Still time to register for the memoir and poetry class at the Howard County Library. See details below. I’ve included links for registration and directions for your convenience. Hope to see you there! Feel free to email me at email@example.com if you have any questions. Happy June, everyone!
Exploring Boundaries: The Intersection of Memoir and Poetry
Howard County Library: East Columbia Branch, Marvin Room
June 26, 2018 6:30-8:30pm Click here to register
Have you considered writing a memoir but are wondering where to begin? Join memoirist and poet Ann Bracken for a workshop that will give you a head-start on some vital and universal themes in memoir.
Driven by the belief that pain shared is pain lessened, this event flips pain on its head, and offers an upbeat, joyous occasion to know and feel our connections with one another and hold on to hope. Featured presenters include spoken word artist Kondwani Fidel, poet Ann Bracken, singer Simone A. Speed, and others.
Three hots and a cot. A casual phrase, but one that provokes an immediate, visceral reaction for me. The first time I ever heard anyone use the phrase was when I taught freshman composition at a local community college. I had assigned my students an article to read about prison reform or unjust sentencing, and the class was discussing the author’s ideas. One young man defended the existing state of prisons and concluded by saying something along these lines, “Look, they get three hots and a cot, TV, and a workout room. In lots of ways, life in prison is better than where those people come from.”
Those people. The very anonymity of the description renders imprisoned people faceless shells of who they actually are. And for the past three years, I’ve volunteered in a local prison and gotten to know a lot of “those people.” Getting to know several of the men and women who are incarcerated in our state prisons has erased any stereotypes I previously held of who they might be. And the food and living conditions in our prisons are far from being better than where anyone came from, at least in my experience.
So when I heard a new friend use the phrase “three hots and a cot” in relation to patients in a psychiatric hospital, I was shocked into silence. To be fair, this woman, a physician’s assistant, was talking about the need for in-patient psych facilities run by the state as opposed to our current situation that leaves many people wandering the streets or being imprisoned. But again, the phrase was casually tossed into the conversation where she advocated for “three hots and a cot, a safe place to regroup, counseling, and meds for two to three weeks to help people get back on their feet.”
My reaction was instinctive, but I was mute. I listened and pondered what I could say. “Better than putting those people in prison, which is what we do now,” one woman said. And while I agree that we have a need for more care for people who suffer from trauma-induced emotional distress (I refuse use the term depression because of what it connotes), I know that the solution is not as simple as providing in-patient facilities for emergency care. And I wondered if any of the women in my circle had ever been psychiatric patients themselves. Like I had been. Like my mother had been. But I was silent.
I didn’t want to get emotional–passionate, really–with my response. This is what I wanted to say:
The “little white lie” is, of course, a reference to the2014 articleby the very eminent and influential psychiatrist Ronald Pies, MD. In that article, Dr. Pies characterizes the chemical imbalance theory as “…this little white lie…”
Dr. Pies has also insisted – arguably delusionally – that psychiatry never promoted the chemical imbalance theory of mental illness. In a2011 articlehe wrote:
“In truth, the ‘chemical imbalance’ notion was always a kind of urban legend – never a theory seriously propounded by well-informed psychiatrists.”
But Dr. Pies’ words haven’t filtered down into mainstream knowledge. Part of the reason I didn’t speak up is because I meet so much resistance when I present the information about lack of evidence for the chemical imbalance theory and the harm that can come from psychiatric drugs. But I am convinced, based all the books and articles that I’ve read over the past five or more years. And I’m convinced by my own life-experiences and the experiences of other people that I know.
Because I know that there is a desperate need for compassionate, community-based care, I’ll be posting a blog on what would I advocate for in the next few weeks. In the meantime, here is a poem of mine, recently published on the Mad in America website, about my experience visiting a friend in a local psychiatric hospital and recalling my own experience.
A Therapeutic Environment
I bring a small basket of flowers
for my friend in the psych unit,
the nurse buzzes me in.
She silently yanks
the plastic card-holder,
then chides me, It has a pointy end.
