From my garden-level window, I see legs. Two bodies in the bushes. Guns.
I’m back in my office after my afternoon graduate poetry class at the University of North Dakota where I’ve kicked off my heels. My feet hurt, and I’m rubbing my eyes as I’m answering emails in the early dark of early March. The movement just past my gleaming screen catches my tired eyes.
Instantly, I’m awake. Two guys in camo with guns. Active shooters. I can’t see where they’ve gone. I grab my phone and dive under my desk, invisible from the window, dial 911. I tell the dispatcher what I saw, where I am. What she says next makes my head hurt: she tells me to stay on the line while they check if it’s ROTC doing maneuvers – she says it probably is, but no one’s cleared it with EMS, so they’re sending an officer to check. She thanks me for calling, says I should always call.
My stomach hurts. Too much coffee. Too much adrenaline. Too many times in the last year waiting for friends to check in from campuses locked down during shootings. I realize I’m crying.
She checks back in – yes, it’s just ROTC. But it’s still good I called. Thanks for calling.
I’m still under my desk holding my phone when it rings again. When I pick up, it’s a university officer this time, calling me back—not to reassure me, but to scold me for calling 911. He says ROTC has permission to do this exercise. When I tell him that this was news to 911 and that they encouraged me to call whenever I see a gun on campus, he seems exasperated, and tells me to take it up with ROTC. So I do.
You should know that I left a less-than-professional voicemail with ROTC. I said “fuck” a couple of times. I described what I had seen, then said there was “no fucking reason why I should be terrorized like this. . .to look up and see gunmen on the quad. . .thinking that perhaps we’re under attack. There is no reason in this day and age that you need to do these exercises on the middle of the quad. Do them somewhere else. I shouldn’t have to work in a terrorized environment. Please don’t do this again.” You should also know that I left that voicemail less than ten minutes after the incident, still full of adrenaline and fear and righteous rage. So, “fucking” and “terrorize” – remember these. They will come up later.
And, later, I wrote a Letter to the Editor at my local paper, in which I say:
Apparently, it’s not enough that UND’s administration is attacking the quality of education by cutting programs and experienced faculty and jacking class sizes. Now, we must also feel under physical attack as well.
After describing the incident, the response from 911, and the lack of support from the university police officer who called, I conclude the letter with the following:
He also tells me that ROTC will be doing these exercises for the next couple weeks.
So I reply that I guess I’ll be calling 911 for the next couple weeks—and I will. Every time.
It’s not my job to decide whether people carrying guns at school are an actual threat. It’s my job to teach and to get home to my family.
It’s already highly inappropriate to conduct unnecessary military maneuvers in the middle of the quad. But with school shootings on the increase and tensions at UND running high, it’s especially irresponsible.
We’re already under financial and emotional attack. We don’t need to feel under physical attack, too.
I wrote this letter on a Friday night in March. The scene I described had happened the previous day, around 4pm. And honestly, I would still have been angry, but wouldn’t have written that letter except for two things: that scolding follow-up call from the campus police, who told me to take it up with ROTC, and a sequence of emails exchanged with the ROTC commander Friday.
The ROTC commander emails me in reply to my voicemail, calling it “aggressive and inappropriate.” He says the rifles were not loaded, and implies I am unpatriotic, adding, “I thank God every night for those ROTC students that in the near future may be called upon to defend our country and preserve our way of life.” He claims that his email is “not meant to be confrontational” but he has cc’ed the Dean and the Chief of Police.
I respond by assuring him that this has nothing to do with patriotism – that the ROTC students and returned veterans are some of my finest students – but that in the campus climate of school shootings, what’s inappropriate is to perform these drills in the quad during classes.
When he replies that I have “strong opinions,” I say that it’s “reprehensible that wanting to feel safe in my workplace is viewed as a strong opinion.” Clearly, we are at an impasse.
So, I wrote this Letter to the Editor. And it went unprinted.
