On Monday I drove through a fresh snow to get my first dose of the Moderna vaccine. By the time I arrived home, there were multiple alerts on my computer from the Boulder Police, telling me to stay away from King Soopers, where an active shooter was in the process of murdering ten people.
This is an essay about death, teaching, and the act of saying names.
When I arrived at the vaccination site, I showed my ID and collected my card and wound my way up to the back of the line, which snaked awkwardly alongside a university cafeteria. I work at a university in Boulder, but I haven’t been on campus since the pandemic broke a year ago. This was the first time I’d seen so many college students together in a place not comprised of Zoom windows.
I stood as close to six feet from the person in front of me as was possible, while aware of the person behind me standing too close. I stay pretty tightly quarantined in order to reduce the risk for my children and their teachers, who are back at in-person school. I’m a single working mom raising two kids on 20K a year, so when school was an option again, saying no wasn’t. When called upon to enter a building with other people, I’m less practiced than others at confidently monitoring how much space between me and another body makes up six full feet. Sometimes, I remember that six feet is approximately the height of an adult human. I ask myself, if someone was lying down on the floor between me and the woman in front of me in this vaccination line, would there be room for them?
Hours later on Monday night, I emailed my students to tell them I would hold our Tuesday Zoom class, for folks who needed the reassurance of normalcy, but that I would understand if anyone chose not to attend, and I wouldn’t require justification for either choice. Their well-being in the wake of a mass murder is more important than a conversation about a book. Then I tucked my children in for bed, cleaned the kitchen, had a drink, and went to sleep. I dreamed about the hollowed carcass of an abandoned airplane where I was trying to rescue cats and children. My former students from years ago kept visiting me in the dream. In the morning I woke, afraid of reading their names in the paper.
What if under the snow something other than life is waiting to emerge?
Shot refers to a unit of hard alcohol. The verb for imbibing this unit is “shoot” if you take it all at once and “sip” if you take it slowly. I sipped one shot of Glenlivet, which I bought with my stimulus money in order to mark the occasion of my first dose of vaccine, before I knew what other shots were happening in the hour that I bought it. I drink only at night, when my kids are asleep, and only one shot, because my heart’s abnormal rhythm will be aggravated by more. I am uneasy with the culture around parental drinking (“wine mom” makes me cringe), but I take my nightly whiskey nevertheless, because single pandemic parenthood affords no other vacation. Still, one shot. I need to be alert enough to help my children if one of them has a nightmare.
Alcohol is a poison, a harm we water to achieve whatever pleasure or softness or rest it can give, knowing all the while it has the power to kill us. Shoot and sip differ in the rate at which I harm myself. An AR-15 style rifle is distinct in the speed at which it propels bullets, the damage they do to a body along the way.
“talk about the weather”
Front Range refers both to the area of Colorado where I’ve lived the last six years and to the mountain range that acts as this region’s natural boundary. One of the unique qualities of Front Range life is its unusual local weather. In both Boulder, where I lived one year and still work, and Denver, where I’ve lived the five years since, I’ve experienced 80 degree days in winter and blizzards in late spring. I joke with my kids that it’s like someone took the four seasons and chopped them finely, then sprinkled them haphazardly over the calendar.
Shot refers to every picture I took of the record snow that filled my balcony with its own white mountains last week. Shot includes both the verb for taking these pictures and the pictures, once taken. For example: I couldn’t get a shot of the crows spiralling wildly in the sideways glistening fall, a corvid party in the face of covid life. Being snowbound is a kind of relief, if only because it replaces the other reason I barely leave my low-income apartment.
The pandemic has been a kind of prolonged winter in which, like blizzards on the Front Range, I became unexpectedly isolated in my home throughout the year. In the vaccination room, I sat for fifteen minutes to see if the medicine had any adverse effects. Around me flew snatches of conversation about what life might be like now, opening the world as if winter was finally over. I took notes as if I might write a poem about this, but quickly decided there wouldn’t be much point.
We haven’t all suffered the same way, or with the same resources, but we’ve all suffered. I can’t talk about how this has hurt me as if it’s mine alone to name. This is a trauma that has so thoroughly saturated the landscape that there’s no one to tell it to, no room for it to echo. The words hit the world with a wet, slapping sound, then get eaten with the hum of the building’s heating and cooling system. We’ve learned to talk about the pandemic like we talk about the weather. Like we used to talk about guns.
Shot refers to the unit of medicine, whatever its volume, that entered my body on Monday. Even though I’m sure the word for this unit is connected to the sharp needle and the pain of its insertion, its insertion is itself not named with the verb shot, but instead with the verb inject. I received my shot, via injection, and walked to a waiting area to observe myself, on my own honor, for fifteen minutes. During that time, I read the list of possible side effects I could anticipate experiencing. In order to help the information get into my body most effectively, it was assembled in bullet points.
I’m getting used to dressing my kids for school again, after nearly a year of helping them learn at home. They still learn from home sometimes, like the days when their teachers got vaccinated. At school, when it’s cold enough for snow to stay frozen, the kids often stay inside for recess anyway, a task that’s harder now that they are staying feet apart and having masks on.
Staying inside means something different after having to do it for a year. It affects all parts of the school’s operation, from where lunch happens to how they continue active shooter drills.