My friend tells me later,
“No one gets flowers here.”
My friend wears
blue paper pajamas—the only thing that will fit over her cast—
until I bring new sweatpants
“No drawstrings,” she tells me. “The nurses will take them out.”
Other patients wander
as if in an endless maze
blankets over their heads,
eyes trained on the ground.
The nurses stare into computer screens
behind thick walls of safety glass
—barricaded against what danger?
Perhaps mindful that one day they too
might be lost
like the wandering “others”
in the blue paper pajamas.
My friend is hospitalized
because she tried
to hang herself. She had stopped eating. Has your appetite returned? I ask.
“We had fish sticks for lunch.
They were so hard I couldn’t chew them.”
She recites the meds in her psych-cocktail—
Lexapro, Topomax, Prozac, and Zanax.
She shrugs and whispers
“I don’t feel any better,
and the weekend doctor
wants me to add Ritalin.”
We move into the dayroom
and I step across a stream of time
to the same place I left in 1997.
The same tattered furniture,
the same dull green walls,
punctuated by a lone picture hanging
crooked and uncentered.
Board games thrown on the shelves—
lids with no bottoms,
scattered pieces from the “Game of Life.”
“No one bothers
to start a puzzle—
we can’t find all the pieces,”
my friend tells me.
A bin of crayons
sits on the shelf,
but there’s no paper.
When I see the flip chart,
I flash back 18 years and remember
the goals’ group twice a day,
but still no art classes.
No dance, no movement
except the aimless wandering
of the blanket people.
No way to shape the confusion
No play dough.
Two nursing assistants
fill chairs on the perimeter of the room.
They poke their heads up quickly,
like prairie dogs scanning for predators,
then return to the games
on their mobile phones.
References for further reading:
See The Hidden Epidemicby Robert Whitakerfor more information on the history of developing psychiatric drugs, long-and-short-term effects, trends in rates of mental illness and disability, and alternative treatments.
See Psychiatry Under the Influenceby Robert Whitaker & Lisa Cosgrove for an exploration of the mutually-beneficial relationship between the pharmaceutical industry and the psychiatric community, including medical schools and professional development.
See Prozac Backlashby Joseph Glenmullenfor research on the clinical trials related to antidepressants and the numerous side-effects that patients experience. The book also includes a section on alternative treatments for emotional distress (depression).
A few weeks back, I posted my story of being overmedicated and getting off of pain medication and psychiatric drugs. So when I read the blog post below, I thought it was a good follow-up to my story. I, too, was a victim of polypharmacy, which is why this post resonated with me. What is polypharmacy? Here is a definition that is included in Dr. Brogan’s post below:
Polypharmacy is ambiguously defined as the prescription of 2-11 or more medications, simultaneously, 6 encompassing more than half of the American population. 7
Is Gloria some kind of freak anomaly of someone who could possibly feel better off medication? You can see that part of her process was shifting out of a mindset that she was fundamentally broken, in need of medication as some sort of normalcy prop. I believe deeply in personal reclamation through a rewriting of this story of the broken self. But what if medications actually contribute to a poorer quality of life, not because of their metaphysical role in self-identity and outsourcing of power, but simply because of their toxicity, particularly in combination?
The Problem With Pills
We know that it’s not a matter of opinion, (despite what the NY Post would have you think!), that medications – properly prescribed – are the third leading cause of death in this country. 1 This does not include the quarter of a million deaths from medical errors 23and overdose, which in 2016 killed more than the entire Vietnam War. 4
These reasons and more are why I was delighted to read Poly-deprescribing to treat polypharmacy: efficacy and safety5 in the journal Therapeutic Advances in Drug Safety. This longitudinal, prospective trial addresses the major symptom of our fragmented, specialist-driven, the left-hand-doesn’t-know-what-the-right-is-doing-health care system: polypharmacy.