Then, ten days later on a Monday morning, it runs. Tuesday evening, a friend who works for the news service that owns both the Grand Forks and Fargo papers texts to say that the local shock jockey whose blog they run has posted about it. I look it up, and sure enough he has, distorting the events and running it with a stock photo that shows ROTC cadets in full dress uniform in parade formation with bayonets, as if to suggest that was what I had seen out my window. I laugh and repost the link on Facebook, where my friends and I joke about it.
The next day, I fly to Virginia to give a reading. Overnight, other right-wing blogs repost the story and it goes viral, appearing on Glenn Beck’s The Blaze, Reddit, and an NRA-associated page. At the book festival, my phone vibrates and vibrates. This was hilarious until suddenly it isn’t. Local TV wants to interview me, but I’m in transit most of the day. I do release a statement that’s read at the end of the coverage, but in my absence, the main voice is the ROTC commander’s. As a result, the slant is very patriotic, pro-ROTC, and I’m somehow anti-ROTC. And the news plays the voicemail.
They play the voicemail.
At this point, it is thirteen days after the initial event, thirteen days after I left that voicemail. The ROTC commander has hung on to this voicemail for thirteen days, for just this moment.
I do a long interview for the newspaper with a reporter I respect, in which I try to do damage control by insisting that I did not call 911 on ROTC – I called 911 on two gunmen in the bushes on the quad, as I had been trained to do in a possible active shooter scenario. I apologize for using profanity in the voicemail in the heat of the moment, but I stand by my assertions that the drill had been unwise and irresponsible.
The convergence of me being out of town and unable to control the story from the start, combined with an otherwise slow news week, even for North Dakota, means this story won’t disappear anytime soon. People start posting my contact information online – thankfully, only publicly available work contacts – but there are threats. The police arrange security and surveillance, and we leave town for the weekend. I am receiving hundreds of messages each day.
Immune System: Viral Load
My husband Evan was out of town when the initial incident happened, when the email exchange with the ROTC commander happened, and when I wrote the letter to the editor. I remember distinctly thinking, as I hit “send” on the submission, that I was glad he wasn’t home, because he would have convinced me not to do it.
One of Evan’s best friends manages the online presence of the local news service InForum. InForum owns both the Grand Forks and Fargo papers, and serves as the server host for the shock blog that posted the first distortion of the incident. They could feign journalism on one hand, and with the other, encourage clickbait. They had a distinct interest in having it go viral. Evan’s friend had a distinct interest in watching it go viral, from a professional standpoint, even as he was personally horrified.
Out of the 500 or so emails I receive (not counting voicemail and Facebook messages), most are hatemail, most calling for my job.
Nearly all the hatemail (98%) is from men.
Most of the hatemail accuses me of one or more of the following: being anti-military, anti-gun, and liberal:
I agree the police should be called…but not on the ROTC trainees, but on you for the size and shape of your nasty nose.
GO FUCK YOURSELF, LIBTARD BITCH! If you don’t like the second item in our original Bill of Rights, maybe you should get the fuck out of this country, did that ever occur to you?
Have a nice day,
Mrs. Czerwiec you are an embarrassment to America! If your husband had any backbone at all he would have corrected you on your emotional ROTC issues and told you to shut the hell up. Please resign your position as an educator so America will be better off. The amount of emotions you have are astounding. The good people in North Dakota should picket your school demanding your resignation for lack of intelligence. I will be sending UND an email next requesting them to discharge you due to your lack of intelligence. Have a shitty day.
I have read that you seem to think that ROTC students with fake guns practicing on campus are a threat to you. Because of this, you seem to think that it is your duty to call the police to waste their valuable time to “investigate” your delusions of fear and rage.
I do hope that you realize that you are a complete fool and worse, a tool of the liberal/socialist/democrat (LSD) wacky left if you in any way think that ROTC students with fake guns practicing on campus are in any way a threat to you.
