A student’s death, mediated

by David Alm on November 15, 2011

On Friday, I woke up early, around 5:15 a.m. and checked my email. There, amid the junk mail, was a subject line that left me stunned. It informed me that a student I’d had for two courses at Hunter College, in 2007 and 2008, had been killed. Walking down a road on Long Island last Wednesday at 9:05 p.m., she stepped off the curb and was hit by an oncoming SUV. The driver, it turns out, was an EMT and did everything he could to save her. She was only 26.

I couldn’t fathom the news. She was a wonderful student, bright and creative, and a talented filmmaker with a passion for environmental issues. She even worked on a short film that was shown on PBS. She taught yoga. And from her Facebook page, it is clear that she was loved by many, many people. Her exuberance for life was boundless, and totally infectious.

I spent the weekend trying to understand why her death was affecting me so deeply — more, I’ll admit, than the deaths of acquaintances or even relatives in the past several years. The relatives part is easy: I’ve never had an immediate family member die, and most of my dead relatives were quite old when they passed. That’s what old people do, I always said. The friends’ deaths were tough to deal with, but I could almost accept them because they weren’t that different from me, and however morbid it might sound, I can fathom my own death. Sad, yes. But not inconceivable.

A student’s death is different, I now know. As a teacher, you come to love your students. They look up to you (sometimes), and you dedicate yourself to them. Not only to their intellectual development, but to their development as human beings. Just think of your own college experience: the men and women charged with teaching you philosophy or English, film or religion, art or psychology were, in fact, teaching you much more. And you were teaching them. This is especially true, I think, when you’re a young teacher, as I was when this woman was my student. You inhabit a peculiar position. You’re neither the sage, old professor nor a peer, but something in between. And in that middle ground, a unique kind of relationship can grow.

In the years since she was my student, we kept in touch on Facebook, and I always enjoyed seeing what she was up to.

Sometimes events seem to conspire in a way that forces us to think about their deeper significance, often in ways we don’t anticipate. As I thought about this tragic death, I soon began to think about the way her friends were using Facebook to mourn her loss. I struggled with whether or not I should write something on her wall, and thought about it for two days before I decided that, yes, I should. I wondered if I should write this blog post, and clearly I decided, again, that I should. But these were not easy choices to make.

These forms of communication mediate experience, and they turn reality into something else. Something mediated.

Coincidentally, I also spent the weekend reading Thomas de Zengotita’s book Mediated, which addresses precisely that problem with modern life. In our hyper-mediated world, he explains, we are constantly shifting from one form of mediation to another, and the result is that we have a tremendously difficult — indeed, often impossible — time  discerning reality from its numerous permutations: real real, observed real, edited real real, edited observed real, staged real, staged observed real unique, staged observed real repeated, staged hyperreal, overtly unreal realistic, covertly unreal realistic, real unreal, unreal real… You get the idea.

I wanted to write about this, to think through the effect it has had on me, but not if doing so would trivialize it or add to the mediated distance and confusion that de Zengotita writes so powerfully about in his book.

I simply wanted to share my memories of Jenni, and my heartache — because that is real.

 

Jeff McMahon November 15, 2011 at 10:40 am

And however mediated, or however the mediation is categorized, you inspired us to feel something of Jenni’s life and your loss. So sorry about Jenni.

David Alm November 15, 2011 at 1:16 pm

Thanks, Jeff.

elisaveta November 15, 2011 at 10:59 pm

David,
I’ve met Jenni a few times, through my husband, who had photographed her. Once, actually we had a photoshoot together (Jenni and I). I can’t say I was her friend or knew her that well, an acquaintance would be more proper. However, I got the impression that she was a bright and a happy person, and a beautiful one to add.
I think what was so shocking about her death was that it was so sudden, she was so young and that I (personally) found out about it on facebook. I could not believe it and honestly I was crying, although not having been friends with her. On Facebook, one usually reads about what her/his friends are doing today or what they did yesterday, where they are/went, what photos they uploaded; or maybe someone just got married or had a baby; one does not usually read about their friend’s death on Facebook! It was just unfathomable. I think to me, it was the way it was delivered – facebook.

I lost my mother 7 years ago and I very vividly remember the feeling of helplessness and emptiness – someone was taken away from me and there was nothing I could do to bring her back. It was just so final. I would NEVER see her again!! This is what is so frighting about death, that we won’t see that person again – at least in the realms of the physical and known to us world.

People die every day, and loved ones are being lost, people grieve – to most of them (with an exception of my mom’s death and a three of my grandparents years ago) I have been an outsider and they have not personally affected me. Jenni’s death affected me in way because of its deliverance, and because of course she was someone I had met in my life, even though only a few times.

From what I can see on her FB wall, Jenni has made quite an impact on many people and is receiving so much love. This is really so nice to see… My prayers and thoughts are with her family. Her light is shining brightly on all of us, as she has gone back to where she came from. She must be onto something greater… Her mission was finished here on Earth… We will all reunite again sooner or later, as we are all one.

David Alm November 16, 2011 at 9:46 am

Thanks for your comment, and all your thoughts on this, elisaveta. You’re so right about the deliverance aspect of news like this. When you learn about something so shocking, and tragic, on Facebook, it’s very hard to absorb the reality and weight of it. But It’s also interesting to see how quickly the shock turns into a virtual wake, with people joining together in celebrating a person’s life.

Like you, I didn’t know Jenni nearly as well as others. She took just two courses with me, though we have seen each other randomly a couple of times since then and we remained connected via Facebook. I think what affected me so deeply, beyond the unique kind of teacher-student relationship that we had, was simply knowing that we’d never have such a random encounter again, and even when I posted on her Wall, I felt strange knowing that she’d never see it.

There’s much to process here. But it helps to have others — whether virtually or in real time, and real space — to process it with.

Beth Kneller November 17, 2011 at 9:47 am

David, thank you so much for posting this. It helps me understand a bit better why I have felt so affected by Jenni’s death too. It was really an honor to know her and work with her as a staff member here at CUNY Baccalaureate. Jenni really impressed everyone who met her. It was only a few months ago that she and I talked about her hopes and plans for graduate school. Such a terrible loss.

David Alm November 17, 2011 at 4:06 pm

Thanks, Beth. She had contacted me back in 2009 to discuss grad school, but we never managed to connect as we were attempting to. It was strange to go back and read those emails, and I wonder what caused her to put off her plans at that point. It doesn’t matter, of course, but it’s painful to think of the various missed connections and lost chances to talk once you know there will never be another opportunity.

Your comment has made me think more about the relationship between college faculty/staff and students, and I think it comes down to this: We are often their first professional colleagues, but also their mentors and their friends. We are there to help them navigate their futures, make important life choices, and instruct them in the ways of their chosen fields. But because we are not their bosses, and there is no “bottom line” to worry about, we are also their friends, concerned more for their well-being than what they can do for us.

These forums (this blog, Facebook) can provide a much-needed outlet for grieving the loss of someone who, as you said, impressed everyone who met her. I am grateful to everyone who has shared their thoughts, both here and on Facebook. At times like this, I believe that virtual communities can be as real, and as helpful, as any other kind.

sarah auerbach November 17, 2011 at 4:16 pm

Thanks for this.
I miss her.
I’m sad well never get to film together again….or see her work progress. She was amazingly inspiring.

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