Friday, February 27, 2015

Real or Not Real

“Trauma fractures comprehension as a pebble shatters a windshield. The wound at the site of impact spreads across the field of vision, obscuring reality and challenging belief.” - Jane Leavy

Time, I have found, is not an automatic healer of wounds. Just when we think enough time has passed and we are settled into life after a trauma, that small, wounded part of us reopens and reminds us just how damaged we truly are.

This happened to me last night.

A little over a year ago, as I’ve written in a previous post, we lost our home to a fire. Seeing the house on fire, the enormous flames, the huge billowing clouds of black smoke was horrible. Watching the firefighters go into that inferno, knowing they were risking themselves for our home, was frightening. Walking through the house afterward was devastating. We picked our way through the wet ruins of the house and saw our belongings charred, water-logged, and smoke-damaged. The awesome power of fire was completely, unquestionably, driven home to us all.

I was glad for one thing: we were not home when the fire began. My children did not have to know the fear and panic of trying to escape from a burning home. But the fear of it happening again is still with me. They investigated, of course, to determine the cause of the fire but were unable to pinpoint a cause. This bothers me. I want to know. I want to know why my house suddenly caught fire. I want to know so that I can make certain that it will not happen in this house.

As I was looking at houses, one house had a smoke detector that kept beeping. The battery needed to be replaced. I couldn’t handle that. While the fire was in full blaze at the old house, what was amazing was I could hear the smoke detectors going off in the rooms the fire had not yet reached. I will never forget that. That new house was automatically scratched off my list. When we moved into this house, my dad did not mock my jumpiness. He supported me. With his help, we had smoke alarms installed in every bedroom, hallway, the kitchen, laundry room, garage, and bathroom. Every room of the house, actually. Is this overkill? Maybe. But I have to feel safe. My children have to feel safe.

Which brings me back to last night.

I occasionally have severe flashes of PTSD from various traumas that have occurred in my life. It seems to be dealer’s choice on which trauma will be triggered. Last night was a bad one. Around 2:30 in the morning, as I lay tossing and turning from the pain in my shoulder, my smoke alarm began beeping. The red light flashed and the automated voice repeated, “Fire! Fire! Fire!” I shot out of bed, my heart pounding. The fire was not in my room. My first thought was getting to the girls.

I ran to the girls’ hallway, but there was no sign of smoke. I quickly checked their rooms to make sure they were clear of fire. I made the decision not to wake them yet while I checked the rest of the house.

The den, kitchen, dining room, laundry room, and garage were all clear as well. That only left the attic. I did not want to climb into the attic at 2:45 in the morning, but I had to know. Clad only in my nightgown, sweating with fear and shivering with cold at the same time, I pulled down the steps in the garage to access the attic. Once my head popped through the ceiling, I knew we were safe. There was no fire. There was no smoke.

But why was my smoke alarm going off?


I walked back into the house and stood for a moment, listening. When we had the smoke detectors installed, we had them all daisy-chained together: if one went off, they would all go off. If there were a fire in one room, all alarms would sound. So why would my smoke alarm have been the only one to go off? And why would the voice have sounded exactly like Siri’s? For that matter, why did my smoke alarm even have a voice?

It wasn’t real.

I wasn’t dreaming. I was awake when I saw the lights flashing and heard the voice. My mind did that to me. It lied to me. I don’t know what triggered it. I’ve tried to trace it back, tried to find something that I did yesterday or saw yesterday, that would have made it happen, but I have come up with nothing. It just happened.

I didn’t go back to sleep. I couldn’t go back to sleep. I lay there, awake, taking comfort in the only thing I could: the steady, reassuring green light shining from the smoke alarm in my room and knowing that, at least for the moment, all was well.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Friday Strikes Again

“How many times can a heart be shattered and still be pieced back together? How many times before the damage is irreparable?” – Gwenn Wright

Ten years ago today, I lost my love. Ten years ago today, on a Friday, the grey clouds of loss and pain rolled back into my life. That day has been playing through my mind all day today. Even though I was teaching today, the day was still playing on a loop in the back of my mind. I’m not really in the present today. Today, I’m back there.