My son is an active member of the JROTC in his high school and plans on following my footsteps into the U.S. Air Force as I followed my father’s footsteps, retiring after 26 years in service in 2011. There is no finer service to a nation than the people who volunteer to protect and preserve the nation against the enemies of the world. You might want to give it a try if you actually had any idea what service meant.
Sincerely, [name redacted], MSgt, Retired, United States Air Force
I respond to every single piece of email I receive, mostly with a template explanation that I tweak as necessary:
Thank you for your message.
Much of the information being dispersed on this incident is misleading. We have a gun-free campus. I saw two young men with guns outside my office. They were not obviously part of any training, and we had not been notified there would be any training that day. I called 911 to report it in order to protect myself, my students, and my coworkers. 911 was glad that I did, as they had not been notified of training either.
I have nothing against ROTC or its cadets — they are some of my finest students. But in this current climate of school shootings, I’m sure you would agree that having students run across campus with guns while classes are in session is unwise and irresponsible.
When I said I would call 911 again, I was saying that any time I see something suspicious that is not obviously part of a drill, I will call it in. At the university, we are told, “if you see something, say something.” I am doing my job.
Dr. Heidi Czerwiec
I do engage with follow-up emails if it seems appropriate, or the person seems open to it.
Most don’t reply.
Some do. For some of those who do reply, it’s like my explanation doesn’t matter. The (anti-)narrative is more important to believe, as if they need it to feed their outrage, the same outrage and anti-narrative belief that govern the current presidential campaign.
However, most of the people who reply seem surprised and even impressed that I’ve responded, as if startled to discover a real human being behind online’s veil of anonymity. Of those, the vast majority are or had been in the military and thought I was anti-military – after hearing my explanation, most agree that calling 911 had been reasonable, and several apologize for any initial belligerence:
Thank you for responding. I overreacted to information found on news websites posting this story because as a military officer I have experienced significant negative encounters with civilians who don’t understand what we do.
I was wrong to insult you without knowing all the information and I apologize.
Many acknowledge they had read an account on some blog that had represented the incident in a much worse light. Some sound sheepish for having believed it.
……if this is true then I owe you an apology…..you must know that conservative websites delight in stories that suspect professors of being liberal hozers……likely from stories like the foolishness that went on at mizzou…..it is reported as “just another example” of the progressive incremental sliming of our history, heritage and, perhaps most importantly, our children…….stand up of you to answer…….
The constant adrenaline gets to me – I can’t sleep, and I subsist on coffee. I get dehydrated further by crying and diarrhea. I lose weight.
The way my office design is situated sits me with my back to the door – I take to keeping the door shut, even during office hours, so visitors must knock. Every shadow across it unnerves me. I’m on high alert when I walk to and from my car, or across campus for meetings. We’re moving – a fact unrelated to this incident – and our house has a For Sale sign outside, so cars often drive slowly past, and this freaks me out.
And then, after shrinking, my body starts swelling, fluid collecting in strange places – my eyelid, my cheek, my neck – only to subside and swell at another site. Online, I discover that these, too, are attributable to adrenaline, are called adrenal edemas.
Some who reply and are very pro-gun/open-carry choose to focus on the gun issue – while they agree that it may have been a valid response to call 911, they are more concerned with the campus being gun-free, and spend much of their replies trying to persuade me that guns on campus make everyone safer, and I should have been carrying:
Thank you for replying. It sounds like the media has some of their facts wrong.
Short of the complete removal of the 2nd amendment from the constitution, there aren’t many options.
If we can finally get laws where law abiding citizens are allowed to carry guns on campus (as they are now in NC and TX), we may be able to solve some problems. Criminals and those seeking violence will always have guns and carry them wherever they desire. “Gun-free zones” are specifically targeted by criminals because they know they are safe zones for their murderous rampages. No one will be there to shoot back.
That is why the CO movie theater murderer, James Holmes, chose that particular movie theater. That is why the TN military recruitment center shooter chose that location. If law abiding citizens are allowed to carry on campus, there is a defense.
