What happened once the guns fell silent? As Virginia Tech professor Fred D’Aguiar discovered in the wake of the April massacre at his school, in times of crisis, students look to faculty to make sense of it all. And that, he says, is a vital responsibility. Details…
“It was one of the few times I was tested as a teacher who had to account for his status as the class leader, and I didn’t realize until that moment just how much confusion the students were experiencing,” D’Aguiar said. “It was difficult for them. They were really stunned. It was the one time you felt that words, when carefully put together, could carry a deep meaning and resonance for the people hearing them.”
D’Aguiar, co-director of Creative Writing in the English department at Virginia Tech University, visits Elon on Sept. 24 for two events: An informal lunch with faculty to share teaching lessons gleaned from the shootings, and later in the day, to read a poem that started as a tribute to the shooting victims before morphing into a reflection of guns, violence and American society.
The accomplished poet and writer never taught Virginia Tech gunman Cho Seung-Hui, who claimed the lives of 32 members of the university community the morning of April 16, 2007. He did, however, meet with Cho on a few occasions to assist the student when other professors were unavailable. Cho killed one female student in a class D’Aguiar was teaching during the spring.
Unlike deaths that can be anticipated, like those from disease or old age, friends and family never had the chance to see loved ones reach their full potential in life. Nor was there a chance to say good-bye. And even untimely deaths from a motor vehicle accident, or a heart attack, can be rationalized, D’Aguiar said.
Killing dozens of people becomes “an affront to life, and ethics, sense, decency, civility.”
“And I think you take on the responsibility of a teacher to guide students when they’re lost, and help them find words for difficult emotions,” D’Aguiar said, noting that a school should never brush aside a tragic event. “The main thing is that afterward you not pretend it’s business as usual, but see it as a scar with wisdom attached to it, with some kind of instruction.”
D’Aguiar will present a poem provisionally titled “Elegy,” which began as a tribute for the Virginia Tech dead, but then branched out into an assessment of guns, murder, the nation and its global ambitions. His reason for that evolution?
“Once your private catastrophe becomes part of a menu of consumption of news, you have to see it as something on a world stage,” D’Aguiar said, referring to the world media that flooded Blacksburg, Va., in the weeks following the shootings. “Connecting with other grief and other problems is a way of saying we’re all one village, if you will, when it comes to pain we receive.”
Members of the Elon community interested in attending the afternoon lunch discussion from 1:30-2:30 p.m. should contact Barbara Guy at email@example.com. The Elegy reading is open to the public at 5 p.m. at Whitley Auditorium.
D’Aguiar’s visit is sponsored by African/African-American Studies, the Office of the President, the Office of the Provost/Associate Provost, the Office of the Dean, Elon College, the College of Arts and Sciences, the Office of Student Life, the Center for the Advancement of Teaching and Learning, the Office of Cultural Programs, the Truitt Center, the Department of English, and the Anti-Slavery Coalition at Elon.
“Sept. 11 and Blacksburg are examples of horrifying things that happen in the world that intrude into our classrooms,” said Peter Felten, director of the Center for the Advancement of Teaching and Learning. “We don’t want these things to happen, and we do what we can to prevent them, but if and when they happen, teachers face difficult choices about how to respond.
“Professor D’Aguiar has found some wisdom in the tragedy, and he will offer us a unique perspective on the responsibilities of being a teacher.”