It seems all fairy tales have their ending, most of which go something like, “and they lived happily ever after.” Mine did not end so blithely. For seven months and twenty-three days I was married to my Prince Charming, but nothing was ever so pat as happily ever after. 

Although Curt was Violet’s stepdad, he quickly became the always-there father that she needed. He adored her, and she adored him. He was there every day, playing with her, supporting her, loving her.  Even on days when he was in such pain from his back injury, he would lie on the couch and still manage to devise a game for them to play. It was a joy to watch them be father and daughter. We became a family so quickly that it was hard to believe that it had not always been so. But, once again, winter and tragedy were to be intertwined. 

On Wednesday, February 16, 2005 Curt had a “procedure.” For all intents and purposes it was a back surgery, but in the jargon of the day it was called a procedure. He was nervous about this one, not because of the doctor or the hospital – indeed, he never gave his doctor anything but the highest of high praises – but because of a feeling he had. 

That day began with a trivial discomfort of my own. I was three months pregnant, and continually nauseated, but I awoke that morning to a full-blown case of Pink Eye. Great. Somehow, the three-year-old child didn’t get it, but the mother did. I put some generic drops in my eyes hoping they would help and taught my classes at the college as usual, then I zipped to the hospital in Hialeah to wait with Curt and his father for the procedure. It was a long wait and Curt was becoming antsier by the minute. Having not been able to take any medication prior to this surgery his back felt, he said, as if it were on fire and sitting in the waiting room chair was pure torture. 

Finally it was Curt’s turn. After that, things moved much faster and we were able to be home by mid-afternoon. The doctor was pleased with how the surgery went, and he was optimistic about the results. It was a huge relief.

Curt was in tremendous pain that evening, but that wasn’t unusual after someone fiddled with his back. He took his pain medication; as usual, he self-medicated. In other words, no one gave him his meds. He gave them to himself. That night was a sleepless one for Curt. He could find no release, no way of sitting or lying that would ease the pain enough to induce sleep. The next day, Thursday, began a downward spiral. 

I didn’t teach on Tuesdays and Thursdays, so I was able to spend the time at home with Curt and try to take care of him. He was not an easy person to take care of because he was always trying to take care of everyone else. Despite the doctor’s orders to stay in bed, Curt kept getting up and down to get some thing or another for himself.  I chastised him repeatedly, but he said he felt guilty asking me to do things for him when he knew how tired the pregnancy was making me. He just wanted me to rest. After explaining over and over that I would rest better if I knew he would stay put, he finally promised to take a nap. 

Around midday, I checked on Curt, and I was not happy with what I found. His pain level still ranged around the “hideous” level despite the oxycontin. When I spoke to him, his answers made no sense to me. I returned to the den to speak with his father about this, and he said he had observed it as well. Unfortunately, there was little we could do. 

As the afternoon and evening progressed, so did Curt’s incoherence. Words and phrases issuing from him made less and less sense. Close to four o’clock that afternoon, when his dad had gone into Miami to pick Violet up from school, Curt wandered out into the den and began to roam around. I asked him if I could get him something but he said – in a vague sort of way – that he was only looking for his paintbrush because he had missed a spot in the bedroom. 


We had never painted the bedroom. It was painted before we moved in. 

I explained this to Curt and sent him back to bed with a full glass of water. While his physical rambling ceased at that point, his verbal ramblings continued. He asked me why I draped a polka dot blanket over the television. I hadn’t, but the medication was making him see strange things.  Finally, around 7:00 p.m., his dad and I went in to talk to Curt about his incoherence as best we could. As his father spoke to Curt, I casually picked up his bottle of oxycontin and began counting it. Math never having been my strong suit, I admit it took me an absurd amount of time to calculate how many should still be left in the bottle. I counted, then recounted twice to make sure I truly was reaching the correct answer. As his dad was talking, he looked over at me. I saw the question on his face; he didn’t even have to ask aloud. I told him the numbers as they stood and how they should be. Curt had taken far too many, which, we assumed, was causing this dementia. And oxycontin was not his only medication. He was taking several – four, to be precise. 