Polypharmacy is ambiguously defined as the prescription of 2-11 or more medications, simultaneously, 6 encompassing more than half of the American population. 7
The author, Garfinkel, states that the epidemic of polypharmacy is driven by:
(1) the increased number of doctors/specialists and clinical guidelines; (2) the lack of evidence-based medicine (EBM) and knowledge regarding drug–disease–patient interactions in polymedicated; (3) barriers/ fears of medical doctors to deprescribe.
His study was conducted on patients >66 years old taking >6 prescriptions (never mind the 666!), and this intrepid clinician endeavored to offer them the opportunity to discontinue more than 3 of their meds, strategically assessing quality of life parameters.
Getting Free, One Med At A Time
After approximately four years, Garfinkel found that: Overall, 57.4% of PDP patients/ families reported an improvement as early as 1 month after the intervention. In 82.8% health improvements occurred within 3 months of the intervention and among 68% improvement persisted for more than 2 years.
Like the parable of the blind men and the elephant, feeling and describing only their part, neglecting the comprehensive appreciation of the whole animal, Garfinkel states:
…all too often specialists who treat patients ‘by their book’ have but one aim, to deal with their one aspect of the disease spectrum; no in depth consideration of the ultimate effects of medications they prescribe combined with other consultant’s interventions on patients’ overall welfare.
He also references the domino effect of prescription toxicity leading to new diagnoses and new medications, stating:
“The problem is further aggravated due to ‘prescription cascades’ where symptoms resulting from ADEs are perceived as representing ‘new diseases’.”
So, it turns out that when real life studies assess the effects of medications, stopping them – several if not all of them – can lead to a better quality of life.
I love his hopeful message, in conclusion:
Conclusions: This self-selected sample longitudinal research strongly suggests that the negative, usually invisible effects of polypharmacy are reversible. Poly-deprescribing] is well tolerated and associated with improved clinical outcomes, in comparison with outcomes of older people who adhere to all clinical guidelines and take all medications conventionally. Future double-blind studies will probably prove beneficial economic outcomes as well.
The study doesn’t particularly reference psychiatric medications (in fact, he references starting them during the study window), which, in my opinion, are the most difficult chemicals on the planet to detox from. While I acknowledge that the physiologic relief from discontinuing a medication may, itself, result in near-immediate improvement in quality of life, psychiatric medication taper seems to ask something more of patients intending for a medication-free life. The taper process asks for healing. Physical, emotional, and spiritual…and this healing does more than improve quality of life…it sets you free.
I told the following story as part of Baltimore’s Stoop Stories at the Senator Theater. The theme of the show was On Drugs: Dependence, Destruction, and Salvation. Thank you to Jessica Myles Henkin and Laura Wexler for inviting me to share my story with the audience. This story is part of my memoir-in-search-of-a-publisher Noncompliant. More stories about the role of drugs and alcohol in my life can be found in my first poetry collection, The Altar of Innocence.
In the fall of 1993, I went out to lunch with my husband and a friend but came home with a massive migraine headache. I’d had a similar headache once before, and it had cleared up with the help of acupuncture. I prayed that this one would do the same. But the headache hung on for a couple of months despite several acupuncture treatments, meditation, and lots of prayer. Tylenol wasn’t budging the pain, and after a while, I began to feel emotionally depressed. I figured that was pretty normal, given the horrific, daily pain I was enduring. It was getting tougher and tougher to keep the condition from my husband, but every time I got sick, he’d yell at me and get very angry. I pretended that everything was normal and prayed for relief.
I had no family history of migraines and typically only got a headache once or twice a year, so I knew that this headache was more than a physical problem. I’d had a history of what I called physical depressions–intense physical pain that had no discernible cause. Yet eventually, once I’d seen several doctors about the back pain, or the pelvic pain, or the stomach aches, I’d realize that there was an emotional root to my distress. I was 41 years old at the time, so I knew myself pretty well. But when I finally consulted a doctor about the headache pain, he just smiled as I told my story and related my theory. Then he gave me an antidepressant.
