I had written my students, to ask how they were doing. It was just two days after the April 30th shooting at UNC Charlotte, where I teach in the Department of Religious Studies.
One student in my small seminar class on antisemitism wrote: “I’m feeling very numb to everything. “I’m staying off social media for a bit because students are arguing and it’s exhausting to look at.” She wrote that she had met classmates at the vigil. One had told her that she “was sad because she’s not walking and the last time she’d be in that auditorium would be for the vigil. I don’t know if we have the time or not,” she added, “but I’d like to give her a graduation ceremony with our class during what would be our finals period.”
I sat at my desk and cried. Then, I got ready.
Over the next days, our graduation plans grew in shape and size. I suggested that other students play the roles of chancellor, provost, the dean. One student was going to call the names of the graduating “class” (I’d learned that we had another student who wasn’t walking, either, though he was also graduating). I sent all the jokes our chancellor tells at every single graduation ceremony to the student taking on his role.
I committed to bringing regalia. The student who’d had the idea said she could make cords in school colors out of yarn and print up mock degrees.
I told my department chair and asked her to play the photographer. I invited all the faculty to join our little class for our graduation ceremony. I invited other students, too.
Most of the class got to our room early. We piled food on one table and students hung decorations for the “class of 2019” on the wall. I stood guard outside.
When the two graduating students were allowed to enter, we all gave a full-throated cheered. We dressed them in the regalia. We took them outside. One student was charged with lining up all two of our graduates; the others took their places. The chancellor-student started her speech.
“Now I want to explain why we don’t have a commencement speaker here today,” she said. “Why am I speaking instead?” She paused for dramatic effect. “Because we cannot release the students into the world if they are not properly sedated.”
“Have you been to graduation?” called my department chair. “How did you know he says that?”
The student who’d had the idea in the first place spoke next. “I was in Dr. Thiede’s office before the shooting,” she said, “and we were talking about how I needed to get loud.” Then she got loud — with joy, with praise, and with hope. She spoke about what students needed to do, who they needed to be in the world. Every word she said landed.
One by one the two students walked the line, shook hands with the “dean,” received their “degrees,” and were told to stop for the requisite picture.
“Throw your caps in the air!” someone shouted.
They did. High.
UNC Charlotte will not be the same. We will have to ask whether to keep the Kennedy Building, where the terror took place, standing or whether to tear it down. We will need to figure out how to get loud ourselves, how to do what we must do to protect the young people who come to learn with us.
Our graduates threw those caps with certainty. We celebrated with all the affection we felt for them, for our class, for our school.
We taught ourselves at UNC Charlotte.
Goodness and kindness can heal wounds of cruelty and rage.
It is two weeks to the day that two UNC Charlotte students, Ellis Parlier and Riley Howell, were shot and killed. Four others were injured. This post is dedicated to Alexandria Osborne, the student who had the idea for our graduation ceremony, as well as all my other students in our class on antisemitism; they are courageous human beings.