Somehow he had gotten off track, gotten ahead of his medication schedule. I casually palmed the bottle and did not put it back in his briefcase. I didn’t want him to take any more. His dad and I finally convinced him to let us take over the medications, just until his incoherence improved. We left the room and I placed the pill bottle on a shelf in the den. I wasn’t trying to hide it from Curt; I simply didn’t want him to see it and for some reason think it was time to take more.

I decided to sleep in the den that night. I knew that Curt would feel guilty that his coughing and tossing and turning would keep me awake, and I wanted him to be comfortable. So I let him have the bed and I adjourned to the den. At about 11:00 that night Curt once again wandered out into the den.  He was in his t-shirt, gym shorts, and bathrobe and wanted to know where his hair dryer was. 

“Why do you need it tonight, Honey?”

He looked at me as if I were insane. “Because my hair is dripping wet and I won’t be able to sleep until I dry it.”

But Curt had not showered. His hair was not wet. His mind was still playing tricks on him to the point that it forced him painfully out of bed and further away from sleep. I was exhausted myself, and was becoming somewhat cross. I didn’t get up from the couch, but called to him to get back to bed and get some sleep. Thankfully, as he turned to go, shoulders rounded, head hung down like a puppy in trouble, I told him that I loved him, and I would see him in the morning. 

Those were the last words I ever said to him.

He went to bed, but I know he passed a rough night. I heard him coughing through the night but knew if I went to him it would make him feel terrible for keeping me awake. Finally, around 5:00 in the morning, the coughing stopped and I could hear him snoring. I sent a quick prayer heavenward that he would finally get some sleep, knowing that sleep would help him feel better faster than anything else could at that point.

In the morning, I arose from my somewhat compact position on the sofa and proceeded to get Violet up and dressed for school. While I was getting her ready, Curt’s dad went into our room and checked on Curt. He was still sleeping, laying on his right side. His dad and Violet left, and, as I was feeling quite nauseated, I went quietly into our room to get one of my Phenergan tablets. They made me sleepy, but they took away the nausea, and I blessed my doctor for prescribing them. Curt was still lying on his right side, one leg thrown over the side of the bed and his arms wrapped around his pillow. I could hear him breathing as I tried to open the pill bottle and tip a pill into my hand. Naturally, when I most wanted to be quiet, the opposite happened. I dropped the entire bottle of pills onto the bedside table causing enough noise to wake a deaf man. But Curt slept on. His breathing was ragged, and did not sound at all easy. It sounded very labored, like something in his chest was loose and rattling around. But he was breathing. I managed to get my pill out without further incident, peeked at Curt once again, and slipped out of the room, closing the door behind me. 

It was 8:00 in the morning, Friday, February 18, 2005.

I was sitting on the couch – lying on the couch, more like, as the Phenergan had kicked in and made me drowsy – when his dad returned just before 9:30. He asked me if Curt had gotten up yet or if I had heard from him. No, I said. Not a peep. Then, in jest, I added that I had checked on him just over an hour ago and he was still breathing. He chuckled and went in to check on his son. I heard him say Curt’s name, softly, then with more urgency. Suddenly I heard him cry out, “Quick! Call 911!”

No, my mind said. No. No. Not again. Not my Curt.

I snatched up the phone, dialed 911, and, though I didn’t want to, I went into the bedroom so I would be able to tell the operator what was wrong. His dad had turned Curt onto his back and was vigorously shaking him, trying to rouse him into consciousness. But Curt wouldn’t wake. I told the operator we needed an ambulance, quickly. She asked me where he was.

“On the bed,” I whispered. “It’s a waterbed.” I don’t know why I felt it necessary to add that, other than I wanted her to have whatever information she might need.

“I know this is hard,” she said, “but I have to ask: Is he beyond help?”

