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Remembering Kindness

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I didn’t think I’d make it through that Tuesday. There I was, sitting in my car as the Fremont Bridge was opening to let a yacht pass through. This was not an occurrence I had planned on, as I’d never known the bridge to open on a winter morning in all the years I’d taught at Seattle Pacific University. And it meant I’d be late to class.

I hate being late, so much that it rarely ever happened. Still, the few times that it had, I’d been able to keep my cool. This time, though, was different. I screamed and cursed at the bridge, pummeled my fists on the steering wheel, felt like crying. I’d become a discombobulated mess.

Perhaps this is understandable. I was teaching twelve credits that quarter and was enrolled in a nighttime master’s program, burning the candle at both ends. I’d spent the weekend prepping for my teaching, grading a massive pile of papers, reading and writing.

Then, on Sunday afternoon, my son called from college to say he’d been injured playing Frisbee: “No big deal, Mom, just a hernia. It happened a few days ago—sorry I didn’t call sooner—but the doc says the procedure is routine and he scheduled the surgery for tomorrow. Can you drive up? You’re off on Mondays, right?” Right. I just teach six hours on Tuesday, have a paper due on Wednesday, and was counting on Monday to work.

A son, though, is a son.

I will spare you a detailed description of the series of fiascos that was Monday, except to say that my son’s surgery was delayed for many hours (although it went fine), the surgery center had no cafeteria, and I drove home four hours through a blizzard in the middle of night. When the Fremont Bridge went up on Tuesday morning, I’d been foodless and sleepless for a day. I was dying for a pre-class snack and coffee, which the bridge had snatched from me.

I reached my classroom several minutes late. The students’ eyes were upon me as I pulled my book from my briefcase and stripped off my coat. My stomach was growling wildly and I felt unsteady on my feet, but I’d have to make due: the class was three hours long, our goal to discuss the whole of Night.

Night is the Holocaust memoir of Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel, who in the story is the adolescent Eliezer. Beautifully written, painful to read, replete with insight, Night was among my favorite books to teach.We dove right in, discussing each segment: Eliezer’s childhood in Transylvania, his initial deep belief in God, his family’s deportation to Auschwitz, the brutality the prisoners endured, Eliezer’s waning faith.

We came to a part of the story that was among the most moving to me. Eliezer, underfed and weak, is forced to work at a concentration camp warehouse overseen by a volatile Kapo. One day, for little reason, the Kapo jumps on Eliezer and proceeds to beat him. Eliezer crawls into a corner, bleeding and broken. Just then, Eliezer feels a cool hand wipe his brow. It belongs a forced labor deportee—an Aryan girl from France who has never spoken to him. She smiles at Eliezer, looks into his eyes, slips him some bread, and says some soothing words in German, as he doesn’t speak French.

At this point the story flashes forward. Many years later in Paris, Wiesel is reading on the Metro. He looks up and sees a woman with beautiful eyes and suddenly recognizes her—the French girl from the warehouse. The two go to a café and Wiesel confirms what he’s long suspected: the woman was really Jewish and had worked in the warehouse on forged papers. By speaking German to Eliezer, she’d risked her cover and her life.

I asked my students: “Why would Wiesel choose to break the flow of his story and jump to the Metro scene? We’re far into the book, and he’s never flashed forward before.” The students regarded me thoughtfully, then one suggested: “The scene was important to Wiesel. His book is about not forgetting the evil that people are capable of. Maybe he wanted to show that a simple kindness is a powerful thing that should also be remembered and oftentimes is.”

Yes. That’s why I loved that scene.

We moved through the remainder of the memoir. When class was over at noon, I dashed out the door. My next class would start in ten minutes, the room was far across campus, and I was more desperate than ever for a snack and coffee. I stopped in the Subway in the quad, but the line was a serpent, so I tried the Starbucks. The queue here too was long: a trio of students at the front, a couple of professors, a lone male student, and a quintet of female students right before me.

The barista wasn’t speedy and the orders were complex: a tall, nonfat latte with caramel drizzle; a grande, iced, sugar-free, vanilla latte with soymilk; a triple, venti, no-foam, soy latte.

I looked at my watch as the barista processed the professors. Five minutes to go before class. At this rate I wouldn’t make it. I considered approaching the male student and offering to pay for his order as a way of bypassing the girls, but guilt struck immediately, so I gave up the idea. The boy ordered, received his drink.

I checked my watch. No choice: I’d have to bolt and starve.

Then I heard a voice. “Can I treat you to coffee?”

I turned. It was the first of the five girls before me, about to place her order.

“Excuse me?”

She smiled, looked into my eyes. “I’d like to buy you coffee.”

No, I’d not experienced a holocaust. No, the girl hadn’t risked her life. But the coffee that she offered helped me make it through the day, and I will remember her kindness for many years to come.

First published in Good Letters.

