Archive for October, 2014


Action. Understanding. Which word attracts you more? That sounds like a query posed by a personality test, but it’s actually the question I was asking myself after reading an interview with the surgeon Atul Gawande regarding his new book Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End.

I fall in the latter’s camp, leaning toward understanding, a prerequisite to action. But sometimes I feel alone in this tent, especially these days when the impulse to do, make, and produce seems paramount.

In the interview, Gawande was asked what books influenced his decision to become a doctor and his approach to medicine. His list was long, including playwrights, poets, and novelists from Chekhov to Keats to Percy: “They’re just writers, telling us about the experience of being human.”

His reflections on the power of literature to help us realize our purpose, to make sense of our feelings, to connect to others who may transcend time and place underscored for me the value of understanding. I was moved to hear him, a doctor, declare, “We have a particular responsibility to understand what people experience when their body or mind fails them. Our textbooks and manuals aren’t enough for that task.”

But what does it really mean to understand? How do we break out of our own interior perspective to appreciate what another person is feeling? Quite honestly, it takes time, patience, humility. When his own father approached the end of his life, Gawande simply asked him, “How much are you willing to go through just to have a chance of living longer?” He knew that as a surgeon he could extend his father’s life, but he also respectfully recognized that he needed to give his father power over his own story, his own narrative.

Perhaps the interview resonated with me because my students and I are deep into Macbeth. How many of us might argue that Shakespeare has become superfluous, a tedious study written in an archaic language describing a distant time? In my class, we’re just reading after all, or talking, or connecting, or sharing, but we’re not doing. My students aren’t making something that is going to transform the world.

Except I think in our little way we are. Last week, I asked my students to share on a post-it note a moment when they acted precipitously without much thought and then regretted their actions. They shared lies they told, cruel words they spoke, even the killing of a beautiful cardinal in a moment of spontaneous and thoughtless violence. We tried to understand what led us to those instants … those short spans of time between desire and action that were bereft of understanding. How do we prevent ourselves from living in that moment, apart from ourselves but inside of ourselves, fractured as Macbeth is after murdering Duncan? How do we prevent ourselves from ever stating, “To know my deed, ’twere best not know myself”?


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We’re in the red zone. No, not within 20 yards of the goal. I’m talking about the time between the first day of college and Thanksgiving break when the majority of rapes on college campuses occur, more often than not to freshmen women. In fact, 20% of college women report being the victim of sexual assault. Colleges share all kinds of statistics: average incoming SAT score, number of students receiving athletic scholarships, percentage of students graduating in four years. But they’re pretty quiet about how many of their students are sexually molested … often by fellow students.

My students are seniors in high school. They’ll be entering that red zone in less than one year. They’ve heard the lectures about alcohol and drugs, and hopefully they’re wise enough to make good choices. But few of them have had any type of discussion about rape.

The hard part was figuring out how to broach the subject. It’s not easy earning the trust and confidence of teenagers. Sure, I could give them the statistics straight out of the gate and tell them what to do and not to do, but they generally see adults as being light years removed from their experience. So, creating a private discussion board where they could post their comments, I decided to start first by asking them how they feel about the freedom that awaits them. Here was my invitation:

A year from now, you will be attending college. You’ll be independent. No one will tell you when to go to sleep or wake up, whether you can attend that party, what you can and cannot wear, or how you should be behave. You’ll be free from the accountability model imposed by your parents and school. 


How will you react to that freedom? What excites you, scares you, or worries you about that freedom?

This is a one-to-one discussion that can and will only be read by me. Honestly, it’s been a long time since I was in your shoes, but I’ll tell you a little bit about how I would have answered those questions. Maybe that will loosen you up to share your perspective with me. But I want you also to understand that my story is ONLY my story. Yours should and will be different. 

I was eager to leave home to get away from the dysfunctionality that characterized my family. I’m the youngest of seven, and of course was the last in the nest. I grew up in Delaware, but in my junior year my father decided to move in with his girlfriend and her older kids in Florida. My brother, who is 15 months older, and I flew down to move in with her in August before school started. My father didn’t join us until October. This is going to sound weird – but that was the first time I laid eyes on the woman. My brother and I had a rocky start in that environment. He was a senior, and I was a junior. Although my family had very limited means, we attended a private school that accepted me and my brother on academic scholarships. All the kids at that school drove Mercedes and BMWs, and my brother drove an old brown Datsun 510. Today, that’s a collectible, but back then it was a discardable. Anyway, I couldn’t wait to leave home and start life on my own. 

The only thing I was worried about was my mom. She was a brilliant woman. Beautiful, bright, but incredibly fragile. When my dad moved us to Florida, she followed us, moving into an apartment on the beach. She had been an editor of both a magazine and a newspaper, but she was also bi-polar, which led her to betray her own ambitions. 

I worried that when I went away from college I would be leaving her behind. She was 52 when I was 18. Honestly, it doesn’t make any sense. I was the child; she, the adult. Nevertheless, she was on my mind. 

I wanted freedom from the responsibility of worrying about my parents.

So that’s my story. Pretty personal, I know, but I hope that my own vulnerability in sharing my story allows you the safety, desire, or freedom to share what excites, scares, or worries you about the freedom you will experience next year.

The students wrote me lengthy responses sharing their fears and anticipation; they wrote funny stories, heartbreaking stories, and eager stories. I felt honored to be able to read them.