“No!” I shouted into the phone. “He is NOT beyond help. We need that ambulance here now!”

“Get him onto the floor on his back so you can start CPR.” She was so calm. It infuriated me.

I relayed what we needed to do and we each took one of Curt’s feet to pull him down. Near the end of the bed, his dad took Curt’s right arm and leg, and I took his left. We pulled him over the foot of the bed, and as we did so, his head thwacked painfully on the footboard. I knew he would not thank me for that lump when he woke up. We began CPR, with Curt’s dad breathing for him and me doing chest compressions. At first we couldn’t get his chest to rise, but eventually the air his dad was breathing in him took effect and gave us the illusion that he was breathing. I was talking and muttering the entire time. “No, Curt.  Come on, come on. Breathe for me. Just breathe. Just breathe. Breathe. Show me some sign. Come on, Baby. Hang in there.  Don’t leave me.” I had quite forgotten the 911 operator on the phone, but she was still there, keeping up a steady stream of instructions. 

My mind flashed back to the night Sam died. I remembered shrieking many of those same things to him. And I remembered something else. At one of my Glory Babies support group meetings, another mom, Traci – a nurse – told the story of how her baby boy died. She said she looked in his eyes and just knew he was gone. His pupils were fixed and dilated. For some reason, that came back to me as I was pounding on Curt’s chest.  I leaned up and pulled open one of his eyelids. There was no response in his eye. No pupil contraction at the light that was glaring above him. No movement of the eyeball. No flickering of the eyelid. Nothing. 

Oh, damn.

But maybe it doesn’t always mean what Traci said it meant. We didn’t stop our CPR. We kept going. The paramedics arrived and took over. They shunted us out of the room and closed the door. They closed the door! That was hard. They cut me off from the man I loved. Separated us by closing a door.

I discovered I was hunched on the floor, crying, sobbing, trying to breathe. I heard his dad on his cell phone behind me calling Curt’s mom. I heard him say, “Our boy’s in trouble.  You need to pray.” They rang off, and we each just sat, lost in our thoughts, lost in the monstrous situation that had exploded in my home. His phone rang. It was Curt’s mom calling back to see if there was any news. No. No news. The paramedics were still working. Pray. Just pray.

The bedroom door opened. I looked up, hoping against hope to see the paramedics tired but pleased, but they were not. Tired, yes. But there was no pleased look on their faces. They carried Curt on a backboard, his hands taped together over his stomach to keep them from slipping off, his feet crossed at the ankles. He was so very still, so very blue. 

They wouldn’t let me ride in the ambulance.

We arrived at the hospital quickly, somehow found a parking place with no trouble, and hurried into the emergency room. But we didn’t get to see Curt. They brought us to a small room. One with three chairs, a computer, and some hospital equipment. It wasn’t the death room like I had experienced with Sam’s death, but it might as well have been. 

I was still holding out hope. I was still clinging to a shred of possibility that he had made it, that the paramedics and hospital staff had been able to bring him back. A doctor and two nurses finally came into the room. They began talking to us, but they didn’t tell us how Curt was doing. They asked about his medications, about his frame of mind, his mood, our home life. Then they said they found some pills lodged in his throat, which would be consistent with a suicide attempt.

Suicide? This was absolutely unreal.

Would that have been possible, they asked us. No, I answered them quickly. Don’t even think that. Don’t waste time on that speculation. We’re having a baby. It’s what he wanted more than anything. And he would never willingly leave Violet or me. As much as he is our world, we are his. Then came the words I never wanted to hear again.

“We did all we could.”

Did? Could? All past tense! No! I was silent, but my mind was screaming, raging that it couldn’t be true, but all the time the doctor and nurses were there assuring us that he was, in fact, dead. It began to sink in, and I began to cry. His dad sat slumped in his chair, his head in his hands. His own brother had died just the week before. It was the first loss he had experienced. And now his son. 

The doctor and nurses left us alone in our little room. They said we wouldn’t be able to see Curt until the homicide detectives had come and gone from the hospital. Homicide detectives…? Oh my God. So we waited. I borrowed his dad’s cell phone. I had to tell my family what had happened. My mom answered on the fourth ring.

