This evening, I learned that we can add another name to the list of queer teenagers who have killed themselves in recent months—and that today’s name hails from very close to home. Tyler Clementi jumped off the George Washington Bridge last week after two of his fellow Rutgers students illicitly filmed him having sex with a guy and put the video online. It was a cruel thing for two people to do to a third person, and it drove that third person to take his own life. It speaks to how easy it is for humans to be horrible to each other, to how hard it can be to be different, and to how scary it can be to have one’s private life exposed to the public. It was a real, serious thing. A kid died.
Just a few minutes after reading that story, I put on a jacket and loaded up my bookbag and walked across campus to sit around a seminar table with 21 other very academically serious students and a couple professors and talk about novels. To be frank (and I feel obliged to be, in context) it was a pretentious conversation. It was a frustrating conversation. It was a conversation of people who can feel very strongly about issues of canon and literary merit but who would perhaps (I speak only for myself) rather shout at each other about canon and literary merit than they would think seriously about how to keep more kids from dying before they get to be adults. I came home, intellectually exhausted, not willing to face more schoolwork, and wondered whether what I had done was excusable. For nearly four hours I forgot that a kid who was two years younger than me and lived half an hour away jumped off the George Washington Bridge because of the fact that our society thinks it shameful to be seen on the internet having sex, and homosex at that. Is it not my moral responsibility (and mine in particular, as a Professional Gay) to devote every fiber of my being to making sure the kids who kill themselves are not forgotten, their private tragedies not swept under the rug, and that more kids are not driven to the same awful recourse?
Yes. It is. It is all of our responsibility to keep hope, beauty, peace, and love alive; to keep life alive. Which is why I went to my seminar tonight and talked about novels. Because right now, when I am a college student like the college student who was driven to jump off the George Washington Bridge, I am practicing how to talk about novels (or about any other kind of text). And then if I can get it right, if I can get talking about texts down, if I can learn how to inspire in others the desire to read texts and to talk about them, then those whom I spur to do so will have something to live for.
For generations now—since there has been such a thing as homosexuality, at least, and perhaps longer—those who find their sexualities out of step with a perceived norm have sought recourse in literature. The history of literature and literary figures which grapple with sexual identities is replete with life-changing moments when a writer or hir character finds validation and comfort and self-understanding within texts. Maybe this text is something baldly obvious in its relevance to sexual identity, as when J.A. Symonds discovered Plato; maybe it’s a little less so, as in those I know whom George Eliot taught about a more subtle paradigm of love; maybe it falls somewhere in between, as when reading Cather spurred me to think more critically about my own sexuality. But so often it is texts, and how they intersect with the teaching and learning processes, which offer us forms of validation and salvation: they give us the words to describe what and who we are, and they give us the sensation that we are not alone in humanity, even if we may find ourselves alone in the small slices of humanity we’ve experienced.
I grew defensively passionate yesterday when I happened to be explaining to a friend (who had asked if I feel guilty for making my life in academia instead of in, say, humanitarian non-profit work) that I am a teacher every minute of my life now, I will be a teacher every minute of my life when I have a Ph.D., I will be a teacher every minute of my life if and when I am able to achieve tenure, I will be a teacher every minute of my life when I retire, and I will be a teacher every minute of the day on which my life ends. I said something more-or-less word-for-word like this because I care so deeply about, and believe so deeply in, the power of texts to save lives, and to give meaning to lives in danger. I am a small, deeply flawed, not always high-functioning, quiet and locally-minded person. I am not going to change the world. But I am going to change lives. I am going to—whether consciously and deliberately or not—direct my students towards finding their own Platos and Eliots and Cathers. I already do so now, even as I attend seminars and learn how I might do this when I am able to lead seminars of my own.
And so I have not forgotten to mourn the death of my peer and relative neighbor Tyler Clementi, nor of the other many, many young people who were troubled enough not to want to live to see 20, much less adulthood. But mourning must be accompanied by resolve to do better; otherwise we won’t get anywhere. So no, I have no guilt about doing what it takes to learn to be the best teacher, and the best person, I can be: we help ourselves, and then we use what we have done for ourselves to help others, and we give of ourselves as selflessly as we can such that others might have a chance at life. We may do this by going to far-flung places across the globe and working in literal trenches filled with mud to fight poverty and wars and greed and hatred, or we can do intellectual labor in the metaphorical trenches, and do life-saving and life-giving work all the same. Without a life of the mind, the life of the body can sometimes mean frighteningly little—and sometimes, oh God, sometimes, someone will jump off the George Washington Bridge because of it.