How to Talk to Students About What We, Ourselves, Don’t Understand

Vector version of Image:Color icon purple.png

Vector version of Image:Color icon purple.png (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Normally, I might make some joke that goes unnoticed and unresponded to by most of my students, but this morning, walking into class meant walking away from the comfort of small talk and abandoning the ability to smile without feeling guilty. It was, after the wholly unprecedented event on our campus this past weekend, like forgetting how to teach.

On Friday, Alexandra Kogut was in classes on SUNY Brockport‘s campus, would attend swimming practice on Monday, and had a planned visit from her boyfriend that night. Something went wrong, and Saturday morning, Alexandra’s friends and college community woke to an email from the campus that a female had been murdered in their dorm room earlier that morning.

What’s happened since on campus, I can’t know, but can only from read the news reports–the reports I’ve been glued to, trying to make sense of this while at the same time terrified, not knowing the identity until last night, that one of my students would not sit down in class on Monday morning, that I would have the dreadful task of addressing a class that had lost one of its members. What’s happened since, on campus, has been a visually beautiful display of the internal unrest and sadness felt by Alexandra’s loss. A pulling together of memorial services, impromptu vigils, swim-team members housing other female swimmers who could not face the dorm where their teammate and friend was murdered, a wide white sheet with a note to Alex hung over the siding of a college house. In class this morning, many of my students wore purple, a color bringing awareness to domestic violence.

On Saturday morning, an hour before any of the college community received an email about the tragedy, Alexandra’s killer, 21 year-old Clayton Whittemore, was hand-cuffed at a rest stop of the NYS Thruway. Before any of her classmates had even known she was gone, the murderer was captured. And had confessed.

I admit, after the news reports came out, the hungry side of me searched Facebook for his profile, looking for some explanation or warning, or something I knew I wouldn’t find. What I’d found was this: a very meaty shirtless young man, who looked as normal to me as students that sit in my class. And strong. His picture, because I knew in a very superficial way, what had happened, looked horrifying and violent because those arms and those fists had become accomplices.

A close friend of mine had gone to home to Minnesota to celebrate her new novel, but I couldn’t help ruining her weekend with texts about the tragedy, wishing she was here to see the community come together or simply to wander in this strange proximity, the feeling of wanting to hug, but not having the arms to do so.

Saturday night, I had a dream that I wandered to a house just off campus where an older woman lived. She had a lamp on the end table just in front of her window, and slept, sitting up, on her loveseat, with the remote in her hand and her TV on. I walked in as though the house were my own and lay down on the couch on the opposite wall, pulling the afghan over me. She opened one eye, and then took a second look, but didn’t say anything. And I said, “I’m sorry. I should have woken you up to tell you I had to stay here. I was too scared to stay at my house. I will leave when the sun comes up.”

But she got up and made me tea and talked with me about what had happened, the young college girl murdered, and I’d said to her that when I went back to class (and this is where it gets cloudy and strange) I would have to buy my students chewing gum.

As though I didn’t know what to do next. As though anything trivial that I could offer, even words, could address this loss, this permanent cloud, the absence of every version of Alexandra Kogut.

After talking to my husband, Cory, last night about how to address this with my students, he said, sarcastically, “What, are you going to turn it into a writing prompt?” He was right. How could I approach something as sensitive as the immediate loss of human life, the loss of an individual many of these students knew.

Then I talked to my mother, who runs the Hartwell Cafe on campus, in the building where Alexandra would have had her first class this morning. I asked, “What do I say to my students?” As though any answer could solve anything. She said, preparing a cup of tea for a customer, “Tell them you don’t know what to say.”

So I walked in, and, feeling my nose get sting-y as it does when I’m on the verge of tears, I said to my students, “I thought about it all night, but I just don’t know what to say to you.”

And that’s where it opened up.

Click here for information of domestic violence.

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About Sarah Cedeño

Sarah Cedeño received her BA and MA in Creative Writing from SUNY-Brockport, and her MFA in fiction from Goddard College. Her work has appeared in The Rumpus, Hippocampus Magazine, The Bellevue Literary Review, Literary Mama, and Redactions. She lives in Brockport with her husband and two sons and teaches writing at SUNY-Brockport. View all posts by Sarah Cedeño

One response to “How to Talk to Students About What We, Ourselves, Don’t Understand

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