My Reflections Two Years After Surviving a Classroom Shooting

Today marks two years since a classroom shooting happened while teaching my final class at University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Six students were shot, two of which did not make it.

I wrote about my thoughts and experience a few days after it occurred: The Story of a Mass Shooting Survivor and Anthropologist

I’ve also written some about the experience since: The Liminality of Grief in Trauma and Revisiting the Past: Some Thoughts on the UNCC Shooting.

These reflections are by far the most read of all my blog posts. I’m not sure what to think of that and don’t really want to put in the effort to come to grips with it. However, the Earth keeps circling the sun and so every year, April 30th rolls around and the weight of the experience bears back down.

One of the effects that the experience had professionally is that I shifted my my research interests to something that was less emotionally fraught than the research that I had intended to conduct. For the last two years, I’ve been working in human-animal relations. This has been an incredibly satisfying change: Shadows, Ambiguity, and More-Than-Human Politics.

I have also continued to teach. I was teaching face-to-face at Northwest Vista College and remotely at University of North Carolina at Charlotte (intermittently). Of course, the pandemic hit and instruction moved online and I have continued to teach fully remotely up to this point. Teaching face-to-face has its moments of great anxiety. However, I think that I manage the anxiety well enough to remain an effective teacher.

I am also making good progress on my Ph.D. and will move into ABD status in short order. From there, much of my effort will be dedicated to completing my dissertation research, analyzing data, writing it up, getting a job as a professor, and turning my dissertation into a book. I have a busy and long road ahead of me, to say the least.

As anyone who has experienced trauma knows, day-to-day of living sometimes feels more normal, and other days are quite difficult. Much of the time, it’s not predictable when bad days will happen and they come on like a freight train. I still stand by what I wrote in The Liminality of Grief in Trauma. I still feel like I am in this in-between existence. I try to avoid talking about the shooting with any new people that I meet because it creates an awkward situation. For the people that know me and about the situation, I’m not sure that people know how to take me and so I often feel like I am on the outside. I get the sense that my experience, even when relevant to some discussion we are having (this is very rare), I have to avoid bringing the experience or trauma into the conversation. I completely understand but I do think feeling as though I have to intentionally avoid ever bringing up the experience (on my own terms when I’m not being interrogated by a reporter or curious person) contributes to my liminality.

As mentioned above, I will be on the job market in the next few years, looking for tenure-track positions. I am concerned on two fronts. On one hand, I’m concerned that the label attached with the trauma will define me and my research and teaching contributions will be second. On the other hand, I am concerned that having the trauma thrust upon me will mean that I come with certain baggage that makes me an unattractive job candidate. It’s a ‘damned if I do, damned if I don’t situation.’

The final thing that I will discuss is the feeling that the world has been able to continue on unabated while I feel like I am still stuck. Because bad things keep happening, the world’s attention is constantly drawn to new things. My attention is also pulled to the pandemic, another mass shooting, national and international violence, etc. I have to contend with these alongside my own trauma. In some cases, other circumstances exacerbates my trauma. Another aspect of ‘feeling stuck’ is the fact that nothing has been done to prevent or even mitigate mass shootings since April 30, 2019. It took a global pandemic to reduce mass shooting in the United States and as soon as the country began opening back up, mass shootings began too. I get the sense that there is nothing more American than mass shootings.

The same logic that sees preventable mass shootings occur with great frequency also justifies the deaths associated with the pandemic. “It’s just the cost of freedom and the American way.”

After two years, I have found a new normal. My day-to-day experience of the trauma is so much better than it was one year ago. However, I don’t see it improving beyond this. I still have daily moments of heavy grief where I have to take a few deep breaths and compose myself. I still have moments of severe survivor’s guilt. I am fortunate to have a wonderful daughter and partner to help contend with those feelings. I think that the new normal is marked by grief and guilt and it is something that I and those closest too me will have to take in stride.

I want to thank the people that continue to uplift me and enrich my life. My wonderful daughter, Amelie is a great inspiration. She has her own challenges and yet demonstrates a great perseverance and kindness that moves me. My amazing partner, Dr. Sarah Pollock. She keeps me grounded and gives me unending support and love that is beyond anything that I could imagine. Dr. Jon Marks and Dr. Peta Katz took care of Sarah and me in the wake of the shooting and I don’t think that we would be as okay as we are without their kindness and friendship. My mother, Susan Wrenn is always an ear to listen or shoulder to lean. It has made such a difference. Dr. Mike Cepek, my PhD advisor, is not only a professional inspiration but is a kind and attending advisor and great friend. I feel very fortunate to be mentored by people with such character. My dear friend Evan Kelly. While we don’t see each other or talk as often as either of us would like, he is an amazing friend and his support and friendship is such an important part of my life.

Also, thank you for reading this. Many of the blog posts I write come in a stream of consciousness because I want to avoid an extremely curated narrative in favor of a raw, honest presentation. This is in-line with my own research that hopes to explore the visceral, sensuous nature of relations.

Be well!


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