I have been around firearms since I was a child. I shot my first firearm at the age of four. In the southern United States firearms are as common as loaves of bread. More people need to be educated in the proper use and safety measures required by firearms. As I said before, short of removing the 2nd amendment from the constitution, there are not many other options.
(If I should arm myself to defend my campus, does this mean they think I should have shot those boys?)
(And if I had shot those boys, what then? Would they have defended me for defending my school and my self, defending my Second Amendment?)
(And if I had shot those boys)
(. . .)
When in the midst of a media shitstorm, your training in rhetoric is crucial. You have to control the message. Stick to your speaking points. There is no room for subtlety.
My main point: this was never about ROTC. I called 911 on what I thought was an active shooter on campus.
The media needed it to be a battle. It becomes me versus ROTC.
In order to stick to my main point, I have to insist it is not about ROTC. I have to say that some of my finest students are cadets, which is true. I have to say that some of my finest students are returned veterans, which is true. I have to say that gun-carry issues are moot because we have a gun-free campus – also true.
There is a lot I cannot say.
I do not say: at first I thought this was hilarious. Until it wasn’t.
I do not say: the ROTC commander is the one who made this a Versus. He held on to a private voicemail for almost two weeks. During that time, he played it for some students (which I know from dated emails), then released it to the media after the paper printed my letter. But if I say these things, it will play into The Versus.
I do not say: I am against ROTC’s presence on campuses, which had been in decline after Vietnam and during “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” but had a resurgence once that policy was repealed and once tuitions rose aggressively. I don’t like the militarization of the university. I don’t like the aggression. I don’t like how it desensitizes us to violence, to seeing guns.
I do not say: I am anti-gun. The gaslighters like to use big words, diagnose me with “hoplophobia,” as though this is irrational. But you’re supposed to be afraid of guns. That’s the point of guns.
I’m averse. Versus. Verses. Writing is how I cope.
I know that a woman speaking out online, especially when she challenges power, is a dangerous thing. But still, I’m surprised by how gendered the discussion is.
Many of the emails launch into me without addressing me, but of those that do, most use “Miss” or “Mrs. Czerwiec,” a few “Ms.,” some “Heidi,” and several even “Madame” or “Ma’am” (ironically), “My Dear Woman,” or “Missy.”
Many of the emails call me cunt, bitch, cow, sow, hope for my rape, say I shouldn’t be influencing young minds – my students’ or my child’s. They challenge my mothering, threaten to call Child Protective Services.
I am gaslit. The word “hysterical” and references to mental illness and overreaction are constant.
Many of the emails equate me, and whatever they’ve decided I represent, with weakness, effeminacy, with the “pussification of America.” While not all them identify my teaching subject – English – correctly, they attempt to invalidate me by association with other “Liberal” liberal arts: Professor of Art, Professor of Communications, “Professor of Pussies” as one puts it.
I am what is wrong with America. I am what’s Left. The young men with their guns are what’s right.
I can’t help but set this against the 2016 presidential campaign occurring concurrently. Some even reference it in their messages: “I’m sure you’re ‘All in for Hill’ as the idiot liberals say, and yet you know zero about politics and the evils of the Democrat Socialist Party….” This is a campaign in which one candidate brags of grabbing women by the pussy, encourages the “Second Amendment people” to “do something to stop” his opponent – the first party-nominated female candidate in our history – and blasts her as a “nasty woman.”
My appearance is mocked, usually in terms of lack of fuckability.
Many search out my work online, in order to mock it. In particular, bad reviews – which Amazon will refuse to take down and which do not specifically describe the quality of my work but which insult me and reference ROTC – are left for my book, Self-Portrait as Bettie Page.
The cover image is a photo of me with my Bettie Page back tattoo.
Bettie Page was a Fifties pinup who did work in early bondage and fetish photos.
To write the book, I had to study a lot about fetishes.
Gun fetishes are a little obvious, don’t you think?