The next day, I asked them to read the following New York Times article published July 13, 2014: “How One College Handled a Sexual Assault Complaint.” The article shares the story of a young college freshman, Anna, who in her first weeks of college last September, reported being assaulted by two football players in a bedroom at a frat party. A friend of hers, who was also a football player, said he witnessed one of the men rape her while she was bent over a pool table at a dance hall later that same night. At the hospital after the assault, Anna’s blood alcohol level tested twice the legal limit and her rape exam showed “blunt force trauma.” The college cleared the football players in twelve days. It’s a difficult article to read, not one I would send home for them to make sense of alone. We read it in class silently although I encouraged anyone to ask questions along the way.

I then provided the students two padlets (essentially an online bulletin board) for them to post questions or reflections they experienced while reading the article – one padlet for the boys in class and one padlet for the girls. I felt it was important to allow them to express themselves in a gender specific forum first.

These are the comments and questions I posed when they accessed the bulletin board:

  1. What questions do you have after reading this article?
  2. What comments do you have after reading this article?
  3. Do you think we should allow college administrations to adjudicate rape cases? We don’t allow a college administration to investigate a kidnapping or a murder. Are we somehow suggesting that rape is not a serious crime?
  4. If my daughter had wanted to attend a summer camp and I was told beforehand that her chance of being sexually assaulted at this camp was 20 percent, unquestionably I would not allow her to attend — and what parent would? So why do so many of us parents fail to address this issue at college?
  5. What about the bystanders of sexual assault, of which in Anna’s case there were many, since apparently she was sexually assaulted on a pool table. What level of responsibility do they have to assist others in dire circumstances? What level of culpability?

Here are some of the comments and questions the girls shared:

Why does it affect how the case is handled if the accused is popular on campus?

Why are women expected to live in fear of sexual harassment/assault/rape? Why are women publically shamed or blamed for their own rape? If it were men getting raped instead of women how active would universities be then?

How has our society blatantly ignored the pleas of the women who have been raped? Sharing that information is highly difficult to do, and should never be taken lightly, or ignored. This college should be ashamed for their obvious neglect of listening to their students.

“Rape is not about love. It is about violence and power.” This was said by a recent graduate from the school named Kelsey Carroll, and it’s a comment that really stuck out to me. In this comment, she is referring to the video “ThinkLuv” that was created by the college that the students were forced to watch that was designed to educate them about sexual assault. She thinks, and I agree, that the title alone takes away from the seriousness of the problem at hand.

The bystanders in Anna’s case I also believe are just as bad as the assailants or the administration because they saw the crime yet are not assisting in finding justice. They saw but won’t say. They all have responsibility to report or help in finding justice.

Anna will never be the same again and her supposedly “best years of her life” are ruined for a huge portion of her life. My hope for anyone who has even been in a rape situation that you talk to someone, seek help, and don’t be afraid. Don’t let stories like these force you to live a life silent and hurt. The people responsible for your pain should and need to be brought to justice.

All I can think about is how embarrassing and difficult this must have been for Anna. It also shows that the consequences of “innocent college intoxication” can lead to blurred lines when it comes to the truth and proving if you are innocent or not.

Some parents are either naive to think that it won’t happen to their child or if they are just completely oblivious to what is really happening in the world today. I think most parents just believe that my kid will be in the 80% of students that are always safe and protected while in reality is still in danger of being assaulted.

Honestly, I am just shocked. I always knew that there were a lot of issues about protecting college students from being raped or attacked on campus but I didn’t know about the different ways they could handle it. I just assumed it was always the police and the courts that handled these cases.

Here are some of the comments and questions the boys shared:

If so many people knew that something was wrong, how come nobody actually took action against the problem until it was too late? I know it is not her fault, but she should not have even gone upstairs at the party, she should have remained downstairs, although she was probably too drunk to know exactly what was going on.

Why is the “justice” system for victims of sexual assault so terrible in schools?

I believe that even though Anna’s case seems very clear that the assailants were guilty and should be charged with some punishment the schools should take the legal matters into their own hand. I know this is a sensitive subject but there are a lot of cloudy parts to these stories and putting someone in a court and prosecuting them would ruin their lives.

I believe the core of the issue rests in the morals of the men who commit atrocities such as these and I believe this is partially due to the society will live in. Men like these football players treat women with no respect and see them as just reusable items to do with their pleasing, not as actual human beings. I feel like the morals of men regarding how women are treated are worsening due to the way our culture displays women and how things such as pornography, movies, magazines, and many other media outlets portray women the way men “think” that women really act when it comes to sex and overall interaction.

Whatever happened to doing the right thing?

Whether it is the Hobart and William Smith case, the Penn State scandal, the Jameis Winston incident, universities have shown themselves utterly incompetent in investigating sexual assault. The problem comes down to money and conflicts of interest. All three of the instances I listed above involve the respective university’s football programs. Football is typically a large draw and money-maker for universities. This causes the “review panels” to automatically have a bias towards the football players or coaches and against the student reporting the attack. The bottom line is that rape is a felony offense and it should be handled by law enforcement.

I am in disgust after reading this story. It is terrible to think that a person would do something like this especially without anyone trying to prevent it.

It’s crazy to think that there is very obvious evidence that this woman was raped, but nobody is answering for the crime they committed.

At that point, I felt that we were prepared to have a full conversation about rape in general. I barely spoke. They asked each other questions about what women wear, how they dance, how boys behave, the physical power discrepancy between men and women, the role the football player/cheerleader dynamic plays. It was a powerful conversation.

I hope that this exercise/lesson/opportunity – whatever one should call it – will help all of my students make good decisions next year.

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