“Mom?” I could barely get that one word out. My voice didn’t sound like my own.

“Hi, babydoll!” I tried to say something but I couldn’t. I just cried. “Karen?”

“Yeah…Mom…”  I couldn’t say the words. I just couldn’t. To say it out loud would make it real, make it final.

“What’s wrong?  Karen, tell me what’s wrong.”

“Curt…Curt…Curt died. This morning.”

Silence. Then, “What?” 

I explained as best I could, my sentences broken, my voice cracked and shaking. She was in utter disbelief. Out of the blue, her newest son-in-law was dead. I don’t remember a lot of the conversation with her, but I know that she wanted Violet and me to come home to Texas as soon as possible. I told her that I wanted to bury Curt next to Sam and Curt’s dad agreed with that. She rang off, and I knew she would get the word to the rest of the family, sparing me the necessity of calling and having to say those horrible words again. At least for now.

We waited. In that little room, we waited for almost three hours. The detectives finally arrived. They took care of whatever business they had with Curt, and then came to see us in our little death room. They asked us questions over and over. Finally they were satisfied and told us they would be going to the house now to look around and gather any evidence they might need. Evidence? Just to help in the investigation, they said. Investigation? Yes, there would have to be an investigation. He died outside the hospital (though the death certificate would later state that he died in the emergency room) under suspicious circumstance (i.e., the pills stuck in his throat). It was like a nightmarish episode of CSI Miami – being questioned by police, having those police go through my house, looking for some sort of clues as to why my husband, my beloved, was dead.

One of the nurses came to us after the detectives left. We could see Curt now. I had to see him. I had to, so that I would know it was true, that it was real. I had to be able to say goodbye, hold him, rest my head one more time on his chest. I wanted my chance to stroke his hair, hold his hand. I wanted to see Curt by myself. This was something I had to do alone. 

He was in a small, curtained cubicle. He was so discolored. But he was my Curt. The man I loved more than anything in the world except for Violet. I couldn’t stop the tears from coming again. I talked to him, told him how much I loved him, how much I already missed him. I promised to take good care of our baby, that I would make sure the baby knew how wonderful Curt had been. That I would never forget him. I hugged him. I stroked his hair. I held his cold hand in my own, wishing I could give him warmth that would bring him back to life. I rested my head on his chest. He always felt so solid, so steady. That feeling was still there and I never wanted to give it up. I saw him there, lying on that gurney, and still – somehow – I just couldn’t take it in. No. This wasn’t really possible. It wasn’t really happening. It was so difficult to give him one last kiss, to let go of his hand, turn, and walk away from him, leaving him in that hospital cubicle. I returned to our little room to give his father space to say his own goodbye to his son.

Then it was over.

We left the hospital and went home. The homicide detectives had finished and we could go in. I knew I would have to sleep in that bed, live in that house, exist without Curt ever being there again. It was hard knowledge. When we got home, I stripped the bed. His pillowcase had blood on it, and so did the sheets. It had soaked through the pillowcase and stained his pillow.  The sheets I washed. They had been a wedding present and somehow made me feel more connected to Curt. Curt’s pillow I had to throw out. I just couldn’t take the thought of scrubbing it. I washed the sheets and put them back on the bed. I sprayed some of Curt’s cologne – Obsession for men– on his side of the bed so that it would still smell like him. 

I had put off what could not be put off any longer. I had to call Curt’s friends, our friends, and tell them what had happened. I made many phone calls and saying the words never got easier.  Then I had to call my department chair at the college and explain to him. I would need at least a week off. He was so understanding, so supportive. He said getting a sub would be no problem, and if I needed him to, he would arrange a permanent sub for the rest of the semester. I thanked him, hung up, and packed suitcases for Violet and myself. We were going back to Texas.