Two years ago, on the anniversary of the massacre at Columbine High School, mine were two of the 500,000 Front Range school children who had to stay home because a woman named Sol Pais had taken a plane to Colorado with the intent to recreate the murders. The Boulder campus where I teach, however, did not cancel classes. It didn’t surprise me, since they never cancel when the area elementary schools have snow days, in a constant middle finger to students and staff with school-age children. I’m an adjunct, which means my job is both low-paying and deeply unstable, so I couldn’t take the risk of staying home with my children while a young white woman with a gun wandered the nearby mountains. So I dropped them at the house of the only sitter I could find, a good friend who was living in Littleton. Littleton is known for its Western Welcome week, it’s Candlelight Walk, and for being home to Columbine High School.
I work for a campus where concealed weapons are allowed. During and after graduate school, I’ve gone through teacher trainings in five departments across three colleges, so I’ve gotten used to the questions that I need to ask in order to best serve my students in each new setting. It wasn’t until Colorado that I had to ask questions like Am I allowed to ask a student with a visible gun to leave the room? On the same day that I talked with my teaching mentors about the special concerns we need to have in a creative writing classroom (How should I respond if a student uses a poem to share suicidal thoughts?), I also learned uneasy facts about the amount of effort implied in “concealed” (If a student’s coat shifts and I see their gun, does this violate the requirement for concealment? What happens if I think the coat was shifted on purpose?)
This Monday, the snow began to melt on my drive back to Denver from my vaccination. As I sat at my computer that night, refreshing news websites every few minutes, I imagined the names of the victims covered in snow. Waiting for the melt to lift the letters into light, afraid of which I might recognize. Of the victims. Of the gunman.
Shot refers to an opportunity. For example, my students in Boulder may have chosen to enroll in college because it gives them a shot at financial and professional success. This usage seems to derive from shot’s relationship to the act of taking aim. Keep your sights on your goals. If you take your shot you might make a killing.
Boulder is beautiful in the snow. The Flatirons are right outside the window, rocky peaks wrapping themselves in white, as if to shield themselves from the noises of the town below. If the town starts to melt, a few moments’ drive up the mountain will throw the sunlight abruptly in all directions from the still-clinging snow.
That’s not the only thing in Boulder that’s uncomfortably white. Under the barrier of its own self-congratulating progressivism is a too often unexamined culture of racism, classism, and xenophobia. I’ve written too many letters of recommendation for brilliant students who wanted to get out of that culture. I got out too. I chose to move away the day that my Black daughter was playing dress up and said, “Now, mama, pretend I’m white and tell me how pretty I am.”
She was four. I started looking for apartments in Denver that day.
I’m wary of the way other white women like me approach the topic of gun control. It’s not that I disagree with them, but that I’m uncomfortable with the timing of their concern and the sharpness of its focus. Like other white mothers, I’m afraid of what could happen to my children if an active shooter enters their school building. But, because my children are Black, I’m also afraid that they will soon be as likely to be killed, not protected, by the first officers on the scene.
Of the two mass murders in this last week, one was committed by a white man against victims who were predominantly Asian women, and the other was committed by a Syrian-born man against victims who were predominantly white. The way these two sets of murders have been talked about has been shaped and will continue to be shaped by these differences. The deaths in Boulder, where I work and for which I mourn, occurred in a town whose racism is so toxic that I moved away to protect my Black children. My mourning is not less acute for having noticed this.
The pandemic is a long winter of thoughts and prayers. A constant falling white of loss from the sky. But also a hush — a forgotten, then remembered, then forgotten conversation about the ways we die other than breathing on each other.
Half a million people in the United States are dead. Eight people in Atlanta are dead. Ten people in Boulder are dead. Dead, like shot, is a word that can mean different things. Dead, like shot, is a word that becomes part of the body it enters.
Thought and prayers constitute an avoidance of bodies. Walkways lined with corpses we carefully place between us and others. I stood in the vaccination line and imagined bodies laid out on the floor, not knowing the bodies someone else was laying out in the town where I spent every weekday before the pandemic. I walked over the bodies no one could see, or wanted to look at, to enter the vaccination room. A room where my own body was made to better resist the thing I’ve spent a year resisting.
The next morning, a little more than half my students did not log in for class. I think of those students now, and thank them for whatever comfort they gave themselves in my absence. I asked the students who did log in to name, in private chat messages, what they needed from class that day. The overwhelming response was that they needed a good conversation about a book, a beautiful distraction, but that they had space for anyone who needed to talk about what happened on Monday. I love them for the room they tried to make for each other. So we talked, about Edwidge Danticat, about the edges of life in a book about the sea, about what it means to look down from a mountain, to be a child and a symbol at the same time. I think of those students now, and thank them for whatever comfort they gave themselves through our conversation.
I teach literature and writing because sometimes we survive the world in the protective shade of words we use to name it.
But words can’t do everything we need. There is always a sharp edge at the far side of what language can touch.
Shot is a unit of poison.
Shot is a picture of the world.
Shot is a promise in the arm to heal before it’s hurt.
Shot is a chance at making life better.
Shot is a category of wound
Shot is the sound of it being made.
A single word and all the things it can mean echo off the walls.
In King Soopers, at the corner of Broadway and Table Mesa, witnesses report knowing what was happening because of the noise. A shot is a category of sound. Sound is a reference point for measuring speed. The bullet moves too fast for us to see the handover from verb to noun as the body names the site where it was harmed.
Words hold a place for what’s not there. Alone in my apartment, I read ten names out loud.
I had my first Moderna shot on the third official day of spring. Heavy snow blanketed the drive to the vaccination site. As I left, I saw early signs of melt, like the landscape itself was giving into a temptation to take off its mask too soon. The pandemic hasn’t ended, but some kind of shift appears in the weather. The snow melts and tips of guns peak from it where I kept expecting tulips to be.