I froze mid step handing back papers that morning.
“I’m sorry; what was that?” I asked the student even though I could already feel the blood draining from my face.
I hadn’t heard wrong. The important pieces were still there. Active shooter. Delta State. One professor dead.
And no one knew anything about the shooter. Who it was, if he was still at large, nothing.
I thought about my former colleague who was at that moment crouched on the floor of her office with her husband and students, hiding in the dark behind a locked door. What would she do if the shooter came? What would any of us do?
That’s a question that unfortunately so many of us in academia now have to acknowledge. What would we do in the unthinkable?
But we’re teachers, not firefighters or doctors or police. We don’t save lives in any visceral sense. Futures, maybe. But lives, no. Quite bluntly, we didn’t sign up for this shit.
This was personal for us in so many ways. Our community college has strong ties with Delta State University to begin with, and there is always the empathy any instructor feels for another when death knocks at the university door. But in our department, we had more reason than this. Our aforementioned colleague was one. She and her husband had just left us over the summer after accepting positions in the English department at Delta State. And what was equally horrifying, when all the information you have is that a professor – some unknown professor in some unknown discipline – was shot and killed, was that the brother of one of our own is a professor at Delta State – some professor in some discipline. And no one really knew what to do with that information, or lack of information, when said instructor emerged from class. Thankfully, there was no bad news to break, and her brother had already alerted her to the fact that he was safe.
In the days that followed, details slowly came forward proving that the shooting at Delta State on the morning of September 15 was not what my fellow instructors and I feared, huddled in groups in the hallway trading snippets of unsubstantiated rumor. It wasn’t a student hell-bent on destruction or revenge, or just plain outright crazy. It wasn’t a campus-wide shooting spree. It was just one professor, who as far as anyone can tell, was just exceedingly unlucky. That morning Ethan Schmidt, a beloved history professor, was shot in his office by Shannon Lamb, who also taught for Delta State, for reasons still unknown.
It’s not a story that makes much sense as much as we might wish to find clarity, some explanation that would lead one educator to take the life of another.
Did the two know each other? Yes. Did they teach the same classes? No. Was there bad blood between the two? Well if there was and someone knows about it, no one is telling it. A photo of the two taken at a holiday party a few years ago was circulated by the press. Both men are smiling for the camera, maybe not in a smile of true happiness, but more like the forced smile men adapt when someone takes their picture at a holiday office party. In any case, I’m no expert, but I don’t see anything that would suggest the violent end to which both men would come.
This wasn’t the first story we had heard this semester emanating from the universities in our state. Only weeks before an active shooter alert had been issued at Mississippi State University, the college in my hometown and my alma mater. That morning was much the same for me. I was in the process of checking attendance when I was interrupted by a distraught student reading a text message aloud from a student at MSU. I wish I could remember exactly how that message was worded. What I do remember is that it was chilling. That student was literally scared for her life and reaching out of hiding for a friend, miles away and unable to help, for comfort.
That day wasn’t what we feared either. No one ever found a gun. Just a troubled student with threats. The images left in the wake are no less haunting though. Students running. Desks piled to the ceiling to block doors. Students cowering in the dark.
This is the world to which we belong. Whether we asked for it or not.
“Students run,” I said to a friend while clicking through the pictures online. “Teachers don’t get to.”
I was already a graduate student when the Virginia Tech shooting occurred. My career path was already set on the day that an English major massacred thirty-two people. And what I remember more than anything else was the story of Liviu Librescu, an engineering professor who stood in his classroom door to buy his students time to go out the windows. He stood in the breach and died for his students.
We don’t go into this profession thinking, “I’ll die for my students.” But sometimes, unfortunately more often now, the question won’t be ignored.
What would I do?
Could I stand in the doorway of my classroom knowing that I would never see my own children again to allow some other mother to see hers again?
Would I give the chance to say goodbye to my husband to buy time to send other husbands home to their wives?
Am I capable of that level of bravery and selflessness?
I only had moments to swallow the bile that had risen with the realization that someone I considered a friend might very well have to answer those questions herself that morning.
I looked down at the stack of papers in my hand, called the next name, and moved down the next aisle. That was not my day to answer that question. And I had a class to teach.