21 February 2008

Paying to be shot: Is that why tuition is so high?

The day after the most recent shooting at a college, some of my students expressed concern. They are, after all, seniors whose college applications are being processed right now. For the first time, they are beginning to picture themselves on some campus next year.

Some wondered if any college would be safe. Some told me how sad they felt for the students who were killed or injured, and their families. Some wondered why there were shootings on campuses only now, as if these were manifestations of our troubled, war-focused times. *

One student told me that he was thinking of not going to college next year because he resented having to pay all that money to be shot. (My answer was that technically, he wouldn't be paying to be shot . . . I'm sometimes astounded by the things I find coming out of my mouth in this job.)

When they ask me if they'll be safe next year, my sadly honest answer, the one I believe I must give them is, I don't know. I think so. I hope so. As parent, as teacher, in loco parentis, I want to assure them of their safety, that things will be okay. I don't want them to worry.

I remind them that campus violence of this magnitude is extremely rare. I remind them that much of their safety at college remains within their control, that they should lock their doors, not walk alone at night, be careful about parties and driving . . . They shake their heads and laugh gently. "Oh Mom," they seem to say, "it's so cute that you think we don't know that." So as teacher, as parent, I continue fruitlessly to dispense advice, to try to shoo the scary monsters out from under my kids' beds.

I wonder why the big violence seems more probable than being raped on a date, getting in an accident while driving drunk or being attacked or robbed because of walking alone or leaving a door unlocked. Then I remember what they've already seen: the school shooter who kills 30, the planes crashing into buildings killing 3,000, the thousands claimed by war. Is this enough to skew their sense of the reality of violence? How big do the numbers have to be to be scary? (My guess is at least double digits.)

Certainly every generation grows up with, deals with its own horrible violence, its own war, its own shocking public massacre. This group, however, seems less shocked than fascinated, less frightened than resigned. They are so much older than I was.

*They are occasionally too self-centered to believe that anything significant or interesting happened before their birth in 1990. In 1966, my father's very good friend, Bob Boyer, a visiting physics professor, was one of 14 killed by Charles Whitman on the campus of the University of Texas at Austin, for example. Yet, they somehow believe that campus violence began with their generation, and more disturbingly, that it is de rigueur.

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