Damn Fridays.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

The Branding Project

Evil has no face and can look like anything, so we must stay vigilant about the possible evils in the world and what they might look like. – Austin Dickerson

This is what I’m asking my World Literature II students to do: brand themselves. Not physically. I’m not asking them to tattoo themselves or place a white-hot poker on their skins. But we have been talking about identity for the past week: what does it mean when others deny it, how do you hold on to it, how do you know who you are?

What does this have to do with a sophomore college literature class?

When I teach literature, I teach my students that literature does not exist in a vacuum. It comes from life, from events, from people. Literature is created. It is birthed. Literature is life.

As such, I always give them some history before we discuss some literature. Not just a bunch of dates (nothing kills a love of history more than memorizing a list of dates), but I talk about motives, actions, maneuvers. I want them to know the whys of history. I want them to understand the people behind the history because it is the people who tell the stories.

I teach my World Lit II class backward, meaning I begin with the most modern literature (the current, unnamed movement) and work backward all the way to Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal. By doing this, they are more comfortable at the beginning of the semester. This is writing that they can understand: modern language, current events, current themes, the Internet, blogging. It helps them grow comfortable with the course.

The comfort level changes quickly.

It doesn’t take long before we reach the Holocaust. I respect the Holocaust and I want to do justice to the people and the information. Education in elementary, middle, and high school is woefully incomplete. I am saddened at how little my college students know:
  • Most do not know that 11 million people were killed, though many do know that six million Jews were. 
  • Most do not know that 1.5 million children were killed.
  • Most do not know that Romanians, Gypsies, homosexuals, political dissidents, and the mentally disabled were also targeted. It was not just the Jews.
  • Most cannot name more than 1 concentration camp. There were 20,000 camps.
  • Most have never heard of Kristallnacht. Of Heinrich Himmler. Of Josef Mengele, or of the Nuremburg Race Laws. And some have never even heard of Anne Frank.

 So I have to rewind.

I go back to the beginning of World War II.

Me: "How did WWII begin?"
Student: "Germany invaded Poland."
Me: "Why?"
* they had never considered that before*


Me: "When did the US get involved in WWII?" 
Many Students: "When Japan bombed Pearl Harbor!!!" (they were so proud of themselves for knowing this one)
Me: "Why did they do that when we hadn't even been involved in the war up to this point?"
*utter, absolute, soul-sucking silence*

Students have been taught to memorize facts. They have been taught to recite. They have not been taught to search for motive. To ask why someone did something.

We cover the rising power of the Brown Shirts, Heinrich Himmler, Hitler, the camps, the executions (by firing squad, gas chambers, burning alive, hanging), the Final Solution, eugenics, and the liberations. We also discuss what Germany’s plan was, and why they were still building gas chambers and crematoria at the end of the war. It’s chilling, and the students are appropriately horrified. Not all eyes are dry at the end of the class.

This is brand new knowledge for them, and it’s a lot to take in. It’s overwhelming.

“Why weren’t we taught this?”

I can think only of something once written by one of my favorite authors, Corrie ten Boom, herself a survivor of a concentration camp. She once asked her father what a naughty word meant and he wasn’t ready to explain that to her so I turn his explanation to my purposes.

“Why weren’t we taught this?” they ask.

“Because some knowledge is heavy,” I tell them, “and it would be a poor teacher who asked a child to carry it. Can you imagine knowing this when you were younger?”

“But we’re lucky!” I go on to tell them.

They aren’t quite ready to trust me again yet. After all, I’ve just treated them to the most horrific lecture they’ve ever heard in their lives.

“They wrote about it.”

No, this is definitely not helping my cause. Read about it?! My talking about it was depressing enough! They most certainly don’t want to read about it.

“But don’t you understand? History is told by the winners. Invariably, the winners of history decide how the textbooks portray what happens. But we have survivors who wrote about their experience. We get to see history from the inside! From the people who made it, who lived it, but didn’t win. We get to see the life that fed it. Eleven million people are dead today, but this book? This book is ALIVE!”

