I am continuing to find the exercises that I require of my students in Second Life to evoke real pangs of suffering and empathy. (You’ll notice in that first sentence that I am not specifying whether it is I or my students who feel those pangs.) This summer, one of my students wrote of SL, “I was rejected in that life just as I am rejected in this one.” The statement came at the very end of the term when my relationship with my students should be coming to an end, but because I rarely see this kind of disclosure, I found myself wanting to somehow give reassurance. There was no other detail offered, no explanation, no ameliorating anecdote, nothing. Her statement floated like an immovable smog over the city of the heart. It’s hard knowing that the power of writing to help us discover ourselves and to provide us with a foundation for exploring our potential had not rescued this person from her loneliness. Had I known how she thought of herself at the beginning of the term, we might have been able to do something about it. In any case, I had an urge to try to intervene, to help, but I fought that urge a bit too. I can’t rescue everyone–a very hard lesson to learn. She did mention that she is painfully shy, and I wonder now if Second Life could help people who find it hard to make friends in real life. It might help them to get some anonymous practice in SL. Put sunglasses on shyness and you slip into cool.
Another student, whom I have had in previous classes and knew to be a responsible adult dedicated to her education, dropped out of sight in the middle of the summer semester. I emailed her and asked her what had happened to her. She is a wife and mother. She is also fairly traditional by her own estimation; her husband is even more so. In the home, she is responsible for all the cooking, all the child-rearing, and all the house-work; and she holds a job–and somehow has managed to find time for online classes. A mouse lifts the elephant of life. But then her “husband’s family came . . . for the summer and [she] had to cater to them.” The real kicker, however, came at the end of her distressed email. Erroneously thinking that because the course was over she had to unplug from SL, she wrote, “I have a question: Do I have to get rid of my [Second Life] account? I sometimes feel my world is falling apart and being someone no one knows is sometimes good, if I get the time.” If my experiences with students in SL tell me anything it’s that we are all people “no one knows.” And yet we feel like we are knowable, structured around an enduring self-nature that must, at times, hide under the blanket of a digital world.
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