Fast forward to 1996. By that time, I’d consulted a parade of psychiatrists who’d prescribed grab-bags full of medication. Nothing had worked, for either the headache or the depression. My newest psychiatrist insisted that I consult a headache specialist. At my first appointment, I told her (a nurse practitioner) about my theory of physical depression, and followed up my explanation with my dilemma. “I don’t know what I’m stressed about. We have a lovely home, we’re well-off financially, our kids are great…..Yes, my marriage is difficult, and at times even painful, but it’s been this way for ages. And I’m coping.”
She immediately prescribed meMS-Contin (powdered morphine),Prednisone, and Migranol nasal spray. After a month or so, that regimen had failed to make a dent in the pain, she added DHE which I injected into my thighs. I stayed on these pain meds for several months, adding them to the numerous psychiatric meds I was taking. Several months passed, and when the MS-Contin failed to relieve my pain, my nurse practitioner prescribed a new drug-OxyContin. She assured me that it was safe, and I used it in increasing doses over the next couple of years.
In 1997, after four long years that included hospitalizations, numerous combinations of drugs, and several rounds of ElectroConvulsive Therapy, my depression finally abated. My psychiatrist insisted on keeping me on maintenance meds, which I took in addition to all of the painkillers. Things had deteriorated so badly in my marriage that I no longer wanted to stay with my husband. But as long as I had the migraine pain, I knew I couldn’t work. The migraine kept me locked in my marriage, and I was determined to find a way to get better.
At that time, I thought I was handling the drugs pretty well, and no one else thought there was a problem. Both my psychiatrist and my headache doctor said it was fine to take the combination of serious drugs they prescribed. The pharmacists never batted an eye when I picked up my prescriptions. The only person who could see how much the meds affected me was my daughter who was 14 or 15 at the time. She’d observe me cautiously at every stop light and notice how my jaw would unhinge right before I fell asleep. Then she’d yell at me to wake up.
In the fall of 1999, I had my first car accident. I swerved five times across three lanes of traffic on Rte. 70 before finally crashing into a guardrail. I wasn’t hurt—like the proverbial drunk who maims someone and walks away unscathed. My car was banged up a bit, but fixable. More importantly, I hadn’t hurt anyone. But by January of 2000, I had a second, much more serious car accident. I was driving on Rte. 40 out of the city to visit my parents on a warm January afternoon. There was a black van in front of me that slowed down. The next thing I knew, I had an air bag pinning me to my seat and smoke filling my nostrils. A man in a black leather jacket pounded on my window. I rolled down the window, still dazed, and said, Oh, God, I’m so drugged.” That man, who turned out to be the van-driver, answered: “Lady, don’t ever say that again.”
He got me and my car off the road and onto a parking lot where he checked me over and made sure I was all right. He waited while I called my father to come and help me, and when I turned to thank the van-driver, he was gone. To this day, I think he was an angel sent to save me.
By the time of the accident, I was taking about seven or eight daily medications. For the migraine–Methadone,Migranol nasal spray, DHE injections, and I had a stash of injectable Demerol for the really bad days. My psychiatrist had me on maintenance meds to keep me out of depression: Wellbutrin, Elavil,Topamax (a mood regulator) and Valium. But I wasn’t high. I was numb.
Western Medicine had failed me. The deep shame that I felt for taking Methadone combined with the shock of the second auto accident forced me to confront my life with fresh eyes. It was time for radical action, so I called an energy healer who’d been recommended by a friend. I told her my story and finished by saying I just want my life back. Can you help me? Her answer: “I can almost guarantee I’ll get rid of the pain, but I cannot guarantee what else might happen. Are you ready?”
We began working together twice a week right after the phone call. Leah did distance energy healing, and she lived in White Marsh, a suburb east of Baltimore. I lived in Western Howard County, about 50 miles away. I’d call her up and discuss my medications, my relationship, and any other happenings in my life. Then we’d hang up, and I’d lie in my bed for about an hour while she cleared my chakras and balanced all of my bodily systems. All of this work required a suspension of disbelief on my part, but I was finally getting better, and I did whatever Leah recommended.
