On Life and Loss, Thankfulness and Temptation

Today at 10:34 AM, my phone buzzed in class, while I was giving a lecture on Probability Sampling methods. The first message simply read “SCHOOLCAST: Emergency Alert:” and nothing more. I paused for a moment, figured it was either an error or a test, and continued on. About 5 minutes later, my students interrupted me – they’d gotten messages too, and began uttering the phrase “Active Shooter”. I checked my phone again, and saw the actual message, advising us to take immediate lock down action. I walked over to the classroom door, verified it was locked, and shut it.

Screen Shot 2015-09-14 at 6.42.42 PM

Over the next 3 hours, my classroom was the scene of a number of discussions and moments of both light joking and nervous quiet. Students comforted each other when they needed to, rumors flew as we all saw our phones light up from every conceivable app, and we kept each other as calm and collected as possible. My students didn’t panic. We waited until around 2 PM when we knew the building to be secure, and started letting students have limited bathroom trips, always traveling with a buddy or 3. Finally at 2:30 students were evacuated from my building, and I left shortly after to head home.

When I got in my car, I took stock of what had happened. I had started off a normal Monday morning, and it had ended in the mid-afternoon with classes interrupted and cancelled, students shaken, and a colleague dead.

Addressing the last portion, I knew Ethan Schmidt professionally, and slightly more in that we were Facebook friends, we would talk and joke at various meetings, and each knew about the other’s classes and work. I had met one of his sons, and knew of his family trips through last summer. We both shared a love of Baseball, and spoke of it when we’d see each other. My students all spoke highly of Ethan, and I never doubted what they said. It was clear to all who knew the man that he was a true gentleman, as another professor dubbed him during a Fox News interview. (I myself was asked for comment by news organizations, but felt that anything I was going to say, I wanted full control over – hence this post). First and foremost today, we should acknoweldge that a man died, and that the lives of his family, his students, his peers, and his institution will never be the same. Rest now Ethan, and know that you are missed.


About 20 minutes after we went into lockdown, with rumors flying, one of my students asked the group if they wanted to pray with her. Many of us did, and she gave a short, eloquent prayer that summed up what we all felt: Please keep us safe, keep our campus safe, and be with those who were injured. Over the next several minutes, students asked me questions – mostly what I’d heard through the official channels (Which was enough to know what to do, and information as it became available – contrary to what some have suggested, the administration played this one very well – my Dean and Chair were both in communication via email, and nothing was released that could cause panic or unnecessary alarm). They also asked what I was thinking and feeling. I responded that we needed to stay calm, because there was nothing we could do about the situation – we just needed to wait. As the minutes turned into hours, the mood lightened in the room (including jokes about who we’d eat once we got too hungry , since we’d missed lunch). We knew our building’s external doors had been secured (Professors have keys that can lock and unlock the external doors, and indeed, it was two professors who had manned the doors on the first floor while awaiting law enforcement). We knew that law enforcement from the surrounding area had converged, and that those whose job it is to take care of us, were indeed doing that job.

I’ll take a moment to thank the law enforcement community that responded to the situation. They were calm, measured, and professional, putting their lives on the line to protect ours. The ATF officers who evacuated us did not shout to us orders, they spoke to us calmly, instructed us on where to go, and answered our questions.

I’d also like to take a moment and thank my family and friends who “checked in” with me. On a day like this, one appreciates all of the support one has. I was truly moved by the number of people who reached out, and I’m sorry I wasn’t able to respond very quickly or respond individually to each query. My number one priority was keeping my students safe (us prof types get very protective of our students!), so my responses were pretty short and laggy!

It’s easy for us, in times like this, to search for answers that just aren’t available to us, or may never be. We don’t know, as of now, the exact motive for this crime. We don’t know who has done this, although a suspect has been named. We don’t know when classes will resume (although we suspect Wednesday). We are severely tempted to pursue rumor, conjecture, and half-truths. We are severely tempted to embrace a story that seems to make sense of tragedy. We are severely tempted to ignore the fact that violence is often seemingly the only answer for those who are angry, or mentally disturbed. We are tempted to grab at anything that can pull us away from this day. But we can’t fall for that temptation. We all possess the empathetic skill to imagine what it must be like for Ethan’s family tonight – we dare not do so because we recognize the immense pain they must be feeling. We want that pain to go away, but it will not without us first dealing with it, and working through it.

