Monday, February 15, 2010

The Biology Department, Slaughtered by a Colleague

I can't stop thinking about the campus shooting in Huntsville, Alabama on Friday. I was going to post about it yesterday, but it seemed so unseemly for Valentine's Day.

Long ago, when I was a schoolchild in Montgomery, Alabama, we took a field trip to Huntsville to see the space industry exhibits. I remember it as a sleepy town, and by all reports, it still is.

But school shootings are still shocking to me, regardless of whether or not they occur in sleepy towns or big urban centers. Or perhaps I should clarify: mass shootings are still shocking to me. I'm not one of those anti-gun people. I'm the daughter of an Air Force colonel, and I spent most of my life in the American South, and the gun owners I've know have been sober, responsible people. They may have owned a small arsenal, but they've always understood what that meant.

I don't think that more gun control is the answer. I think that more funding to get people mental health care might be the answer.

I keep thinking of that Biology department, having a faculty meeting, when one of their own shows up and opens fire. I keep thinking of the dead, and how they spent their last minutes on earth in a meeting, and it was probably not a thrilling meeting.

Many years ago now, one of my colleagues dropped dead of a brain aneurysm just after she turned grades in. One of my other colleagues said, "You know what horrifies me most? She spent her last days on earth grading research papers."

As I said yesterday, we're here for such a short time--and these experiences remind me of just how short they might be. I don't want to get so freaked out that I decide not to give myself goof off time. On the other hand, I'd like to keep my goof off time to a minimum, or at least in balance with my other priorities.

For years now, I've known that I'm in a dangerous profession. When I was full-time faculty, I taught over one hundred students a term, and it wasn't uncommon for several of them to be a bit unhinged. And even if all my students were the picture of solid mental health, they were likely dating (or breaking up with) people who weren't. I always assumed that if someone showed up on a dark night in the parking garage to shoot me, that I probably wouldn't even remember who they were--which would, of course, enrage the shooter even more.

Of course, given how well our students remember our names, I'd have probably found myself at the wrong end of a gun of someone else's enraged student.

It's only recently that I've begun to think about the mental stability of my colleagues. I don't work in a tenure granting institution, so at least we don't have to worry about colleagues who don't get tenure showing up to take revenge. But I can't help but notice how in any workplace, there's at least one colleague who blows up everything way, way out of proportion, who takes things way, way too personally, who can't remember that work is really just not that important in the long range scheme of things. I've noticed that our buildings are not well-constructed, that our walls are paper thin.

I don't see much that I can do about these vulnerabilities, except to be the cheerful person who tries to help us all keep life and work in perspective. Most of us aren't doing work that's worth dying for--or killing for.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

This is indeed shocking! I shall remember to grade papers with all my heart, in case that is the last thing i do, and i am asked to give a report in the afterlife / underworld / wherever about how valid i thought i was when alive.
at least, i shall be grateful, it's a better alternative to being killed while washing dishes or toilets! but who know?