Leah was one of the few people to affirm my suspicions of the headache being a form of physical depression, and she worked on me as a whole person. She taught me tools for shielding myself in dangerous or difficult situations and explained to me how to keep my energetic vibration at a higher level. I grew stronger in every area, and my pain gradually decreased. We were able to taper my medications, and Leah began to supplement my healings with flower essences, again designed to strengthen my vibrations and assist me on an energetic level. As I got stronger, I tolerated less and less control from my husband and fewer disparaging remarks. I set firm boundaries and stood my ground with him.
By May of 2000, only about four months into our work together, I was completely headache- free and off of all my pain medications. There was one final incident between my husband and myself, and I decided to end the marriage after 25 years. With my new-found strength and confidence, I knew that I could take care of myself and earn a living.
Since May of 2000, I’ve been off of all pain medications and am migraine-free. Since 2002, I’ve been off of the antidepressant and mood regulator, but it took me a few more years to break free of anti-anxiety meds and an older antidepressant that was prescribed for my initial headache. That being said, I have remained have remained depression-free. I know that any mysterious pains are probably signals that I’m in some kind of stressful situation. I trust the signs that my body gives me and know to pay attention to my body-mind-spirit balance. If I cannot resolve any issues with mysterious pain by using meditation, and homeopathic remedies, I schedule time to work with my energy healer. And I keep the flower essences close by!
I’m thrilled to be one of the storytellers for the upcoming Stoop Stories in Baltimore at the Senator Theater on April 19th at 8pm. I have a story to tell that will probably surprise many of you, and I want to tell it because I believe very much in the power of the mind-body connection. Come to the event on April 19th and hear some great stories of courage and triumph.
Thanks to Jessica Myles Henkin and Laura Wexler for their excellent coaching and support in our presentations.
Here’s a teaser for my story:
All Ann Bracken wanted was a life without pain. A continuous migraine banged away in her head for seven years. The numerous hospitalizations failed.
Her doctor offered her one last drug: methadone. But when Ann crashed her car twice after falling asleep, she rejected the methadone, the doctors, and the hospitals. She decided to heal herself. This story is an excerpt from Noncompliant,her memoir in search of a publisher.
More stories about the role of drugs and alcohol in my life can be found in my first poetry collection, The Altar of Innocence.
Little Patuxent Review will host its annual reading of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry at 2 p.m. on March 17 at The Writer’s Center in Bethesda. The reading will feature contributors to our most recent issue, including five members of the Black Ladies Brunch Collective, as well as LPR editors and Ian Anderson, the editor of Mason Jar Press, an independent press in Baltimore.
I used to work at the University of Maryland College Park, and I remember how excited the deans were about the new Edward St. John Learning and Teaching Center. The powers-that-be touted the potential for innovations in pedagogy and forward-thinking education. I, along with my colleagues, imagined a place where we would go to sharpen our pedagogical skills and learn new ways to engage our students with meaningful learning challenges. Well, one look at this video showed me just how wrong I was…….and even worse, the irony that the building of a prominent state research university is completely furnished with products made by imprisoned people. Where is the excellence in that practice? Thanks, Morna McDermott, for this fine blog post on the story behind the new building and the irony of naming it for a real-estate mogul who supports charter schools.
Meanwhile, most imprisoned folks in Maryland are only able to earn a GED while incarcerated, and many wait years to be able to take classes for barbering and other hands-on professions.
Here’s what Edward St. John had to say about education—his words are displayed on a large plaque in the new building that bears his name:
“Education has the power to transform lives and strengthen communities.”
Whose lives? Whose communities?
I was appalled when an educator/activist/author friend of mine, shared with me over coffee, that University of Maryland College Park, in partnership with real estate mogul Edward St John, contracted with prison labor for the creation of their shiny new building:
“MCE Helps Furnish New Edward St. John Learning and Teaching Center at UMCP On Thursday, May 11, 2017, the University of Maryland dedicated the new Edward St. John Learning and Teaching Center. Named for Baltimore-based developer, philanthropist and 1961 alumnus, Edward St. John, founder and chairman of St. John Properties, the 187,000-square- foot space, which includes 12 classrooms and nine teaching labs with a total of 1,500 seats, will elevate the culture of collaborative learning on campus. Maryland Correctional Enterprises (MCE) was responsible for designing, manufacturing and installing a variety of products used in the new building.”