Dodging Bullets

 

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They arrived as strangers—freshmen at Seattle Pacific University who’d come to take a course in college writing: A tall girl with a flowered backpack and blond hair fishtailed to one side. A brawny boy with a knitted cap and a ready, brilliant smile. An elfin girl in a madras skirt whose black bangs fluttered with her lashes. A lanky boy in soccer shorts whose green eyes lit his freckled face.

Within days I learned some names and habits: Peter* always strode in early and grabbed a seat by the window in the back. Kaitlin routinely said “Good morning!” and sipped a caramel latte during class. Pilar daily sat before the lectern and lined up sharpened pencils on her desk. Abdul was almost always late and bowed when he slipped into the room.

Within weeks I came to know much more—their sufferings, blessings, worries, hopes, weaknesses, and strengths:

Lindsey had mangled her arm when her boogie board was thrown on Maui sea stacks. She hoped to become a doctor, strove to be on dean’s list, and wrote meticulous papers that were somewhat tedious to read.

Yoel had fled his native Eritrea by perambulating deserts through the night. English was his second language, which he spoke with a lovely lilt. His dream was to become a Christian rock star. Writing essays made him anxious, but he loved crafting spoken-word poems.

Justin had spent some time in Haiti constructing dorms for orphans. A youth leader at his church, he planned to become a minister. His essays were passionate and insightful, though a bit disorganized.

Sarah had found her friend’s body in a bed with a suicide note. She suffered from frequent nightmares. Her goal was to become a counselor who worked with troubled teens. She volunteered for a hotline and wrote gripping narratives.

What wonderful young adults—full of life, heart, experience, potential. It’s no wonder that over the quarter, I grew to love every one of them.

Still, at the end of our last class, I had to say goodbye. I praised them for their learning, wished them a good summer, watched them walk out of the classroom, drove home feeling sad.

When I reached my house, I checked my email as a message was arriving:

!! SPU-Alert: Campus Lockdown: Hello Jan Vallone—Emergency! A campus lockdown has been initiated. This is not a drill. If you are on campus, find the nearest available room and lock the door. If you are on campus, but locked outside a building, seek shelter off campus immediately. If you are not on campus, stay away.

A strange mix of emotions swept over me—confusion, panic, numbness. Wanting more information, I clicked the Seattle Police Twitter line:

Police have found two victims with gunshot wounds @ scene of @SeattlePacific shooting. One suspect in custody. Vics at Otto Miller Hall.

Turning to my TV, I found the breaking news. Onscreen was the campus I’d just left, leafy Seattle Pacific, brick buildings under blue skies.

I couldn’t comprehend what I was seeing. The street by Otto Miller Hall was clogged with ambulances and police cars. Gurneys were queued on the sidewalk. Medics and officers were running all about.

I couldn’t understand what I was hearing. A reporter said six people had been shot, a gunman detained. Police were searching for another suspect who was still on campus and armed.

A student who had exited the building said she’d seen some injured students in the lobby and one who appeared to be dead. All were sprawled on the floor, which was strewn with bullets and blood.

“Oh my God!” I screamed at the TV. Where were all my students—Pilar, Justin, Lindsey? Were they dodging bullets, or were they already dead?

The Seattle Pacific shooting wasn’t the first to shake me. In 1993, a disgruntled client entered 101 California Street, an office of my husband’s law firm. He shot nine people dead. Like my husband, I was a lawyer, so I feared for both of us.

In 2006, a gunman who claimed he hated Israel entered the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle, killing one woman and injuring five. I was then teaching in a nearby Jewish high school, and we worried we’d be next.

In 2012, a shooter known for angry outbursts entered Café Racer in my neighborhood. He murdered five and maimed one more. My daughter works at a nearby Starbucks, and I fret for her every day.

Who isn’t edgy about shootings? They’ve occurred in so many venues, no place now seems safe—not the theater, mall, supermarket, temple, church, train, playground, street, restaurant, stadium, or museum. In schools alone there were thirty-seven shootings during the first half of 2014.

At Seattle Pacific, the facts soon cleared. A lone gunman had wounded two students and killed freshman Paul Lee. None of my students was harmed, though several had been in Otto Miller. A few were Paul’s close friends, and many knew him. All were traumatized.

The gunman at SPU didn’t know any of his targets. His profile is common for mass shooters. With a history of mental illness, he complained he was lonely and unloved, said he just wanted to kill.

I wish shooters could understand that the strangers in their crosshairs are Kaitlins, Peters, and Yoels—people they could grow to love who could grow to love them back, people who could help them fill the void that makes them want to kill. It takes only time, attention, interaction.

If shooters could comprehend this, they’d discard their bullets. But they either can’t or won’t. Something inside them is broken. They aren’t going to change; it’s the rest of us who must.

The causes of violence are complex, but that doesn’t excuse our longtime inaction. Together, we must modify our statutes—be they mental health, gun, commerce, or free expression laws—to make killing sprees less likely. Individually, we have to  compromise.

We can’t accept a life of dodging bullets or death on a shooter’s whim.

*Names have been changed.

Isaac Unbound

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Deborah* sat across the café table, cappuccino growing cold, tears brimming, lower lip trembling.

