Opinion » John Rember

Teachin' and Packin'

Big iron on our hips


When the guns-on-campus bill came before the Idaho Legislature, I began thinking through my years in the classroom, trying to remember how many times I would have been dead if my students had been armed. I came up with two: one, when I told a young man he couldn't go on a backcountry ski expedition I had organized, and the other, when I called out a young woman for verbally abusing other students in a writing workshop. In both cases, the students lost all self-control, even though I was protecting the physical and emotional safety of their classmates and they knew it.

These incidents brought back another memory. One spring semester, a colleague--big and physically violent--assaulted his girlfriend, another professor on our faculty. I got involved, but not in a major way. Or so I thought.

I simply said to the victim, when she was healing up and deep in the honeymoon phase of her cycle of violence, "You must not remember how badly you were hurting 10 days ago." That was enough. She was an intelligent woman, and not yet so beaten down that she couldn't face the truth of my words. She hired a lawyer and began the long and scary process of freeing herself from her abuser.

Then I heard that the guy was coming for me.

I'm being way too vague. I should name names, and show bruises and strands of pulled-out hair, and make you feel the terror and confusion of the woman who came into my office one week thinking she was about to die and the next week thinking she was going to buy a house with the guy she had thought was going to kill her.

I ought to show you what happened when the guy took a drink. The little cues that indicated he was working himself up to lose control. You need to see the vein swelling in the forehead, the little involuntary grin. You need to feel the strike of the fist, the open-handed slap that slams a woman to the floor.

But I hope you understand my reluctance to get specific. I don't want to spend a lot of time inside the skull of the abuser in his story. It's ugly in there, and if I had my druthers, I'd write about something that had nothing to do with the Idaho Legislature.

But here we are, like it or not.

What I did that spring was to talk with a friend who had been in Vietnam and ask him for help. I knew he had a sidearm because he had talked about replacing the one he had carried during the war. I asked if I could borrow it. "I need a little something in the way of self-defense," I said.

My friend went to his safe and came back with a beautiful Colt .45 1911 officer's model, a tiny gun with a big barrel. It was, in its deadly way, a work of art, all engraved blue steel and custom-carved golden walnut. It would have easily fit into a pocket of my English Professor's Tweed Sport Coat, but it was much too nice a gun for what I had in mind.

"Keep it for as long as you want," he said. "I won't be using it."

"Have you got something a little less fancy?"

Somewhere in that conversation I thought better of borrowing the pistol. For the rest of that semester I stayed away from campus as much as I could, only going in for office hours and to teach classes. I did keep a weapon in my desk, a two-inch ball bearing that I planned to wing at my large colleague's forehead when he appeared in my office doorway. Then I was going to run like hell.

He was gone the next year, courtesy of a courageous administrator who had made the unusual effort--for administrators--to discover what had gone on between several of her faculty members that year. Looking at the whole of it, I've realized that the most threatened I ever felt on a college campus was because of a colleague, not because of a deranged or disappointed student.

Considering the competition for full-time teaching jobs these days, you'd think that hiring committees would have little reason to ignore danger signals. But no doubt, in an alternate universe, a new visiting psychology professor--with a magical relationship with guns and a penchant for impulsive young women--has just been hired at an alternate-universe University of Idaho.

This morning I called a friend from my teaching days and we started listing all of the academics we had known who were so full of anger that murdering a colleague wasn't out of the question. I said, "Can you imagine a faculty meeting where Professors X, Y and Z, packing .357s, sit across from Professors A, B and C, packing .44 Magnums?"

"It'd be like the gunfight at the OK Corral," he said.

We left it at that. But to the state legislators who voted for the guns-on-campus bill, and to the governor who signed it, I say this:

A child or grandchild of yours, or a child or grandchild of good friends, is going to die because of this nonsense. She's going to get caught in a crossfire between professors; or a scared and trigger-happy campus cop will think she has a weapon; or she will have a weapon, a little pink one, and it'll fall out of her purse and put a hole in her; or she'll tell a boyfriend she doesn't want to see him anymore and he'll shoot her and then himself. When it happens, I doubt you'll have the courage to admit that you had anything to do with it.