Students and staff of color at Omron University celebrated The Day of Absence on the first Wednesday of March each year. The tradition began in 1981, after the election of Ronald Reagan when the black faction of the student union reacted to the growing conservative mood in the nation by staying home. In subsequent years, their numbers swelled until since the dawn of the two thousands no one of color attended the campus on that day.
And Professor Lindhurst always supported them. He had and he did. This year, in keeping with all things contemporary, the entire event had turned on its head. White staff and students had been instructed to stay home and it would be a blacks only day on campus. What on earth? You can absent yourself but demanding others absent themselves is wrong. The atmosphere on campus had turned very uneasy indeed.
The Professor kissed his wife, the old beauty, goodbye and made his way down the garden path. She’d inadvertently transferred a speck of toast from her lip to his, he wiped it away and shut the front gate behind him. They’d been lucky after he paid off from the Air Force to score one of the University’s few cottages on Academic Way, the terraced street running from High Street to the school grounds. More than that he had to admit he’d been so very fortunate to have a good marriage. Thirty-two years and going strong. This is the natural way of things, even a wild pig will live out its days alone if its mate dies. Millennials are a generation who’ve never been told the secret to a fulfilling life is a solid marriage. They’re all determined to do everything either solo or in a pack of fifty.
Not having his briefcase with him didn’t feel right. Then again, nothing that morning was in any way familiar. He had no classes, why would he bring his briefcase? The only asset he brought was his Ruger. Security had informed him the evening before that if he showed up they couldn’t guarantee his safety. The staff and students would never hurt him but certain radical groups were visiting the campus that day. They were threatening to physically throw any white staff or students off the campus. What thugs. Even though he’d never been the sort to threaten anyone with a firearm, truth be told he brought the weapon because he was scared.
And on he walked. The typical sight of international students, walking in clusters with laptops, schoolbags and smiles had been replaced by an eerie emptiness. As he approached the West Gate he caught sight of Central Square. Scores of students, all black, milled around the fountain. In the distance, he could just make out a line of kids filing into Major House, the main lecture theatre on campus.
Today’s guest speaker, due on in five minutes, would be Landis Ferrakarn from the New Left. Ferrakarn was a radical fellow whose speeches triggered many of the younger students in the audience, but the Professor had never objected to his presence. He’d been there for guest speakers like Ferrakarn. Now it felt like they were coming for him.
Someone tapped him on the shoulder, he spun around to see little Millie. Last semester she’d attended his lectures on Media Paranoia in the era of the Cold War. A particularly bright girl with a nose ring, hair like rope and a big future. Her family had moved to the state from Tanzania earlier in the decade. Normally she greeted him with a respectful good morning sir, but not today.
“You shouldn’t be here Professor, really dude.”
“Dude? Don’t you have classes now?”
She shook her head. “This is our day sir, not yours.”
“Why aren’t you in class?”
“Forgot my ScreenBeam. And just for the record I don’t like you I never did.” She flashed him a smile, turned and walked briskly away.
Watching her strolling through the lush greenery that surrounded the college grounds, he couldn’t help but feel a tinge of sadness, in fact, his eyes almost welled. If someone put a gun to his head, forcing him to say which of his undergrads would go on to be a force for good in this world, he would have said Millie. Now he’d lost her for there was harshness on her tongue and contempt in her eyes. Perhaps his wife would invite her over for tea next week and the two of them could work things out. Millie had a flatmate called Janicka who was another kid with a definite conscience. Janicka heralded from South Africa.
She was quite glamorous in an Amazonian sort of a way. After she’d asked him for assistance with a paper last week, he’d been happy to oblige. During their chat in the Rec Room she informed him of a commitment she made to an orphanage in the Philippines. Ten percent of her scholarship and her earnings at Starbucks went to help those poor kids in Manilla. Quite a girl and one with a big future.
At the rim of the fountain the Professor stood alone, a fresh breeze blew across the lawns. The scent of gardenias washed over him as he watched sunlight dancing on the waters. He could have been the last man on earth, but for the faces popping up in the windows of Major House. First one kid, then three, then a couple of staff members. He didn’t match their stare. Someone should have reminded those voyeurs just who it was who opened the university’s first safe space.
Who sided with the Islamic Student council when they requested audience segregation based on gender at special guest lectures and events? It wasn’t just the Hillary gang, he’d been right there alongside them. Truth be told he was one of the Hillary gang, he voted for her and openly supported her on campus. Now the cold reality dawned. They were coming for him. The abject humiliation of being ogled and ridiculed wrapped itself around him like a steel cloak and he felt himself literally shrinking as a man and an academic.
