In the memorial garden, my colleague Michael Heffernan bends to tend some short, once-green plants that, to my untrained eyes, remain mysterious. He is quiet and pours the water with care. He is so quiet. In this, the first week of classes, my first on this campus, I don’t yet know Michael well, but already I know quiet to be, for him, the most unnatural of states.
The moment before, I was sitting in my office near his in our building, Kimpel Hall, and he was trying to exit the door next to my office, his hands filled with water glasses. I said, “Thirsty?” And he said, “Do you know about the garden?”
When I shook my head, he nodded toward the window, to a grassy patch, and I had work to do, new names to memorize, grading to finish already. Another colleague had just been in my office too, talking about a female graduate student, describing her as “a bag of snakes.” At first, I’d misunderstood. “She has a bag of snakes?” I said. “In the building?”
On the topic of snakes, I’m surprisingly neutral. But if this student kept her snakes, say, in her office down the hall, I felt I perhaps should be prepared.
“No, no,” said the colleague, “she is a bag of snakes,” and when I presented to him my blank-faced silence, he waved his hands around in my doorway as if clearing a swarm of bees and took himself back down the hall. I understood him fine, of course. He was trying to tell me the student is difficult, is trouble, is to be avoided. But the phrase “bag of snakes” and his casual delivery made me want to defend her. I thought, if this is how her faculty are, how brave she must be to have brought with her only one bag of snakes. I thought, she needs to go home on the weekend and collect the other three bags.
So when Michael holds out his water glasses, says garden, I’m still thinking snakes and more snakes, and now I’m thinking Arkansas, Bible Belt, strangeness, and I don’t want to follow. I don’t. But Michael is more than seventy years old, and how will he open the door with glasses of water in both hands? So I take one of the glasses; I follow.
In the garden, after the careful tending of the plants, Michael tells me about his friend, John Locke, who was killed in our building, on this campus, the University of Arkansas, on the first day of classes in fall 2000. The memorial garden, like me, is new to campus in fall 2010.
After the tending, Michael and I sit on a concrete bench, the August sun heating the concrete, the concrete heating the backs of my legs. He tells me about his friend’s life, as a father, as a professor of comparative literature for thirty-three years, as a teller of elaborate jokes, as a mentor.
“He could listen,” Michael says. “He heard you.”
Michael’s eyes are wet behind his glasses, and we sit across from the memorial grass, the memorial koi pond, the small plaque. We sit like that, the sun on our heads, the concrete warming my legs, until Michael nods and pats me on the arm, and we head back inside, each of us carrying a water glass emptied.
After, I learn more details: a graduate student, about to be expelled from the program, shot John Locke in his office, and then, a few minutes later, shot and killed himself. In the faculty vote on the student’s expulsion, John Locke had been the only person to abstain, the student’s only supporter. John Locke’s office was Kimpel 231, and my new office is Kimpel 221.
This year, in spring 2018, in the first week of classes, according to new law, anyone who’s licensed can come to Kimpel Hall carrying a handgun, to my office, to Kimpel 221, carrying a handgun, to my classroom carrying a handgun. Similar laws exist in nine other states as well, affecting thousands of campuses, hundreds of thousands of students, faculty, and staff. But on this, the campus that is supposed to be mine, I’m supposed to be concerned with the mine, with the now. As Americans, we’re all supposed to be concerned with the now over the past, with the mine over the ours. So to consider the mine, the now, anyone with a license now can carry his gun and sit to warm himself on this concrete bench. Anyone with a license can look out, with his hand on his handgun, and enjoy the memorial garden.
Most of the great state of Arkansas was once Quapaw land, but the northwestern corner where I reside—including the town, Fayetteville, and the university campus—was Osage territory, not formally ceded until 1818. This particular patch of territory had been long contested, first between the Osage and Quapaw and then between the Osage and Cherokee. So the earning of it had been hard fought, hard won. The eventual ceding of this territory to the United States government, of course, happened at the sharp point of the bayonet or down the wide barrel of the earliest muskets and longarms, known as Northwest Guns, Maccakinaws, fusils or fusees or Hudson’s Bay fukes.