[the book in question is Night by Elie Wiesel]

This book, and a short story or a short non-fiction piece, and a guest lecture from a rabbi in our city all come together to help the students form an overall picture of what life was like for people in this time: not just the Jews, but all those who were hunted and persecuted by the Reich.

They begin to understand the systematic elimination of rights that was happening.

“Imagine,” I pose to them. “Imagine if you were told by your government that this Saturday, beginning at 10:00 a.m., all Christians could no longer go to the movies. Could no longer own cell phones. Could no longer go to the mall. Could no longer ride skateboards. Could no longer play football. No longer play soccer. No longer eat pizza. These are the new rules, decreed by the government. And any person who sees a rule be broken, should tell, and will be rewarded.”

Then I continue, “Now, think for a minute. How long do you think it will take before someone reports you for breaking a rule you didn’t break, just to gain a reward? What proof do you have that you didn’t break it? If it’s in their interest to think you did, who do you think the government will believe? This is the problem the Jews faced.”

They are getting very uncomfortable with my hypothetical world now, which is good. Because more is coming.

“What did the Jews have to wear to mark themselves out?” I ask.

“The star!” many of them sing out.

“Yes! Excellent.”

Then I say nothing for a moment.

“Oh, crap,” we hear from the back of the room. I smile because I know this student has just figured out what we are going to do next.

But I don’t want to go there yet. I want to talk to them about identity first. Because that is the most important thing for them to understand. It is what makes the Branding Project so special.

I leave them hanging with my question about the star. I’ll come back to that.

“What is identity?” I ask them, in a complete (to them) change of topic.

They give me many answers: your name, your personality, your looks, your mannerisms, your beliefs.

What if, I ask them, the ‘Powers That Be’ took one single aspect of your identity and made that the sum total of who you are? So much so that when people look at you they see nothing – nothing – but that one, single aspect. By making the Jews wear the star, this is what happened. They weren’t seen as teachers, lawyers, doctors, good people, kind people, funny people. No. They weren’t seen as multidimensional at all. They were seen as one thing only: Jew. That is all that was left of them by having to wear the star.

When your identity is reduced to a single aspect, people forget that there is more to you. Despite that one visual representation, like the star, there are 500,000 other things that create who you are that may not be seen at a glance. But no one bothers to look past that one visual representation.

Let’s find out what that’s like.

“Take a deep breath,” I tell them. “This is where we jump in with both feet.”

My students have to brand themselves for a week. There are three options: if they are openly out – and would like to – they may select the pink triangle the homosexuals wore in the camps. If they are Jewish – and would like to – they may wear the star. The third option is a blank white circle. Unlike the Jews, the students get to select their own labels to write in the circle, but it must represent a single aspect of their own identity. They can get as controversial or as innocuous as they would like. In order to have the project approved by the college, I cannot require a certain level of badge, so many students do take an easy way out by selecting a badge they don’t have to think much about. I tell them the tougher the badge, the more they will get out of the project.

The project, once they decide on their brand, has three parts.
  • Part I: wear the badge every day for a week, on campus, everywhere they go. This requires photo documentation. Pics are to be texted to my cell phone (emailed to me if necessary). The badge has to show at all times. Other teachers are aware of the project, and if they see the badge covered, they pass that information on to me.
  • Part II: A journal entry for each day of the project. How they were treated, where they went, looks they received, any interactions with people, how they felt wearing the badge, etc.
  • Part III: Major paper tying in the literature with the life and these three concepts: understanding, perception, and reflection.
 We talk about how some people could react. Not everyone will be supportive. When someone asks about the badge and the student explains, the person may not like the project. We go over how to handle this.

I tell them, this is bad:

Person: “That’s stupid.”
Student: “You’re face is stupid.”

No, you can’t handle things in that way. As of now, and until the end of the project, you are a representation of the college. Every time you explain the project, you represent. If someone gets in your face, you explain, and if it’s something worth discussing, you discuss. Otherwise, you can walk away.

This is a massive project. I spend weeks setting it up with the lectures in class, reading the materials, and discussions in class. Then there is the actual week of wearing the badge, which I do with the students.

