How should we connect the world’s problems to the academic problems we face in the classroom?

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