I do receive support. Mostly from teachers: faculty at my own university glad that someone spoke up, professors from elsewhere, and teachers in K-12 – all of whom, like me, wonder each day if this will be the one a gunman makes a tragedy of our workplace. Some of them had already lived through that horror. From my grad students, furious on my behalf, who police online threads, Rate My Professor, my Amazon page, mount incensed defenses, for which I am abashed and grateful. Ministers. An emergency preparedness specialist and a SWAT team member, both saying I’d played it by the book. The SWAT team member adds if it had been him, he might have shot those boys. (…)
I do not receive any support from university administration.
It takes a month before anyone contacts me to meet with me – the interim president, after the main outrage is over. And yet during that month they send out statements that amount to weak support, mostly containment. They tell me (privately) that the national ROTC organization has admonished the commander (privately). They admit to a communications failure, but then respond by overnotification, as if to thumb their nose: “Be advised, ROTC cadets will be playing a game of capture the flag on the quad today. They will not be in uniform.”
They say I have a right to my opinion. You don’t say that when you think that opinion has a legitimate point. It’s a polite form of dismissal, the equivalent of my Southern friends saying “well, bless her heart.”
They also send out individual emails from official accounts to people who complain about me. I know this, because one is screenshot and posted on Facebook as “proof” that my “bosses” thought I was crazy:
The University will now send a campus notification before each exercise, and we will also notify the faculty member each time there will be exercises. [Is that a typo – did he mean “members” – or did he really mean I would be singled out for notification?]
We hope that the actions of one faculty member will not tarnish the reputation of the long-standing commitment UND has demonstrated to those who serve in our armed forces. The fact is that the University of North Dakota has a long, proud tradition of Army and Air Force ROTC programs on our campus. Some of the finest men and women at UND are ROTC cadets. In fact, UND President Ed Schafer was an ROTC cadet here. In addition, the University is proud that for many years we have been identified as a Military Friendly School, most recently in November when UND was once again named a Top Military-Friendly University by Military Advanced Education & Transition.
They fall over themselves supporting ROTC and the military, doing everything short of sucking their guns.
They note I will be leaving my position at the end of the semester. They fail to acknowledge there is no connection: I have already notified them of my pending resignation seven months earlier, effective at the end of the school year, when Evan graduates from law school and we move to Minneapolis for new opportunities.
While he has not read the emails or heard the voicemails, I can’t protect Evan from anonymous online comment threads. Yes, they bother me, but it’s about me, and I am handling it. Mostly. Or pretending to. But for Evan, people are coming after his family. I kind of get that – the one comment that pisses me off the most is when someone tries to attribute my actions to Evan’s liberalism. That’s just one comment. But the comment threads Evan reads and the lack of university management has him seething. He tells me he was tempted to punch a colleague who made a veiled comment about me in an elevator. Having worked closely with the university’s PR director, he dreads what might happen if he runs into him on campus. His own rage scares me. I text with another close friend of ours who’s also furious on our behalf, to express my worry about Evan. Our friend says, “It’s like The Godfather. I’m Sonny – I want to blow them all away now. Evan’s Michael: he won’t forget, and he’s going to get his revenge one day.” Also male responses, also interesting and complicating.
In April, there is a video circulating on Facebook of men reading aloud horrible Twitter comments to the faces of two women sportscasters, Sarah Spain and Julie DiCaro, to whom the comments are directed. The men reading the comments, even though they’re not the ones who wrote them, are appalled and ashamed, and apologize repeatedly to the women. The video makes visible the effect of even just a few such comments – much less the endless stream of them that comes with being an opinionated woman online, especially one who speaks about topics typically “owned” by men.
I cry while I’m watching this video. I spoke up online about guns and military action on campus and got hate mail for only a few months, and it wrecked me for a while.
I fantasize a revenge scenario where the university’s PR man and its president have to read my hatemail to my face.
I am so fucking terrorized. It comes down to that. Remember when I told you we’d come back to those two words? Most of the “controversy” focuses on them.