The southern border of this space we call campus, the University of Arkansas campus, is now called Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, but was once best known as the Trail of Tears.
From the Library of Congress to Wikipedia, through the history books in between, the language describing Removal is a study in power dynamics.
In 1830, President Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act and began the Era of Removal of the five southeastern tribes from their homelands to reservation land in Oklahoma.
The Choctaw were removed in 1831.
The Seminole were removed in 1832.
The Creek were removed in 1834.
The Chickasaw were removed in 1837.
The Cherokee were removed in 1838.
Note, in this, the language of the official record, how Jackson is the only one assigned an action, albeit a polite action: he signs; he begins. Note how passive is the language of Removal: “were removed,” “were removed,” “were removed.” Note the absence of guns from this official record, official narrative. There is no mention, for example, of the seven thousand United States soldiers who arrived in Cherokee territory in 1838, who forced the removal of thousands of Cherokee people. There is no mention of how sharp the points of the soldiers’ bayonets.
According to Webster’s, the first known use of the word campus occurs in 1774. Definitions include:
1: the grounds and buildings of a university, college, or school
2: a university, college, or school viewed as an academic, social, or spiritual entity
3: grounds that resemble a campus <a hospital ~ > <a landscaped corporate ~ >
In 2017, there are ten states that allow guns on school campuses: Arkansas, Colorado, Georgia, Idaho, Kansas, Mississippi, Oregon, Texas, Utah, and Wisconsin. Though there are competing narratives about motive and means, all agree the campus carry movement begins after the shootings at Virginia Tech. In a decade, the movement grew from one state, Utah, to ten, at roughly the rate or speed of one state added per year.
Though the University of Wyoming wouldn’t open its doors until 1886, the first remains of the dinosaur known as Camptosaurus were found in Wyoming in fall 1879. The Camptosaurus is a plant-eating, beaked dinosaur of the Late Jurassic period, of western North America and possibly Europe. The name means “flexible lizard” or “flexible-backed lizard.” Scientists believe a full-grown Camptosaurus could move at roughly the rate or speed of fifteen miles per hour.
To study a familiar moment in time: a woman tells someone how she met her husband through a mutual friend, at a restaurant, and that someone smiles politely. If the same woman tells that same someone how she met her husband while they were students together on a campus, same someone smiles and sighs and says, “Oh, how nice.” Their children will be encouraged to attend this campus, to be that charmed presence universities call legacy. Their children and their children’s children and on. Oh, how nice.
To study the tangled history of this space considered campus is to study the sigh, the smile, the “Oh, how nice.” To study the tangled, contested history of this space considered campus is to enter into a deep conversation about why some spaces are considered hallowed when they are, in fact, stolen.
I’m teaching in Pittsburgh at Chatham College in 2007, at my first tenure-track job, when a college senior at Virginia Tech, an English major, brings his guns to campus and begins shooting. My friend Mimi is an MFA student, a teaching assistant at Virginia Tech.
That morning, as the news blares from the living room television, I walk circles around my dining room table because this is a thing my daughter likes.
I have a newborn daughter. I am the godmother of Mimi’s teenage son, Daniel. That morning, as the news blares from the living room television, I walk circles around my dining room table because this is a thing my daughter likes. The room holds stained-glass windows—red, green, and gold-patterned—and my daughter likes to follow the patterns they make on the hardwood floor, the wall, the table. So I walk and rock her, and she follows the patterns, and in between, I dial Mimi’s number and I dial and I dial. I get busy signals, I get her cheerful voice, recorded, I get more busy, more signal.
It is late afternoon when I hear her voice, when I learn that Mimi has been in lockdown one building over from Norris Hall, the main site of the shooting. It is late afternoon when I learn she has spent her morning hearing shots, instructing her students not in the art of narrative forms, but in how to get down and stay down, in how to remain so very quiet.