Agenda University System of Maryland see item:
A-2. Maryland Correctional Enterprises – Edward St. John Teaching & Learning Center – Furniture $1,345,599.00UMS/UMCP Prince George’s
Maryland Correctional Enterprises (MCE) is the state’s own prison labor company. A semi-autonomous subdivision of the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services (DPSCS), MCE commands a workforce of thousands of prisoners, paid just a few dollars per day. MCE workers make far less than minimum wage, earning between $1.50 and $5.10 for an entire day’s work.
Most of us are familiar by now with the concept of a school-to-prison pipeline, but here it is, a prison-for-school pipeline, or better yet, prison-for-profit (all hail 21st century slavery alive and well) in the name of “education reform.”
It might be a “great day” for Ed St John and U of M, but I doubt its a great day for the forced laborers who did the work. The new center will “transform teaching and learning” but it will not transform systemic oppression or racism. In fact, it benefits from the fruits of oppressive labor. This is not the only time that U of M, or other institutions of higher learning have used prison labor. That is a deep seated problem in itself that warrants our attention. As one news article states, “”Maryland is just a symptom … of how the prison industrial complex affects African-Americans and poor people of color nationwide.”
What I choose to focus on here is the irony of the scope and purpose of the St John education building and education legacy itself through the use of prison labor, especially for an organization such as the Edward St John Foundation which says: “Our mission is based on the strong belief that ‘education has the power to transform lives and strengthen communities.’”
Also ironic is that the new center is touted as being “designed to serve as a national model of collaborative learning and to create new spaces enabling students to launch their own business enterprises.” Will the students who attend those classes learn about how for-profit-prison industry is a boon to corporate moguls who profiteer from the incarceration of low income people of color as a “business enterprise?”
Edward St. John is also a big donor to KIPP schools, known for their “zero-tolerance” discipline tactics which ironically funnel more students into the prison pipeline than do public schools. But it doesn’t stop with KIPP. St. John is also the developer for a new charter school in Frederick County: The Frederick Classical Charter School. Clearly, St. John did his homework about the uber-profits that can be made by corporate venture investments into school “reform” like charters.
So, let me re summarize this succinctly once more for the cheap seats in the back: Corporate philanthropists like St. John use $ and power to influence education reform policies, and build their own charter schools, which create racist zero-tolerance policies that expel or suspend children of color, who wind up in the correctional facilities that build the higher education buildings where students will be taught to support education reforms that support the same philanthropists.
As his company credo says: Doing Well By Doing Good. It’s clear he’s doing “well” … but is he doing “good”?
And consider this statement from an article on prisoner’s illiteracy in SF Gate from a UMD professor: “There is not a lot of causal evidence that specifically says people with educational skills won’t commit crimes, but there is definitely a strong correlation between educational ability and staying out of prison,” said Peter Leone, a correctional education expert at the University of Maryland.
Texas Prisons Have Banned ‘Where’s Waldo’ And ‘Charlie Brown’ But Not Hitler’s ‘Mein Kampf’
Where’s Waldo. A Charlie Brown Christmas. The MapQuest Road Atlas.
On the face of things, these books don’t seem to have very much in common, save for, perhaps, their innocuous content. But there’s something much more serious linking them: They’re just some of the 11,850 books banned in Texas prisons by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ), according to the Texas Tribune.
But according to the TDCJ, the ban ensures publications don’t “incite tensions.” Per spokeswoman Michelle Lyons, “It’s not a matter of picking books we like and don’t like. It’s a matter of maintaining a safe environment.”