What we do know is that today, Delta State University pulled together as one true DSU family, and we mourn the loss of one of our members tonight. The Fighting Okra will step up to the fight again soon, but tonight he trades his sneer for a heavy heart.

Musing: What Digital Pictures Mean for Us Psychologically

A quick look at my Dropbox Camera Upload directory reveals that I take about 3-5 photos a day on average. They range from awesome to mundane, moments to remember, and moments that after a task is done, should be forgettable. But I save them all, because it’s too much work to weed through them and I don’t want to miss any golden ones. Tonight I wonder how this will change society psychologically over the next 30 years.

A Screenshot of my Camera Upload Directory
A Screenshot of my Camera Upload Directory

My parents have photo albums that have 10-20 photos per year in them. They are generally key moments, or at least moments when a camera with film in it was handy. There are no pictures of receipts, white boards, lunch, or random people seen in Walmart. But today we take all those types of photos, and more. And in 30 years, I might have around 1,400 photos per year = 42,000 photos that span a giant chunk of my life. What will this mean? Continue reading “Musing: What Digital Pictures Mean for Us Psychologically”

#39 The Teddy Bear

“Come on Nicki, time for bed”, Nicki’s mother called out from the top of the stairs. Her reluctant daughter slowly dragged herself up the seemingly endless stairs. She didn’t want to go to bed, but she felt tired, so she resigned herself to the fact that Mom was to be obeyed. Mom was tired too. It wasn’t yet 9 PM but it might as well have been midnight. Long days are common for single moms.

Nicki’s mom tucked her daughter into the bed, and watched as Nicki grabbed her big fluffy teddy bear, Cuddly Joe, from his usual resting place on the pillow next to her. Cuddly Joe had been with Nicki through a lot – illnesses, the divorce, and moving from place to place. Nicki couldn’t sleep without Cuddly Joe, and at her age, Nicki’s mom was a long way off of suggesting her daughter ditch the bear. If it gave her a sense of security, then it was worth the hassle of toting it everywhere they went overnight.

“Mommy”, Nicki called out, “Cuddly Joe smells funny!”.

“What do you mean honey?”, her mother said wearily.

“He doesn’t smell like he’s ‘asposed to”, Nicki said adamantly.

“Honey, maybe he needs washing, or it’s just your imagination”, her mother said reassuringly, “We can figure it out in the morning.”.

“NO”, Nicki said, “He doesn’t smell right, and I can’t go to sleep until he does”.

Nicki’s mom knew that her daughter wouldn’t go quietly on this issue. When Nicki decided to pick a fight about her stuffed animals (or her stuff in general), she seldom gave in.

“Nicki honey, Cuddly Joe might just need a bath, or maybe it’s another smell from the day you’re smelling. Mommy can fix it tomorrow, but tonight we’re both tired, we should just get some rest. We’ll work it out in the morning”, her mother said to the child.

“NO”, Nicki said again,”It aint right”.

So Nicki’s mother spent another few minutes rationalizing to her daughter that things would be OK and that Cuddly Joe was fine, the world was fine, and everything could be fixed in the morning. At the end, she concluded with a strongly worded “Goodnight”. Nicki said nothing.

Turning on a small lamp, Nicki’s mom could see her asleep in the bed. “That was easier than usual”, she thought to herself. She left the room and started toward her own bedroom. It was weird that Nicki would find Cuddly Joe smelling different – she never complained about that before. Nicki would often smell Cuddly Joe to reassure herself at night, but never complained. Oh well, they were just so tired tonight, perhaps her daughter was acting a bit loopy.

Nicki’s mom found herself sitting in an old rocking chair that normally served it’s purpose of holding a pile of laundry, not rocking. How did she end up here? She started feeling sick, and all at once the pieces fell together.

A few hours later she woke up in the ER. Upon seeing her eyes light up, the nurse attending to her quickly told her exactly what she wanted to know.

“Mrs. Smith, don’t worry – you’re going to be fine, so is your daughter. It was a close one, but you managed to get yourself and her out of the house just in time. A neighbor of yours was jogging by and noticed you. He called 911. Any longer in there and that leak would have been… fatal”.

Nicki’s mom felt a shock of relief come over her. A few hours later they wheeled her next to Nicki’s bed, where Nicki lay sleeping. Her vital signs were good, there was no brain damage due to the lack of oxygen, and right next to her in the hospital bed was Cuddly Joe.