Each English department I’ve been in, four so far, has its own familiar sounds. In one of the departments I taught at, the English department was housed in a former frat house, the common room on the main floor occupied by our tutoring center and a casual, friendly gathering place for tutors, majors, random other students, and faculty. The building hummed with chatter even late in the evenings when I worked upstairs in my office.
I’ve experienced several “events” (for lack of a better word) since I’ve been teaching. Some were national in scope (the 9/11 terrorist attacks), some more local. In each case, the departments seemed to have a kind of corporate response, multiple individuals working through things together or alone. In one department, the corporate reaction to a difficult situation was to draw attention to focusing on students, giving them opportunities to write about their experience of the event as a way of dealing with it, supporting them through the aftermath. In another department, no one publicly acknowledged the event, and private acknowledgments tended towards a sort of self-satisfaction at being little affected by it, even though some people in the department were deeply affected.
Today, my department is reacting to news of a very local tragedy. You won’t hear about it in the national newscasts, CNN won’t cover it, and yet it’s as big for us as individuals as more widespread events are for those individuals directly affected. This little fact is true of all the little tragedies that make up every day life, though.
Our students will be mostly unaware of it, little touched except for a few individuals.
The sounds in the hallways changed as the news crept about until an email exposed it to all. No doubt, later today, the university as a whole will acknowledge it, and students will become aware in a vague way. For now, though, student voices sound in their usual ways, making plans, asking questions, discussing the fine points of esoterica from Cavendish to the latest celebrity publicity.
But there’s an echoing silence underneath, more doors closed while faculty and staff members try to compose ourselves, quiet knocks as friends visit friends, comfort each other. The heels of the few who wear heels resound more strikingly.
I’m feeling old today, noticing for the first time who goes into whose office for a quiet moment of reflection or comfort, who turns to whom for support in the moment of getting the news. Some of us react quickly, powerfully. Others seem unreactive. In the past, getting news like this, I’ve always been so wrapped up in my own self that I don’t think I’ve really looked around, but now for some reason I’m looking around and listening to the sounds in our hallway.