He’d always lived by the maxim that a man or woman’s background cannot be the primary substance for their interfacing with other people. When racial tensions flared after the declaration of a day during which he and those of his race would not be welcome on campus, the Professor had spoken out. Privately some students backed him. Very few academics openly supported him, although he sympathized with their reluctance to come forward. To advance policy proposals it must appear the community is united behind the policy and the academics in question. Their new policies ran counter to his convictions. He knew the bind they were in and bore them no ill will. Did they understand him? The hell they did.
Making his way up the steps behind Major House, he couldn’t believe the power of Ferrakarn’s delivery and the roar of his audience. The posters in the canteen announcing his appearance on campus hadn’t included a trigger warning. Perhaps that had been a mistake as the Professor eyed a half a dozen students stumbling from the lecture and into the safe space next to the old printing room.
As he traversed the corridor, the African tea lady turned the corner and headed his way. When they passed, she did the most curious thing. She put a hand on his bicep, squeezed it, slowly blinked her eyes and gave him the warmest of grins. At least he had one friend on campus. Then it occurred to him what that confounded noise coming from Major House was.
Everybody was laughing at him. . .
That sudden awareness crippled him where he stood, he stumbled to one side, placed a hand against the wall, closed his eyes and caught his breath.
One must keep up appearances. He pushed on. A theory he’d adopted as a younger man had been, to paraphrase, the white person will always fear the black person because they see in them a kind of primeval strength which the Caucasian no longer possessed. Spiritual strength, physical, intellectual. It was Victorian stuffiness that initiated the descent of the white man from beefcake to cupcake. He himself did not foster any such fear; indeed, he’d done more than any other on staff to promote the concept of a multi-cultural university filled with ethnic diversity.
Now the Right were on the march, ridiculing anybody who showed a morsel of concern for human feelings. Did so many really want to return to those days when the tried and trusted means of separating leaders from followers had been to promote bullying? When getting routinely assaulted after class was a normal part of growing up. Why not? It toughened people up. It gave us the nerds in Silicon Valley. It bred the Churchills and MacArthurs of this world. No, it didn’t. It bred fear, intimidation and tyranny and made schooling a miserable time for any kid with a gentle streak. Since when had compassion been a dirty word? If the Right had their way it would be.
The door leading into the safe space appeared to be stuck. He gave it a gentle nudge, then put his shoulder into it. Once inside he had to maneuver between the toys and hunks of playdough on his way to the far corner of the room. Two students he recognized, two he didn’t, all four watched a silent film on the monitor featuring a puppy dog running in ever decreasing circles. They’d all forgotten the university tradition of greeting a professor with a good morning sir. No one even acknowledged the presence of the white man in the room. Deep down every one of them now considered him to be nothing more than an old joke. Then he recognized her. Millie’s flatmate Janicka.
A curious sense of complete estrangement began to envelope him and he found himself making conversation for no other reason than it seemed to be the correct move at that juncture. “Hello young lady, didn’t think you were the type for safe spaces.”
She tore her eyes from the television. “Oh good morning sir, didn’t see you there. I’m not a safe spaces type. Just couldn’t listen to that Ferrakarn any longer. He’s too extreme for me, going on about Jews and all that stuff.” Such a gorgeous ivory smile, it made her whole face light up. “I’m glad you came today sir. Don’t like all this banning people and shit.”
So she thought he was funny too. That ridicule was the final straw. He took the Ruger from his jacket, racked the slide and began firing. Two targets slumped to one side, two made it from where they sat to the toy section. The Professor plugged them all. Bullets in the back. The screams, groans and blasts of gunshot filled his head. He strolled among them randomly asking if they still thought he was funny, their bodies trembled and twitched.
Only one figure had any life left in it. Face down, Janicka lizard crawled towards the door, leaving an ovular smear of blood on the floor-tiles beneath her. She exhaled, turned on to her back and stared with pleading eyes as he loomed. Blood bubbled from her lips. He pumped a bullet into her face, staggered across the room and dropped into the lazyboy seat. All was quiet except for the ringing in his ears. He stared at the space above the door as his hands shook and chest heaved. They’d all forgotten he was ex-military. Who did they think they were messing with?
A rather silly thought crossed his mind and he couldn’t help but smile. There should have been a portrait of him above the doorway. He founded that safe space. He loved the students. He cared when no one else did. Some had forgotten him, others had come for him. It brought him no small grain of comfort to know that from that day forth anyone finding refuge in a safe space on campus there at his beloved Omron University would think of him. When he was their age, Left wing student politics had been more than a pursuit, it had been his religion. Seven in the mag, that meant one bullet left in the chamber. He pressed the muzzle of his firearm to the base of his chin and pulled the trigger.
Faith no more.
A Trigger Warning by Peter Abram copyright 2017 This short story first appeared in “What’s Up in the West?” published by Cambodian Press, July 2017.