It has to take time. It has to take long enough that they get bored wearing the badge. At first, it’s a novelty; everyone stares: former student Mia Black said, “It was like my face no longer existed, the first thing they looked at was the badge.” This is why it must last a week. It takes time to wear off. It has to become rote for them to put it on each day, for it to become part of their identity, for their friends to become so used to seeing it on them that there is no more fun to be had in mocking it. I want them to learn how easy it is – dangerously so – to become accustomed to a new normal. And what’s even scarier is that the people around them will no longer notice it. One of my former students, Mason Cole, said, “[My badge] became a part of me, a part of my identity that everyone just accepted. I don’t know if that’s a bad thing or not.” Another student told me later than he had stopped wearing the badge for two weeks before one of his friends noticed, though this friend was one of the first to notice when he put it on.

But why do I have my students do this?

I want them to connect the literature to the life that fed it, to understand how the author felt going through all the atrocities he endured.

I want them to get a sense of empathy, a marginal understanding, even though it will be only a tiny fraction, of what it was like to be branded and singled out.

I want them to have an appreciation of everything that happened, of how intensely privileged they are live here. I’ll not deny that this country has problems, but in a world that has more oppressed people than free people, we are pretty damn lucky to live here. I want them – need them – to know that.

I want them to examine their lives and know who they are.

I want them to find that voice that I know is inside them and use it give a voice to others.

The 11 million who died didn’t get to have their voices heard. We have a voice. We can be voices for the voiceless. We mustn’t let fear, or indifference, or apathy keep our voices silent. Speak out. Whether you speak out for one or one million, just speak.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Warrior Marks

“I have a lot of scars, man. My mother said that a man is not a man unless he has a scar on his face. And what she meant by a scar was some kind of battle that you had to go through, whether it was psychological or physical. To her, a scar was actually beautiful and not something that marred you.” – Nick Nolte


That is an ugly word. We think of un-pretty marks, disfiguring marks, marks that carve us out of the rest of the world and brand us as different. Someone gets hurt, goes to the ER for stitches, and asks, “Will it leave a scar?” As if that is the worst part of it all.

Sure, no one likes to see that mark. It’s a visual reminder of a very bad day: a car accident, an earthquake, a fight with a spouse, a drunken table dance, a poorly handled gun, etc. Wounds heal, but the scars remind us that they were there in the first place. They are tiny (or sometimes not-so-tiny) visual traumas that occur every time we see them. Some people cling to them, running their fingers across their scars over and over, rhythmically, as if touching the scars connects them to the event physically. Others simply stare at their scars and walk through time.

The physical scars we bear are only a part of our fight. Our other trauma is mental. We suffer, we bleed, we weep, but maybe – if we’re lucky – there isn’t a fleshy scar left behind to physically obsess over. What do we do? The trauma is still there. We’re still scarred. The problem is that no one else can see it. No one can physically see where our pain began. When the mentally scarred look in a mirror, what do we have to focus on?

People seem to understand when those physically injured fall apart. They see the burned face, the broken leg, the loss of hair, or the self-harm lines, but what about those mentally injured? Those barely holding themselves together with mental tape and a fake smile? Those whose response to “How’s everything going?” is always “Fine, thanks.” That’s a stock answer, and if you actually care how someone is doing, you won’t accept it. The mentally injured have ropes and ropes of scar tissue. It can’t be seen, and it needs a little more work to understand it. We may linger over our own mental damage too long, mentally rubbing it in an attempt to break it down and make it go away, but we’re just scar siblings to our physically wounded counterparts.

When it comes to scars, there are two ways to look at them. One, you are a victim of life’s events and disasters and have been marked by them. You can hide them in shame and worry that everyone will see them. Or two, you are a survivor who has participated in your own life. Display whatever warrior marks you have, and do so proudly. If anyone wants to turn away, let them turn. Scars mean you had something to fight for, you fought, and you didn’t give up.

I am a survivor. I am proud to have survived every fight in my life. These are my marks: my warrior marks. And I am proud.