And six years later, you’ll still find Charlie Brown on the no-no list. Because nothing is more dangerous than a group of kids picking the smallest, meanest looking Christmas tree and giving it all their love.
According to the New York Times, censoring reading material is still considered a “matter of safety” for the almost 150,000 inmates across 50 state prisons: “The reviews are conducted not by guards but rather by mailroom staff members who skim the pages looking for graphic sexual content and material that could help inmates make a weapon, plot an escape or stir disorder.”
But the ban is inconsistent at best: books like Mein Kampf, Che Guevara’s Guerrilla Warfare — which instructs readers on how to make their own mortars — and even books by white nationalists, like the KKK’s David Duke are all permitted. But a book of Shakespeare’s Love Poems & Sonnets is off limits because of a nude portrait. At least one book by humorist Carl Hiaasen is banned, because, according to the TDCJ, it “contains information about manufacturing explosives.” Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho is allowed. While The Color Purple is banned for incest, Lolita, which depicts pedophilia, is fair game. Freakonomics is banned specifically for their chapter on race.
The inconsistent nature of what books are banned is not only arbitrary — it also hurts the inmates. Per the Times, inmates struggle to read or suffer from illiteracy at far higher rates than the general population, and reading increases their chances of assimilating back into society once released.
Study after study shows that reading can change inmates’ lives for the better. Reading in general has immense benefits, including improving emotional skills and mental wellness, reducing stress, and strengthening analytical skills. Take Where’s Waldo, for instance. It has been shown to help develop cognitive processes in the brain. It can also fine-tune emotional processing. Maybe more Waldo is just what the inmates need.
When I read the poem copied below, it jolted me back to two classes I taught at the University of Maryland in the late fall of 2015. I was in class with my students a couple of months after the Umpqua Community College shooting where a lone gunman had shot and killed eight students and an assistant professor of English and wounded seven to nine other students before shooting himself in the head. Everyone on my campus was chilled by the awful murders and yet another tragic incident of a campus shooting. The Umpqua shooting struck particularly close to home for me because I taught writing courses in the English department.
About a week after the shooting, when I wrote to the university president and the chairperson of my department to inquire about what kind of active-shooter preparedness training the university planned to provide, I was referred to the campus police. Their response? A video put out by the Homeland Security Department with the advice to run, shoot, or hide. It was around that time that the education section of the New York Times ran a story about a solution that the University of Maryland Eastern Shore had implemented to protect their professors–bullet-proof whiteboards that professors could hide behind in the event of a shooter in the classroom.
My response to the university’s solutions? As I told my students, I couldn’t imagine shielding myself behind a portable whiteboard while a shooter might be laying waste to all of them. I told them about the “run, shoot, or hide” solution, and expressed my outrage at the lack of planning on the part of the university. After discussing a few ideas that some of their high schools were implementing, we began to formulate our own survival plan.
I walked over to the classroom door and grabbed the handle. “First, we’ll lock the door.” It was only then that I realized the doors remained unlocked from early in the morning until about 11pm at night. We laughed nervously. “Now what?” the kids asked. “Well, we can barricade the door with several desks and hope to keep the shooter from entering that way,” a few of us suggested.
Next we had to figure out where we could gather in the classroom–we needed a place where we couldn’t be seen either from the window in the classroom door or the windows that lined the back of the classroom. “We can lay down on the floor,” several of the young men suggested. “We’ll have to turn off all the lights so no one can see us from the hallway,” another student suggested.
What struck me that day was the matter-of-fact way my students were responding to the unthinkable–that their classroom–a supposedly safe-space for learning and discussion–could be turned into a battleground without any warning. “I don’t want to have this conversation with all of you,” I told them, “but as the oldest adult in the room, I feel responsible for your safety.” They thanked me for my honesty. One young woman said, “We have to talk about this. We’re just glad that you’re willing to make a plan with us.”
Several of them contacted the president of the university on their own. One young man came up to me after class and offered to talk with his father to get his advice.”My dad is a sheriff in Newtown,” he told me, he’s had all kinds of training.”
