This post is being written in the wake of the Parkland, FL school shooting, where a 19-year-old barged into his former high school with a (legally purchased) semiautomatic AR-15 rifle and murdered at least 17 people, many of whom were students. It is the ninth deadliest single-day mass shooting in modern US history, and the second of that list to occur in Florida (the other being the Pulse night club shooting), the state in which I teach.
Of course, this post could have been written eight times over the last month and a half that makes up 2018. How do we as teachers even begin to approach this shockingly frequent discussion? I certainly feel a responsibility to do so. I teach in the Humanities, in an English department, a focus and setting that emphasizes discussion of human beings as the have existed, of humaneness as it continues to exist. To avoid discussing catastrophe in this space would be commentary by exclusion.
So this morning I stepped into my Imagination, Narration, and Description class, having scheduled for that day a discussion of genre as a tool/limiter in creative writing. But we never ended up getting to it.
"You're late today," says M*.
I'm five minutes early.
"But usually," says G, "you'd be here ten minutes ago - I was shocked when I walked in."
We chat in the usual way: I ask how they're doing, they tell me a mix of truth and politeness. We talk, in the few minutes before class, about their homework assignment, wherein they've had to draw (over 30 minutes) what their imagination looks like. Some had fun, some had struggles. Our conversation is relaxed, but (maybe because I'm about to unleash it) there seems to be an unspoken tension in the room.
I write our schedule on the board, which ends up looking like this by the end:
- Addressing the Elephant
- What it means to be a writer
Genre book explosion
"Our question for today," I say, "is What are the limiters on our imagination?, but before we set about answering it, we have something important to talk about first. I mentioned at the beginning of the semester that sometimes things might come up that disrupt our ordinary schedule, and today is one of those times. [I mentioned it the first day of class, actually, while going over the syllabus, though on that day my students merely nodded as if hearing the kind of boilerplate-but-never-actually-invoked rules of a university syllabus.]
A few of my students exchange glances, smiles slacking. I'm a fairly lighthearted teacher. This is a long time for me to go without making a joke.
I explain what I want to do: give them the space to talk to each other about this tragedy, to unravel what they've been thinking and feeling in response to it, to try to grapple with the emotional weight of a damaged culture in a space that's safe. I tell them I'm happy to sit in silence for ten minutes if no one feels comfortable saying anything - that silence would be, in my mind, a completely appropriate way of grieving, if they so choose.
And I explain why I want to do that in this space:
My class fits 22 students. Of that 22, maybe two thirds are freshmen or sophomores, whose Gen Ed classes are held in large, 300-person lecture halls. Of the remaining, many are pre-nursing or engineering or business students, and their classes are equally large or at least equally lectured in. A minority of my students frequent rooms like this one, where discussion is not only allowed but actively encouraged.
"I'm not planning to butt in," I say. "This is about what you're feeling, not what I am."
And then I sit in a desk (normally used by students) and face them.
M starts: "It honestly feels like this is happening all the time, and there's no way to stop it."
What follows is twenty minutes of raw conversation. It's rare in classrooms, I've found - normally people feel the need to disclaim their ideas as not necessarily correct, or otherwise temper what their response is. But these are my creative writing students, and they've gone through six weeks of validation in their thinking and feeling as artists.
Some of my students are angry - at the shooter, or the government, or the gun store. Many are saddened. One of my students, a young man I've had before called J, says he hadn't really known what to think before our discussion.
"I've felt jaded for the last day," he says. "I think it's started to be that, I just hear about these things all the time. And I can't let it get to me, or I'll never function again."
This is a horrifying thing to hear, as I hope you can agree. Many of my students did - with him.
"It's so fucked up," says R, "but that's exactly it. I feel like, at this point, you need to go into each class with, like, an escape route in mind. Like in this room, there's only one door - but it doesn't lock, and there's no windows to escape through, or anything to hide behind."
"It's the violent video games," says one of my auditing students, L, who's been alive for nine of the deadliest shootings in US History. "It's cultural desensitization - he's acting out something he's done a thousand times, just this time in real life."
There's argument back and forth. Some say we need to pass gun restrictions, other say its wrong for politicians to use victims' stories as fuel for political gain, and others say there's really nothing we can do at this point, and things are just starting to boil over. I avoid contributing my thoughts, other than occasional guiding questions.
