The writer and baseball statistician, Bill James, once asked, “Do people really believe there’s something different about the eyes of murderers?” Being somebody who overthinks for a living, the question stuck in my mind for a while, inching over my thoughts like a measuring worm, but I didn’t have much to say on the subject until recently.
When I was assistant coach of men’s basketball at Gallaudet, we recruited a 18-year-old from southern Virginia. He was 6’5” and athletic with a memorable gait. He ran with feet turned in, like that ungainly bird, and sinewy arms pumping to the Heavens. When he was exhausted out of his mind and told to run sprints after practice for missing study table? He would put up a vigorous but futile self-defense, mutter “Damn, Coach!”, then heave his arms harder and higher with his neck craning back to the skies, dripping sweat and snot.
He had wobbly eyeglasses that would fall off and break about every time he played. Each time, he would nonchalantly tape them back together and keep balling. When he dove for loose balls and hustled for steals in pick-up games – despite his mishmash eyeglasses – it was clear as day how he averaged 29 points, 18 rebounds, and 9 blocks his senior year of high school.
But this is not really why I remember him. He had a natural intellect and relentless curiosity that made him the first-ever (and only) student in Virginia School for the Deaf and Blind history to take AP Calculus. Graduating with a 3.9 cumulative GPA, he earned an academic scholarship to attend Gallaudet and major in Accounting. His interests went beyond mere numbers, though. He would read this Kurt Vonnegut quote on my office door before coming inside to discuss it with a curious look and a crooked smile:
“Tiger got to hunt, bird got to fly;
Man got to sit and wonder ‘why, why, why?’
Tiger got to sleep, bird got to land;
Man got to tell himself he understand.”
He introduced himself to his teammates on the first day of school by dunking in his Timberlands, which garnered “you can play” hoots. But little did they realize it was because he couldn’t afford basketball shoes. As they say in the South, where he grew up, he was so poor, he could barely afford to pay attention.
Showing up to class? Listening to the professor? A dollar for a soda? $5 for a foot-long at Subway? $20 for a required NCAA physical check-up? A new pair of eyeglasses, let alone basketball goggles? He couldn’t afford any of these. Looking back, it is rather clear these weren’t the only things for which he did not have the financial means.
He would stay in his dorm room for weeks with the lights turned off. When he wasn’t sleeping, he showed clear signs of difficulties concentrating and remembering details. Re-reading former conversations with him, he had complained of being “down and stressed.” We told him that he was depressed, that there were mental health services on campus that could help him, and that there was light at the end of the tunnel.
The coaching staff stopped by his dorm room several times to urge him to get counseling services, often to find his dorm room all dark and him sullen. He brushed us off each time, claiming that it would not help and that it would cost too much time and energy. In his farewell email before leaving school mid-semester – we never got the chance to say goodbye in person – he wrote that he wanted to be “as free from systems and policies as possible.”
After his departure from school, and when I watched a bespectacled player dive for a loose ball, looked at that framed picture above my office computer of him smiling with his arms wrapped around his teammates, or read that Kurt Vonnegut poster on my door, I would think of him.
And I wasn’t the only one. Several times after leaving school, the coaching staff tried to contact him but never heard back with the exception of an assistant coach who received a terse response. Then, finally. But for all the wrong reasons.
In January, two years ago, the Roanoke Times reported that he was arrested for murdering his audiologist with a steak knife, that he was found near the scene with blood on his hands and in his car, and that he told the judge in his arraignment hearing that he is “tired of America” and wants to die as soon as possible, because he “never wants to see a human being again.”
After exchanging e-mail with him from prison, who has since been found guilty to first degree murder and sentenced to life, and finding out that he was off his medication that day, I still wonder. As Vonnegut would put it, “Why, why, why?”
What should we have done differently? Did we try hard enough to give him the support that he needed and surround him with role models with whom he could relate? What was he thinking when he left the university? That morning he drove to the audiologist’s office? Was he thinking at all? How do the systems and policies that he was so desperate to flee compare to those of prison?
And his eyes? His curious eyes may have been stuck behind eyeglasses stuck together by adhesive tape, but were they any different from ours? His crooked smile in that pre-game team circle? Was it a glimpse of the happiness that he woulda, coulda, shoulda had if he had received the support he needed and stayed in school?
Reading the newspaper articles and Facebook posts, and talking with those who knew him at college – all of us asking “Why, why, why?” – we have a grating tendency to throw around simple-sounding theories to explain what happened and how it could have been avoided.
But I wonder. Are our explanations more self-serving than not, simply so that we can claim that we understand, and then move on with our lives? Can the totality of his unimaginable experience — what he went through all his life — and the choices leading to that tragic day really be summed up with a neat explanation? Or does that distract us from the complexities of life and the hard work that must be undertaken if we want to make the world a better place?
We do not discuss the messiness, the inscrutableness of the strange world out there enough at colleges and universities where we have fancy looking student learning outcomes that address knowledge and inquiry, and in our popular culture where we valorize provocative questions, grand predictions, and sweeping explanations in 140 characters.
Yet, what about the timeless virtues of humility, compassion, and friendship? Do we absorb and practice these fundamental values enough? Seeking to understand and explain the world out there is imperative. But this is also a strange day and age where we are more connected than ever and yet feel more alone than ever, and where we virtue signal more often than we practice virtue. As much as we must prepare the minds of our future leaders, it is not the be all and end all.
Picturing that fateful morning the audiologist said goodbye to her family before heading to work, and that moment captured in time when he was smiling with his teammates in the pre-game dance circle, I wonder (there we go again) if we spend too much time with the lights turned off, wondering aloud about the world by that eerie blue glow, dividing life neatly between light or dark, and telling ourselves that we understand.
But do we spend enough time coming to terms with the uncomfortable truth that life is infinitely complex and often without rhyme or reason? That there is the capacity of good and evil in our eyes? That the best we can do is sometimes to stop trying to diagnose and solve, and instead, to seek out special moments of human connection, such as when a curious student with pigeon toes, a crooked smile, and eyeglasses taped together with scotch tape enters your office to ask why, why, why?