Summer 2023 • Vol. XLV No. 1 Why We Chose ItJune 21, 2023 |

Why We Chose It: “Shelter, in Place”

“Shelter, in Place” by Sydney Tammarine appears in the Summer 2023 issue of The Kenyon Review.

Why did we choose Sydney Tammarine’s essay “Shelter, in Place”? Because when all else fails, art saves. Art restores, enriches, soothes, challenges, and educates. This essay is an artistic education. It’s an emotional education. “Darshana throws her head back and laughs for the first time all winter,”writes Tammarine, “but off the walls of the classroom it sounds a little like a scream,”and when a laugh is confused with a scream, we as readers know we’re in violent territory. I won’t say “unscripted” because we’ve seen this again and again and again: America’s classrooms are violent. But this is from the teacher’s point of view. Not as heroic savior but as vulnerable participant and aesthetic observer. This latter is key.

This essay isn’t about a school shooting. There is, of course, the threat of a school shooting ten blocks away, but it is not the driving force of the narrative. It’s just background, ambiance, the unchecked violence that has been forced upon educators and students in the United States of America. This essay is about, perhaps, the helplessness we feel in the face of our culture’s many failures in regards to children, the poor, the disadvantaged. And here I am struggling to find the words to adequately describe and group those who show up in our classrooms, especially if we teach at public schools or in urban areas. But it’s not just that. It’s about the moment every teacher I know imagines. Yes, the moment a shooter enters the classroom, but also all the other moments that follow. What would I do? How would I respond? I’m old enough to remember a time when contingency planning meant knowing what to do if a student threw up or asked a question about a verb form that I didn’t know how to answer. But what to do when the gunman enters the campus, the cafeteria, the hallways, the classroom? Play dead? What to do if the student wields the gun? What about a knife? There are no simple answers.

This essay is intimate and knowing and then sophisticated. Tammarine turns to a painting by Rembrandt, a painting that exemplifies teaching. In it, the students overlook the cadaver while the professor overlooks the students. The author brings us the body, the frailness, what we look like in death, the ultimate surrender. What we look like when all else fails. The painting removes the distance between viewer and artist, and we see what the artist meant us to see, not the politics or the theory, but the body unenhanced in the repose of death, much the way Tammarine’s spare, detailed, vulnerable storytelling collapses any distance between her reader and the subject. Who is the teacher? What is a teacher?

If this essay is a cultural critique, there’s no polemic. There’s the problem, the pain, the confusion, the fear so eloquently observed and rendered in such poetic language that we as readers begin to grasp what it means to be a sentient intelligent adult given an impossible charge: educate children amidst trauma and ongoing violence; educate children who are hungry, assaulted, fearful at home and fearful on the playground; educate children in an infrastructure unsuited to warfare of any kind. You’ve never seen this essay before. Why did I choose this? Because I couldn’t stop reading.

Photo of Victoria Bosch Murray
Victoria Bosch Murray’s chapbook of poems “Prayer for Plum and Sinew" was published by Red Bird in 2022. Her poetry and creative nonfiction have appeared or are forthcoming in Bennington Review, Cimarron Review, Field, Greensboro Review, Kenyon Review, Salamander, Phoebe, and elsewhere. She lives and teaches in Boston, Massachusetts.

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