In the first section of English 103 yesterday, one of the students, during a small-group activity, was live-streaming someone watching TV from some unknown location. Via her phone, she was rebroadcasting someone’s rebroadcast of a broadcast of the jury verdict in the Laquan McDonald case. I looked at her phone, and a message-feed scrolled as she also received texts with multiple emoticons. From the TV room on her small screen, voices whooped as the jury foreman, a woman, said, “We the jury in the matter of ——— find the defendant guilty.” I instantly remembered sitting as a teaching assistant in a Hebrew class at the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta in 1995, when a student, via handheld radio, heard that O. J. Simpson had been declared innocent. Members of that class whooped, too, and the instructor, a West African, immediately shut down the conversation. I did not want to do the same. I did not say, “Put those away,” or tell students to focus on our seminar prep for Make Your Home among Strangers.
The conversation flowed into the start of the second class section, when a student complained about how long—since the killing of McDonald by a white Chicago police officer in 2014—it had taken to reach this moment. I misunderstood him, thinking he was referring to the length of the trial itself. As a whole class, we talked about how we know things are true. Since we have video of the McDonald murder, do we know the truth? If we all wore body cams and audio recorders, would we have an accurate representation of our lives? Some hesitated. Some thought yes, some realizing that the vast interior territory, containing our fears and prejudices and distractions, would not be represented.
I don’t remember how we connected this conversation to the original class plan, to our viewing a short video of Jennine Capó Crucet, author of Make Your Home among Strangers, speaking to Northern Illinois University students in 2017 about why she wrote dialogue in her book without quotation marks. I was surprised that the students attended to her—was it because I had attended to them and their interest in the McDonald case? They focused in responding to Crucet on Crucet’s blurring the boundaries between what we think and what we say when we stay outwardly silent but inwardly engaged. This branched into my bizarre metacognitive riff on how we can possibly articulate everything we are thinking.
I joked that I pay so little attention to my thoughts that I had lost the capacity to articulate them. “That’s kind of sad,” said one of the female students in the back. Like Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, I turned the line of questioning back on them: “Do you know what you’re thinking all the time?” Another girl in the back demurred: “This is too deep.” I laughed.
So I could have devoted the whole class to McDonald, asked the students to educate me, asked them how they might write about it. Or, better yet, asked them to write about it. I played it safe, stuck to the plan.
For about the fifteenth time since the semester began, I forgot to illuminate the message from Stanford’s Andrea Lunsford, that we as freshman-composition instructors had gotten at the beginning of the semester, namely writing as a search for justice and the difference between writing and being written. How to apply Lunsford’s formulation to the Chicago street where McDonald died? As the difference between shooting and being shot? I’m having trouble moving students to a place of agency as active writers and storytellers rather than passive pleasers of their teacher and others. The difference lies in choosing versus having someone else choose for you. Choosing your story, your version.