"But I think the key thing of it," says S, a political science major who's very vocal about the need for new regulations, "is that the human condition is to empathize, and in order to empathize we can't just use statistics - we have to know about real people who are really affected by this stuff."
Another student agrees, but thinks it's wrong to make martyrs of people who didn't choose it: "Who has the right to tell that story?" he says.
We're moving towards something, slowly, but 30 minutes have passed now, and I've only got an hour and 15, so I decide to change gears a little bit. I'd like to transfer our disagreements into a teachable space.
What follows is 45 minutes of mixed creative writing instruction, collective cultural diagnosis, and celebration of the human spirit, which ends up looking like this:
The core of our discussion is empathy: we want to create a space where things like mental health and emotional well-being can be at the forefront, but it's not clear how we do that. And we're writers, so sometimes (or even always) we're writing about people that don't exist. How does empathy come into play there?
Well, we start with the statistics vs. personal experience argument from earlier. One student, N, thinks politicians should only be allowed to share the numbers of an incident like this - saying that so-and-so was only fourteen, just about to celebrate a birthday, doesn't sit well with him as political rhetoric. Another, S, says the only way to make a story real is to tell real experiences. To use people. Otherwise, we get a response like the one she got on Snapchat when she was talking to a friend about this: "This is just what happens. We just have to deal with it."
So we dive in:
Both statistics and people are a kind of context/information that has to do with a central event, we decide. And they're both used by politicians as rhetoric in one direction or the other (we connected this to Jerome Bruner's "Narrative Construction of Reality," but only because we'd read it for the last class). But the key thing that a story does - that writers do - that differs from the way context and information is ordinarily displayed, is that we inject emotion into the mix. But how do we do that?
"It's difficult," says R. "It's hard to empathize with people we don't know, so unless we have some connection to an event it's not easy to feel emotionally connected."
"Right," I said. "But how can you know someone without meeting them?"
We go through a list:
- Shared experiences
- Intimate conversation
- Shared interests (or stories)
- If we're able to predict how they work/act
But it's still not clear, at this point, how we get there. We know it's the job of writers (and here, one of my students corrects me, and says all Artists, which I agree with) to create in response to events, whether they occur in our lives or elsewhere. And we know that writers, especially, are gifted at making real the intangible. But what does that mean.
We come to a discussion on the differences between sympathy in response to tragedy (or any story, really) and empathy:
Empathy, we say, is active. It's difficult to nail down, but it's a shared emotional experience with someone else (even if that someone else is imaginary, like in fiction). It's an act of putting yourself in the position of another person, and then actually feeling something. It's sharing, and as we say in my class (when I want to force them to read their work), "sharing is caring."
Sympathy, on the other hand, is passive. It's assessing the situation, without trying to understand how it can be lived - it's basic knowledge, but it's an othered experience. And it's abstract. "That must feel sad," rather than "That makes me sad."
"I thought," says S, "that you can't empathize with someone unless you've lived that experience - like, you can empathize with someone who's lost their shoe if you've also lost a shoe. Otherwise it's just sympathy. That's what I was taught, anyway."
But empathy isn't a zero sum game. None of us in the room have experienced a school shooting, but most of us have experienced grief. And terror. And deep sadness. Sympathy is less than that. It's "I can't imagine what you're going through," rather than "[I know enough] to get a sense of what you're going through."
All of us knows what it means when a young woman like Stacy Crescitelli feels the need to text her mom, while she hears gunshots, "If I don't make it, I love you and I appreciate everything you did for me."
I don't know if today's conversation did anything for my students. But I think it did. We talked about specificity in writing, a tool George Saunders uses that makes his characters rounder, more human. We talked about what it takes to makes people empathetic, and I hope that transfers to their characters when they sit down to create them. We talked about avoiding abstractions like statistics, named emotions, unneeded information, and I hope that comes across in the concreteness of their scenes and dialogue . We talked about empathy as the central mode of all communication, which I truly believe in
But even if they learned nothing about creative writing today, the class was still worth it. If only because it made me hopeful that theses kids, this generation, will be just a little bit kinder.
*I'm using first letters instead of names, for privacy's sake.