I’m grateful that nothing ever happened on the campus when I taught there and that my students have been spared the tragedy of another Umpqua-type massacre. One of my friends emailed me earlier this year to let me know that the university was finally instituting a training program to prepare them for what to do if there’s an active shooter on campus. While I’m pleased that the administration is finally stepping up to help the faculty, I’m deeply saddened at the thought of what’s in store for people taking faculty development. Can’t we find a better way?
Do you know the sound of the gun?
One person raises his hand.
Locate. Leave. Live.
There is another rule, but I forget the “L” word for it, Lock? It will make all the difference,
but I can’t remember it. There is Barricade.
That’s put all your junk up the wall—
and it will take that much longer for the bad guy,
he says bad guy, to get in with his gun.
But that is a “B,” and I don’t know the “L,”
and now I’m breathing fast
during this demonstration, trying to
relocate from my memory the fourth “L” that will
make all the difference.
Do you know much about guns? Know the kinds of sounds each kind of gun can make?
No one raises their hand in this little northeastern college. Do you know how to hunt? Anyone here hunt?
Do you know how to be hunted? You should run.
When should we run? After we have locked the door? No, it depends. When the sound of the gun is far away, you can run, or you can stay. Really, you can stay. You only need 15 minutes of safety. That’s all.
In 15 minutes, he says, the cops will have arrived. Let’s watch this demonstration of a man trying to break down the wall in a classroom in which the door has been barricaded.
The classroom is six floors up, so there is no Leaving. We are working on
Live. Do you know the force of a man against a wall
barricaded with desks and empty filing cabinets and the pressure
of your feet against the chairs?
It may take 4.34 minutes, which is a good long time
to prepare to do the next thing, which is, in this case,
not to Leave, as this is not an option,
but to Live,
which is the one we are working on right now
when the gun pops into the door, between the barricade
and us. There is more to the video;
there is more to the reenactment. The barricade’s fallen,
and my heart’s still pounding. If only I could remember
the fourth “L,” as Locate, Leave, and Live
have taken me as far as I can go now.
Julia LisellaJulia Lisella’s poems have been widely anthologized and have appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review, Beloit, Valparaiso, Prairie Schooner, Crab Orchard Review, Ocean State Review, VIA: Voices in Italian Americana, Antiphon, Literary Mama, and more. She has two poetry collections—Always (2014) and Terrain (2007)—from WordTech Editions, as well as a chapbook, Love Song Hiroshima (2004), from Finishing Line Press.
Summer’s here! It’s always a joy to welcome the warm weather, the flowers, the picnics, and vacations. Many people schedule trips in the summer to take advantage of the good weather and more relaxed schedules. How about you? What will you be doing this summer?
I will be taking time this summer to write, visit friends, and relax. I’ve felt that my schedule is too crowded and my to-do list never ends. I have to remind myself that I’m the one in charge of my schedule! Now that I work part-time, I have more flexibility. Yet my lifelong habit of packing my days with activity is tough to break. I need a reset!
So, I’ll be taking some time off from blogging to refresh and recharge. I may post a poem from time to time and then resume regular posts in the fall. In the meantime, take a look at some of the older blog posts and revisit some old favorites. Happy summer!
The Sunflowers by Mary Oliver
Come with me
into the field of sunflowers.
Their faces are burnished disks,
their dry spines
creak like ship masts,
their green leaves,
so heavy and many,
fill all day with the sticky
sugars of the sun.
Come with me
to visit the sunflowers,
they are shy
but want to be friends;
they have wonderful stories
of when they were young –
the important weather,
the wandering crows.
Don’t be afraid
to ask them questions!
Their bright faces,
which follow the sun,
will listen, and all
those rows of seeds –
each one a new life!
hope for a deeper acquaintance;
each of them, though it stands
in a crowd of many,
like a separate universe,
is lonely, the long work
of turning their lives
into a celebration
is not easy. Come
and let us talk with those modest faces,
the simple garments of leaves,
the coarse roots in the earth
so uprightly burning.