In Pittsburgh, in the later afternoon, in my rental house, the light through the stained glass casts lovely, colorful shadows onto the hardwood. It is time to go to work, so I hand my daughter off to her father and leave the light to them.
Pittsburgh lies about three hundred miles north of Blacksburg, of Virginia Tech, by car. If the crow is flying, the distance is shorter and includes the hills known as the Allegheny Mountains and the Monongahela National Forest, which were long home to the Shawnee and to the Cherokee before Removal.
I don’t drive to Blacksburg, though this is my impulse. Instead, I drive across Pittsburgh, its rivers and bridges, its hills and hollows, to the campus I’m supposed to consider mine.
To my graduate fiction class that night, I bring my wrecked face, my hair caked with baby spit, and my talk on the art of narrative forms. A student, Amy Fair, sits among the group. Teachers are not supposed to have favorites, but in this private school space, on this private school campus, I do. Amy is from West Virginia, is tattooed, and swears like it’s as necessary as breathing. She’s not from money, either, or even from the middle class, and therefore she is as rare a creature on this campus as would be a Camptosaurus. She has brought the right amount of snakes.
Back in the fall semester, at the end of my pregnancy, when I had to miss a few classes to stay home and lie on my left side, Amy organized and co-led one workshop in my absence. Already, after one prior bed-rest episode, some students were complaining about my absence. Why, they wondered to the program administrator, could I not work right up until my due date? Why was I not there for them?
When I asked Amy to sub for me on what would be my second absence, she said, “Some of these bitches are going to hate that. Do you care?” “No,” I said. “I trust you.” “Good,” she said, “perfect. Fuck those complaining bitches, anyway.” Both our faces stretched wide a second before we looked away, before we examined with care the tops of our shoes.
Eight years later, in fall 2015, during the first week of that quarter’s classes, when a student brings his guns to Umpqua Community College in Oregon, Amy is teaching an English class in that building, in Snyder Hall. She has just returned from a sabbatical. She is working on a book about the history of tattooed women.
Roseburg, Oregon, and the surrounding area are and were the territory of the Cow Creek Band of the Umpqua tribe, whose tribal headquarters are in Roseburg. The one hundred acres of the college campus is land taken from the Umpqua.
That fall day, 2015, the shooting begins in the room next door to Amy’s classroom. One of her students in the front row is an army veteran, Chris Mintz, who blocks the shared door between the classrooms with his body. Amy leads students, quiet, so quiet, out of Snyder Hall in one direction. Chris leads students out the other way, each of them knocking on doors along the way, quiet, so quiet, with their get downs, with their follow mes.
After, Chris is rightly valorized, and Amy happily ignored, because she tells all the reporters to go fuck themselves.
Which is to say, each of them lives, though Chris Mintz is shot five times helping evacuate fellow students from the campus library, and Amy takes a leave of absence to heal from posttraumatic stress. Each of them lives, but this is not a happy ending. There is no way to gerrymander this narrative into the frame of the simple, the jingoistic, the most American of our narratives.
My first campus is the University of South Dakota in Vermillion. Much of the Great Plains, including South Dakota, was and is Lakota, Dakota, and Nakota land. This corner of South Dakota, in particular, was Yankton Sioux or Dakota land. This word vermillion in Lakota means “the place where the red clay is gathered.” All of which is to say, this campus sits on their land.
Before I left my no-stoplight hometown in rural Iowa for this campus, my sister had left for another, larger campus. When she went, she forgot her bag of snakes at home, or maybe she left them for me, knowing I would have a need. She didn’t stay at school more than a semester. When it was my turn, the snakes went along, and I still was unprepared, but I stayed.
She is playing both sides—if I’m Indian, I’m a taker. If I’m not Indian, I should know the Indians are the takers.
