Wednesday, September 29, 2010
These scattered, faded rose petals are in a bowl in my office - they seem the most appropriate objects at hand through which to grieve the death of someone I've never met: Tyler Clementi, the Rutgers student who committed suicide last Wednesday by jumping off the George Washington Bridge. News of his jump followed fast on the news, today, that two freshmen have been charged with filming him having sex with another guy, and then streaming it on the internet - and, in the case of one of them, his roommate, not just tweeting about it, but alerting his tweetable colleagues to the fact that he was going to try and catch Clementi at it a second time. These details are by now all over the internet: they're heading up the New York Times's front page picture story as I write; they are in the on line Daily Mail (inevitably).
Of course I feel anger at the students concerned, and sorrow for Clementi's family, all his friends, classmates, and orchestra colleagues - he was a talented violinist. But the anger and shame goes much wider than that, and it's much harder to pin down. I feel deeply sad that this could have happened at my own university - it seems a mockery of what one wants firmly to believe, which is that by and large, we're a fairly tolerant community here. And that, in turn, instantly makes me realize how very little we in truth as faculty know of student life - it's no good thinking that one's LGBTQ student friends are likely to be exactly representative. Even from a non-student perspective, we want to think that our counsellors, our help lines, our support structures in dorms are there to provide a refuge, someone to talk to - or rather, someone at whom a student can rant and rage and panic.
But then, in turn, to think that is to forget what it's like to be a student in one's first few weeks at college. Would I have ever been able to stand back and go to a counsellor? Of course not. It's impossible to know what motives lay behind Clementi's awful suicide - from the bits and pieces that are becoming public, it seems like he was already fairly comfortable with his sexuality. But the humiliation of being broadcast live from your dorm roommate's web camera? (and there is, of course, another guy somewhere in the story - and to contemplate what he must be feeling doesn't bear thinking about). It's an awful story, and our University President tying it in to Rutgers's new campaign for "civility" seems simultaneously highly to the point, and completely inadequate for what seems, at least on the face of it, to be a horrible tale of shameless student mockery (I have no time for emergent arguments that this was just a prank, or even a techno-whizz strutting his e-stuff) and internalized, deeply sadly internalized, homophobia.