'BUT YET: AN OPEN LETTER TO CHRIS HARPER-MERCER'
BY EMILY VAN DUYNE
I am constantly afraid.
My office at Stockton University, the four-year, public liberal arts school where I have taught since 2010, is an isolated corner room on the second floor, overlooking the evergreens and lake that separate main campus from student housing. It is an idyllic place—recently, my partner and I took our kids there to see the students perform Into the Woods, and he said, “I can’t believe you get to work here, my work view is the highway and a McDonald’s.”
My office is large—it was once the office for the Honors Program, before they expanded and got a bigger space. The perks and privileges of this space are not lost on me: the close proximity to the clean bathrooms that are invariably empty, the beautiful light let in by the floor-to-ceiling windows facing the lake path, the isolation that allows me to work, write.
The door is large and metal and locks from the inside and no one can see in from the main hall.
If someone was to open fire on campus, I could fit approximately ten people in my office. I imagine us there at least once each time I’m working. The shots would not likely be fired near such an isolated space, far from classrooms, because anyone choosing to engage in such an act would be familiar with the campus, and would likely want to maximize the damage, which would best be done in a crowded space. If I heard the shots in the distance, as I imagine it happening, would I have the guts to go out into the hall and gather nine other bodies and close the door as deftly and silently as I once closed my son’s door when he was an infant, finally asleep?
I had the guts, once, to flee from my son’s violent father in the middle of the same pitch dark.
If we piled the desks and the shelves and the chairs in front of the locked metal door, would I wonder then, looking at the nine, breathing people trying not to make a sound in the hopes that they might continue to breathe for one more day, if we could have fit one or two more? As the light slips through the blinds which I dropped and slatted shut the moment the first shots fired, would I sneak out the door to save one more?
``I had the guts, once, to flee from my son’s violent father in the middle of the same pitch dark.``
Introductory composition is a tricky course to teach. Once based largely in imaginative literature, the last few decades have seen Writing Studies emerge as its own field; my students now read less, and write more, and I rarely use poetry or short stories to teach them the kind of critical academic writing and research skills I want to impart upon them before the end of our 15-week semesters. Instead, we typically examine important social issues, and write about them, as a model for how to research and write about the world where we live.
Last month, we listened to Matt Taibbi’s interview on Fresh Air about the death of Eric Garner. Garner did not die crouching in a dimly lit and silent office, trying to breathe without a sound. Instead, he was legally murdered by two New York City police officers near his own front stoop in the neighborhood where he was raising his children, while stating loudly and clearly, “I can’t breathe, officer. I can’t breathe.” Taibbi makes a moving case for the series of disastrous social policies that converged in the murder of Eric Garner, and my students were by and large riveted.
There’s usually more than one willing to challenge me, challenge the material, forming a cogent enough case for “always complying” with the police, or how much “better” we are now than we were, in terms of race and racism in, say, 1950. I don’t agree with those students, and I try to gently push them to look more closely at the realities of America, then and now.
I love those students. I think they mostly love me.
But there’s always at least one who stares glumly from the back, in a silent rage.
At least once during each class period I wonder, if I heard the pop!pop!pop in the distance, would it make more sense to build a barricade with desks and chairs and kill the lights, or to run to the closest exit and hide in the woods?
Sometimes Ta-Nehisi Coates’ terror for his young body and the solace he took in the protected, almost sacred space of Howard University converge in one place, and that place is my classroom. Stockton University is my Howard, the place that sheltered and saved me when I ran away from a violent man who wanted to destroy me. Yet as part of the contemporary American university landscape, it is also the possible site of my destruction. It is an elegant, dangerous argument, a proof of paradox. As American as apple pie.