News media constantly asks if I am sorry for using profanity. Emailers admonish me for using “unladylike” language. The president of the Student Senate, a young man gunning for a political future in a red state, acknowledges that I had a legitimate reason to call 911, yet passes a motion demanding that I apologize for using “fuck.” I had said it in a private voicemail, for which I had already apologized both privately and via media interviews. But he wants me publicly lashed, apologizing in front of the student body. I decline his invitation.
Who knew the most effective weapon against military training is to deploy an f-bomb?
But the other deployment I cop to. I’m a writer; I constantly select among the most effective words. Words are my weapon of choice. And in the heat of anger and adrenaline, I deploy the term “terrorize,” knowing full well I’m equating the effect of this drill with the “evil” many of these cadets imagine themselves defending against. I do it because I want to provoke them as much as they provoked me. It worked – too well.
And since we’re talking about words, I’ll also admit: we all read each other accurately. I knew using “terrorize” and my position as a liberal-arts professor would antagonize them. And though my letter and voicemail never specified any of this, they read me, correctly, as liberal, as anti-gun. I could point out I had said none of that, that I had followed protocol, all of which was true. I could say some of my finest students were cadets and veterans – also true, but a deflection: not the same thing as saying I support ROTC and militarization. So while I might have had language on my side, they were not missing the nuances.
In many ways, this is not about the failure of language – it’s about how effective language is, both in its lines and between them, the effect it has, and the side-effects.
Have I brought these effects, and side-effects, upon myself? Do I have a right to write about the trauma this caused me, however (relatively) brief? Others are suffering greater injustices, and in most ways, the fact that I am a white, middle-class, tenured professor protects me from the worst retaliations.
Sejal Shah, in her terrific column titled “Trauma Privilege,” quotes Roxane Gay from the essay “Peculiar Benefits” in Bad Feminist: “What I remind myself, regularly, is this: the acknowledgment of my privilege is not a denial of the ways I have been and am marginalized, the ways I have suffered. . . . Does privilege automatically negate any merits of what a privilege holder has to say?”
I am right to be angry that I was chastised for calling 911 as I had been trained to do in a possible active shooter scenario, and for my university essentially throwing me under the bus to maintain its “military-friendly” designation. I am right to be concerned about the militarization of campuses and the presence of guns leading to complacency – a week after the initial drill, a student is shot on the north end of campus. And while some forms of privilege inoculated me when I spoke up, I am right to be angry about how I was targeted as a woman. I was marginalized and made to suffer in other ways. As Sejah Shah concludes, “Suffering is not a contest; no one wins.”
I may be right, but what have I won? My adrenaline has a hairtrigger now, spikes at the slightest threat. Spikes whenever I sit down to work on this essay – even at my favorite coffeehouse, snugged into my corner seat – as I write, revise and edit, even collate links, I’m right back inside my fight or flight instinct. Or when small flurries of emails resurface on certain holidays that follow – Memorial Day, July 4th, September 11 – or after Election Day, when the trolls resurface to haunt, to taunt me.
In many ways, six months later, I find that I’ve come back around to the position of our friend who works for the local news service, the one who was both personally horrified and professionally interested by this incident. I’m fascinated. I’m horrified. For me, the horror and fascination lie always in the language, the threat it embodies.
 You can see the full letter at LETTER: Military maneuvers startle already-stressed UND campus
 UND Professor Threatens To Call 911 On Every Campus ROTC Drill (but seriously, don’t give this guy extra clicks)
 Just Google my name and ROTC – you’ll find all you need. But same as above about the clicks, ok?
Heidi Czerwiec is a poet and essayist and serves as Poetry Editor at North Dakota Quarterly. She is the author of two recent chapbooks — A Is For A-ké, The Chinese Monster, and Sweet/Crude: A Bakken Boom Cycle — and of the forthcoming collection Maternal Imagination, and the editor of North Dakota Is Everywhere: An Anthology of Contemporary North Dakota Poets. She lives in Minneapolis, where she teaches with The Loft Literary Center and the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop, and works with Motionpoems. Visit her at heidiczerwiec.com