I had just sat down in one of the wire chairs in Thain Family Café in Bass Library and opened my computer, when a girl I recognized turned to me from the next table. “Did you see that e-mail?
It was just popping up on my screen. “Sad News.”
I hardly knew this girl. I saw her sometimes in the building where I had many of my classes, and she was close with one of my friends, I think. We exchanged a smile on the street sometimes, but that was all.
I clicked to open the e-mail. I saw it. I nodded.
“I was just saying to my friend this morning,” she shook her head slowly, “that the energy here is off. It’s completely off, and I’m not sure why. This place is really lonely,” she continued, “and now, this.”
I hardly knew her, but I found myself leaning in. It has been an odd semester, and she plucked at the right string. She struck a chord with me. “I know,” I said. “Strange.”
Of course it’s strange to think a precious soul could be taken, without warning, from our midst. It is stranger still to think, two. But what strikes me as strangest of all is the way we deal with these deaths.
With the discovery of the body of Annie Le GRD ’13 came Jack Shafer’s article in Slate, “Murder Draped in Ivy: why the press can’t get enough of Harvard or Yale murders” (Sept. 17). An article echoing his point then ran in the News. To be sure, there is sensationalism at the door.
This Sunday, when Andre Narcisse ’12 was found unresponsive in his room, NBC Connecticut accompanied the heading “Yale Student Found Dead in Dorm Room” on its Web site with a large, full-color close-up of yellow crime-scene tape. While the cause of Narcisse’s death remains unconfirmed, we’ve had multiple assurances that there is no evidence of foul play. From where we stand, there is no crime, and yet, we become a community bound up in a corral of yellow police ribbon.
Just over a month ago, from within that same corral (only this time legitimate), we heard President Richard Levin issue the truth: this is as bad as it gets. “Now,” he had said, “is a time for compassion, for condolences and for coming together as a community.”
When tragedy strikes, he seemed to say, we must tie ourselves up. We must tape ourselves together in a tight circle and expel the bad. To proclaim this the time for compassion seems natural, indeed mandatory.
And yet, I reject it. I reject the whole premise. The time for compassion is when we are all alive. The time for coming together is not when one of us has been ripped away.
Norman Hodges ’61, wrote to the News from Plantation, Fla., to say that Le’s memorial had unveiled a sense of community unlike anything he’d felt as a student. The strength of our gathering proved we had united in spirit. Indeed, we are champion gatherers. Over 2,000 students attended Annie’s vigil, and again, for Andre, countless candles lit the night. But to say that this proves we’ve transcended our differences seems not only hasty; it seems wrong.
Surely, we are hurt — some of us, incredibly so. And for some, a vigil might help. But for others, it may be even more lonely, more isolating, under the looming cloud of a prescribed emotion floating down from on high.
If the media’s constant effort is to paint Yale as tragic, then this effort is certainly matched from within. Both forces create a brand, a Yalie, an us that might not fit. We are wary of attempts to drag Yale down by showcasing the fall of the high-and-mighty; these attempts to drag Yale down only reinforce the university’s status by taking a special interest in its pain. We don’t trust the character that the media carves out of negative space. But what about the positive identity that we, ourselves, construct?
Why did students gather at these memorials? A cynic might answer that it was to assuage some deeply egotistical fear or frustration. Surely we are all scared. Surely we are all frustrated. But we’re scared and frustrated many days, every day. If not about being attacked in our gated campus, then about our loves, our lives, our work in our gated campus, about what to do when we get out of our gated campus.
2,000 people ready to light candles for someone they didn’t know may very well be 2,000 people already grieving, already hurt. A death is a good time to treat each other gently, but so is every other time. Without saying that it is disingenuous to claim we’ve suffered a loss when we mourn someone’s death, I will say that we’ve suffered a loss when we fail to notice someone in their life. It’s a loss we don’t gain back when we realize here, this was one of us.
This is not to say that we shouldn’t support each other in sad times — indeed, there is no other option. But equally true is that we must support each other at all times. True communities talk the talk and walk the walk — no matter whether it’s through the valley of the shadow of death, or simply to class.
Emily Appelbaum is a senior in Ezra Stiles College.