My first college roommate took one look at my father and then started working the phrase “Indians get” into every conversation, every corner of our room. “Indians get free computers.” “Indians get free school.” “Indians get all the scholarships.” “You would know this,” she said, “if you lived West River.” In South Dakota parlance, West River means west of the Missouri River, which divides the state, east / west, with most of the reservation lands on the western side. She is playing both sides—if I’m Indian, I’m a taker. If I’m not Indian, I should know the Indians are the takers. She is here to give me an education. I give her my blank face. I give her more and more time in the room without me. I give her no answers.
On this, my first campus, on my first visit to my faculty advisor to choose my classes, the woman is behind schedule, so I wait in the hall while student after student files into her office. Sometimes this professor flits by, all scarves and long, flowing skirts, on her way to fetch more coffee. The students remain in her office.
When my turn comes and I go to schedule my classes, creative writing and Native literature, in which I’m planning to major, the professor comes back to her office with her full cup, and says in a voice not quiet—“Get out.” She recovers herself and says, “I need a minute. Please wait in the hall.”
I’ve been waiting in the hall, and I go back there. From inside the office, there are the sounds of shuffling and rifling.
When the door reopens and she waves me back in, her purse has been moved to the other side of her desk.
“I’m sorry,” she says, by way of explanation, “but things have been taken lately from people’s offices.”
I sit through my advising session very carefully, my file in front of her, which includes my demographics. I think of my friend from Pine Ridge who’s scheduled to come to this office the next day, and if this is how I’m treated with my light skin and blue eyes, how is it going to be for her? I’m thinking how I’ll tell her the story—the scarves, the skirts, the crazy eyes. I’m thinking that we’ll laugh, and so I sit in the chair but remain unadvised.
The next semester, I get a new roommate and a new advisor, and the roommate is fine, and the second advisor, instead of proffering advice, offers his hand on my knee, his traveling hand, and I leave the building again unadvised and go back to my room to tend my snakes.
I’m attending this campus on a scholarship, and to keep this scholarship, I work at the university paper. The advisor is a woman who swears and paces, and I love her and fear her in equal measure until the day she trusts me with the story of her son, a grown man, accused of sexual assault in Nebraska. He has to go to court, she says. It’s such bullshit. He wouldn’t do that.
At a party, a half block off campus, this man, the son of my advisor, drinks and drinks. One night, just before this conversation, I’m there, drinking and drinking. The house belongs to a good friend who falls asleep, and this man—we’ll call him Doug—chases me around and around the futon couch like we’re playing some terrible game of duck-duck-goose. There are no snakes present, no Camptosaurus, and my friend is asleep, is snoring from his recliner, and where have all the other people gone?
The way I get away from Doug is because I’m small. The futon has a large, wooden frame, and there are meant to be soft, comfortable pillows on the back, but they are absent, and I make use of their absence. Which is to say, I’ve lost the game of duck-duck-goose. I’m on the futon with Doug, and I only get to leave because the pillows are missing, and I wiggle out the gap and shake awake my friend, who walks me home, to my apartment just off this place considered campus. My snakes are waiting, and I think perhaps I will, this day forward, carry them with me in that space we call always.
The next week, I learn Doug will be acquitted on all charges in Nebraska. The next week, I learn he raped one of my friends at another party. I don’t tell my newspaper advisor; she is in charge of my scholarship; she is happy her son is acquitted. Later that year when he is going through his twelve steps, Doug follows me around town, apologizing. At the bookstore: apology. At the bar: apology. At the diner: apology.
I tell him to move on to his next step without my forgiveness. I tell him I work the police beat now, and I mention statute of limitations, and he grows quiet, so quiet, and he moves on to the next step or does not, but he stops enacting the act we call apology.
This story is an ordinary, everyday-violence story from a space considered campus. It is hard to see this space as hallowed when it is filled with so much ordinary, everyday violence. It is hard to see this space, this campus, as mine when it so clearly is not, when it so clearly never was.
It is hard not to ask the question: Who benefits from having an armed presence on a place considered campus? It is hard not to answer it with the negative, with the absence: not the girls who become women while they tend their snakes.
They are waiting in the campus halls for someone to offer advice. They are waiting still.