“Jake’s situation isn’t improving. He just got a fifty-seven on a pre-calc test despite the daily tutoring I arranged for him. And before I registered him, I checked the instructor on Rate My Professors. He’s supposed to be the best. Jake just doesn’t put in enough time. He tries to compute in his head to cut corners, and that equals mistakes.”

Deborah often talked to me about her twenty-one-year-old son. Jake had attended a noted East Coast university, but flunked out sophomore year. Now, he was taking summer classes at the local community college.

“So, the question is whether I should have him drop the course, take a W and audit what’s left, or enroll him in an online college pre-calc course and hire a qualified tutor to get him through.”

I shifted in my seat. “Sounds confusing, Deborah.”

She leaned toward me across the table. “It seems like I’m always trying to fix a never-ending academic fiasco when there’s no progress. I just long for the tiniest forward motion, anything to give me hope.”

I tried not to turn away.

“But after four semesters of disasters, optimism comes hard. The other day, I had a long talk with the vocational psychologist and Jake’s tutor, and at this point I think Adderall could really help.”

At this, I winced reflexively, and she noticed it.

“Oh, I don’t like the thought of medications either. But Jake’s on the verge of failing everything again. You know, it gets me so upset. The pot, the booze in the backpack, the total disregard for college tuition.”

Now her tears were flowing, her voice catching in her throat. I grasped her hand. “Deborah, I know it’s hard.”

And I did.  Because the story I was hearing was one I could have told about my son Sean and myself: Me choosing his college, filling out the application, editing his essay. He receiving early acceptance and a scholarship.

Me steering his course selection, packing his belongings, setting up his dorm room. He smoking pot on campus, skipping his classes, being suspended.

Me pleading with advisors, managing to cinch a medical withdrawal and readmission option. He bolting from a counselor’s office, moving out of state, becoming a ski bum.

The grief. The desperation. The compulsion to intervene more.

Deborah and I aren’t alone. Recent studies show that during the last decade, fierce competition for prestigious college slots and jobs has boosted parent involvement in college students’ lives.

One report shows that technology has made intrusion easy: eighty-six percent of college freshmen report having frequent, sometimes daily, electronic contact with their parents, who often initiate the exchange.

Another study shows, though, that despite their best intentions, parents who run their college children’s lives do more harm than good. The surveyors asked 297 college students about their parents’ roles: Are they involved in selecting classes? Do they contact professors about grades? Do they meddle in roommate disputes?

The study also asked the students to report their own levels of contentment, depression, anxiety, and self-determination pursuant to the theory that all humans need to feel autonomous, competent, and connected in order to be happy.

The conclusion? While parents may think it helpful to phone their children’s professors to haggle a B+ to an A–, doing so causes their children to feel depressed and anxious by undermining their ability to develop problem-solving skills and become autonomous, competent, connected, happy adults.

I can’t tell you how difficult it was for me to have Sean living in another state, skiing away his early twenties, tying my hands. Or how painful it was for me to hear that he wouldn’t be home one Christmas because he had to man the slopes. Or how surprising it was for me to receive his phone call Christmas Day:

“Mom, this job sucks. No skiers showed up today for lessons. It’s Christmas, I’m bored and lonely, and I haven’t earned a cent. I really need to do something to get the hell out of here.”

The hard lesson for me: Hard lessons benefit children.

The hard lesson for Sean: College is worth the hard work.

Shortly after that Christmas, without prompting by me, Sean researched universities and found one that suited him. He completed a transfer application, wrote an honest essay, was admitted to the school. He negotiated transfer credits, changed his college major, found a part-time job.

This September Sean will be a senior.

Hopefully one September Jake will have discovered his direction too.

Meanwhile, every September, the story of Isaac’s binding will be read in synagogues worldwide to celebrate Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. It’s a narrative I now surmise is about an over-zealous parent much like Deborah and me.

In the story, God puts Abraham to a test. He tells him to take his son Isaac to the top of Mount Moriah and offer him as a burnt sacrifice. Abraham saddles his donkey, takes Isaac to the designated spot, builds an altar and stacks it with firewood. Then he binds his son, places him on the woodpile, and whips out a knife.

At this moment God’s angel says to Abraham, “Do not lay your hand on the boy…now I know that you fear God, since you did not withhold from me your son…and in your descendants all nations…will find blessing, because you obeyed my command.”

The test, most theologians say, was to ascertain Abraham’s willingness to lead his son to the precipice, then bind and murder him. Perhaps though, this isn’t the case. Perhaps God was teaching Abraham that parents must guide their children to heights where burning is a risk, but that’s the easy task. The test is to unbind the children despite impending dangers and to trust they will survive and ultimately be blessed.

Do I claim to know when Deborah should stay her hand and unbind Jake?

No.

But I suspect she’ll figure it out, though the lesson will be hard and put the twosome to the test.

*Some names and minor details have been changed and consents obtained to protect the privacy of the people mentioned in this essay.