Teaching After Tragedy

UPDATE: It is now Thursday, April 18. Berklee College has been closed all week with a partial opening scheduled for tomorrow. We have lost an entire week of school. We will have a college-wide meeting on Monday to address the attacks. My classes have two weeks left, final projects to do, assignments to complete, all the regularly scheduled stuff. But we will dedicate a portion of next week to addressing the effects on the college community. A Berklee student was injured in the bombings. Many others have donated their time and energy to volunteering at hospitals. We are caught up in the events, and we have the end of the term fast approaching. I want to ask: what would you do with these classes for two weeks? Can I ask for your help in advising me going forward? Thanks in advance for any suggestions.

Some asshole detonated two bombs on Boylston Street, near the finish line of the Boston Marathon, here in Boston on April 15, Patriots’ Day, “Marathon Monday,” “Tax Day.” Marathon Monday in Boston is a really nice day, typically. It’s a state holiday; everyone here in the seat of the American Revolution has the day off while the rest of the country suffers another shift at work. Thousands of people pile into the city for a really nice thing—friends, family, strangers running 26.2 miles through Boston, the longest standing marathon in the United States. My father ran the marathon when I was four. My neighbor Paul ran the marathon a few years back. My friend Justin ran the marathon two years ago, and I was there to support him (read: drink beers with another friend near the finish line). I’ve always watched the intrepid runners, wondering if I’d ever get up the courage to attempt such a feat. Two Patriots’ Days ago, I was standing and laughing and cheering for strangers and friends—people determined to run an absurdly long distance to prove something to themselves, to get in shape, to triumph, to join in tradition, to go after something cool and weird and respectable and good—right where a bomb exploded yesterday, killing three, including an eight-year-old boy, maiming dozens, and injuring a hundred more. Why?

What, I’m wondering now, aside from the BIG questions and the abstract terrible points to ponder, is: What am I going to do in class tomorrow?

I teach Literature and Writing at the Berklee College of Music, which is situated four blocks away from one of the bomb explosions in Boston’s Back Bay neighborhood. The Boston Police Department, National Guard, and FBI have sealed off a 12-block radius from the explosions, which includes Berklee in addition to so many businesses in one of the busiest sections of Boston. School is closed today, Tuesday, the 16th. I’m still waiting to hear if we will be opened for operations tomorrow, Wednesday, the 17th. If so, I have two classes to teach, a Literature course and a Writing and Composition course. Both are three hours long.

The last time a major act of terrorism occurred in the US, I was a junior in college on September 11th, 2001. The magnitude of the attacks on September 11th, 2001—over three thousand killed—is different than the attacks yesterday in Boston. The number of deaths suffered yesterday is fewer than that of the Sandy Hook shootings, fewer than the Colorado theater shooting, fewer than Columbine, fewer than Oklahoma City, fewer than Virginia Tech. The number of murders at the Boston Marathon yesterday is fewer than the number of murders typically seen in Boston in any other week. The amount of death and number of limbs lost is horrible, but it isn’t the statistics that we need to think about and address. It’s the act.

Every murder of an innocent American citizen is tragic and worth reflection. However, the murders at the Boston Marathon are not simply murder: they are attempts to murder ideas, spirits, communities, joys, wills. The bombing in Boston on April 15th was an attack on a collective American/collective Bostonian good thing. It’s awful. I hate it. And everyone feels it. Someone wants an entire population to feel unsafe. Someone is willing to kill innocent people to make a deranged point.

I am going to address the bombings in my class tomorrow (if the school opens). Back on September 11th, 2001, my classes far from Ground Zero in Manhattan were canceled, or they were designated as places to go and talk with fellow students and/or professors. The academics stopped in order to deal with the humanity.

I feel a certain responsibility for the well-being of my students, as so many teachers do. College students are often far from home, young, in need of guidance, encouragement, a helping hand, a listening ear. As much as they try to play it cool, college kids need comfort and understanding. In my literature course, we are to begin our final project this week, a creative story based on a piece of music that is meaningful to the students. In my writing and comp class, we are in the middle of a final essay project, wherein the students need to craft a compare-and-contrast essay step by step. Tomorrow is the thesis statement and outline portion. These tasks, in the context of the recent events (and even without that context) seem small. School isn’t about assignments; it’s about exchanging ideas, expression, learning to learn. I do feel that the next discussion need not be about coherent paragraph-to-paragraph transitions and active-vs.-passive voice sentences; it should be about how the students feel attending school four blocks from bomb explosions.

But how do we do that? As teachers we are obligated to a curriculum, often a set of assignments, lectures and discussion topics that exist in a vacuum. College classrooms, I feel, are training grounds for lives to live, places to develop minds to think, behave, and analyze for a future purpose. The work done in the classroom is good in the moment, but it is always practice for a future moment. Build your mind here for future use when it counts, type of thing. But sometimes the moment, the future comes charging into your city, into your neighborhood, into your school, and you have to put to work the mind you’ve been working on. Passive voice vs. active voice isn’t on the agenda for tomorrow. I feel a responsibility to crack open the classroom and ask the students, these now-Boston residents, to talk about what just happened.

We have been learning how to learn for some “real world” future. That future has come racing up to us. Now, can we help each other?

I read this article, which was sent out to my college’s community, a study on the benefits of various methods of addressing tragedies in a school’s community. It was interesting. It was a tad helpful. I thought about it, thought about how I might use some of the advice gleaned from the study. But one thing I’ll always remember from being a student at college in the aftermath of September 11th, 2001 is sometimes teachers don’t have answers. Sometimes the best thing for a teacher to do is to not teach. Sometimes hearing a teacher say the words I don’t know is the best thing for a student. I want badly to give them something, but they are likely to see their professor at a total loss, looking to them. Because no one has the answer in a situation like this. Because these are the things we can’t learn in class. Because students and teachers aren’t students and teachers now: we’re citizens in a town that someone wanted to blow up, and we’re here to talk.

Mark Polanzak’s stories have appeared in Third CoastThe Southern Review, and The American Scholar among others. He teaches writing and literature in Boston and is a founding editor of draft.


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