The story behind the events at Virginia Tech continues to unfold, and now includes the fact the the gunman was an English major who penned disturbing works of fiction in his creative writing classes.
For those of us who have been teaching for quite some time, it's hard not to compare stories about who among the many seated in your classroom might have had it in them to commit an act of annihilation. When your career spans more than a decade, it's almost inevitable that you will have had the chance to get to know students who struggle with mental illness, anger, addiction. Sometimes, on a good day, you are able to help such a student: urging them into counseling, lending them the first sympathetic ear they've encountered, letting them know that they are far from the first young person to carry whatever albatross they find corded around their neck, giving them some compassion, some hope. At other times you come up against your human limits: the student is unreachable, inhabiting some dark place that they have no insight into how to flee, no desire to be helped into that flight.
Of all the troubles I've seen my own students struggle against, schizophrenia has been the darkest. How do you convince a student who has decided otherwise that you didn't strategically place certain posters in the hallway, that you didn't send emails to all the class but him, that you haven't been secretly sabotaging her progress towards her degree at every step? How do you know when the rage that failing a student can trigger is going to lead to some violent reaction, some act of hatred aimed not at you or your colleagues or your institution but at some intractable fantasy of those people and places?