Regrouping at NIU

"How long was it," the woman at the front of the room asked us, "before you believed this really happened?"

I am sitting in a workshop at Northern Illinois University, devoted to preparing faculty and staff for the return of our grief-stricken students on Monday.

"Not yet," a plaintive voice called out.

That seemed to speak for most of us, from the gray-haired teachers, like me, to the young instructors who could fit in on Greek Row.

Though it seems like an eternity to us at NIU, it's been a little over a week since the unfathomable, when a gunman killed six, including himself, and injured 16 others during a lecture in a geology class at Cole Hall.

Now time is nearing to turn back to the textbooks, to greet and embrace our students who will surely be returning with the question we all have: why?

Nobody pretends to have any magic answers.

Dave Ballantine, a chemistry professor, stood in the vestibule at the Newman Catholic Center, and shook his head. "I'm not sure how I'm going to handle it," he says, "It's something we're all struggling with."

A trained counselor will be in each classroom. The school has notified those of us who have students who were eyewitnesses to the horror. We have been encouraged to address what happened, and to watch out for signs of stress in the students--"the kids," as many of us call our students.

I'll be going back to room 209 in Reavis Hall, right next door to Cole, where I teach creative nonfiction in the English department. I took a walk Thursday through the building. It was eerily quiet. I peeked in the window at my empty classroom. It looked the same, but somehow it looked very different.

In some ways, it will seem odd returning to the subject matter of English 303, dwelling on things like syntax and grammar, narrative voice and imagery. It will seem a bit strange to talk, as I usually do, about the absolute imperative of getting the facts straight at a time when the truth seems all wrong.

Like everyone else here, I worry about my students. Are they all going to come back? Will they be able to go back to what college life is supposed to mean, whatever that is for them?

My colleague, Aimee Larry, who teaches in the communications department, has been e-mailing with her students, as many of us have been doing. "I'm assuming they're going to come back pretty shaken," she said. One of her students has a sibling who was shot and wounded. "But as far as exactly what to expect? I'm kind of at a loss."

Experts tell us the emotions will run the gamut. Some students will not want to talk about it. Others will want to talk about little else. Be ready, they tell us, for just about anything. Be flexible. Be patient.

Soon after the shootings on the DeKalb campus, a tall man with a white beard arrived in town. Christopher Flynn had come to help in any way he could. He is the director of counseling at Virginia Tech University. Dr. Flynn sat down with me after one of many sessions with faculty, the latest with people in the history department. People talk about the six degrees of separation. On a college campus, it's a lot closer than that, he said. We're much more closely linked than we realize.

"You might not know anybody who was killed or injured," he said. "But you know someone who knows somebody. You're a large university, but a small community."

It hits home. My daughter worked on the high-school paper last year with a student who was shot and wounded. Surveys at Virginia Tech after the massacre there last year found that 50 percent of students knew a victim.

Teachers will make sure students know about places to find counseling services. But they are not trained as counselors, and the experts tell us not to try to fill the role. "The classroom is not the place for group therapy," Dr. Flynn said. "I had an organic chemistry teacher ask me, 'I don't know what to talk about?" And I told him, 'Talk about organic chemistry'."

Dr. Flynn reminded us that, contrary to the popular notion, targeted shootings on American campuses have been declining in the last 10 years. That's little comfort, of course, if you were sitting in the lecture at Cole Hall a week ago Thursday, or if your son or daughter, your sibling or your friend, was sitting there.

It has been brutally cold on the DeKalb campus, with winds whipping off the icy cornfields. Plastic has been put over the bouquets of flowers left in tribute to the victims. In some places, five crosses have been erected to symbolize the victims. At one church, a sixth cross stands, marking the loss of life of the gunman, too. There are hand-scrawled signs, one of them saying LOVE ONE ANOTHER.

I walked across the campus Thursday, precisely a week after the shootings, and saw a huge banner that proclaimed WE ARE NIU. I took out my pen and signed my name.

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