Sandra Lee Scheuer was a student at Kent State University. Her subject was speech therapy. She died in 1970, aged twenty, when she was shot in the neck with a bullet from the M-1 rifle of an Ohio National Guardsman. Three other unarmed students were also killed in the shootings. At the time a student demonstration against the escalation of the Vietnam war into Cambodia was taking place on the campus. There are differing views regarding the magnitude of the threat posed by rock-throwing students to National Guardsmen armed only with rifles and grenade launchers, but all seem to agree on one thing: that Sandra had nothing to do with the demonstration and was merely walking between classes.
The poem appears in a 1980 collection by the Canadian poet Gary Geddes (b. 1940). It must have been hard to write it without overt anger, yet what dominates is pity, and maybe the poem is all the more effective for it. Note how the poet weaves into the narrative Sandra’s subject, speech therapy, such that the silencing of her voice and consequent loss of her healing gift becomes emblematic of the whole violent suppression of the freedom to speak out.
‘or put a flower in his rifle barrel’ – this refers to an incident the day before when another student, Allison Beth Krause, had put a flower in the barrel of a Guardsman’s rifle, saying ‘Flowers are better than bullets’. Allison too was killed in the shootings the next day.
Sandra Lee Scheuer
(Killed at Kent State University, May 4, 1970 by the Ohio National Guard)
‘You might have met her on a Saturday night,
cutting precise circles, clockwise, at the Moon-Glo
Roller Rink, or walking with quick step
between the campus and a green two-storey house,
where the room was always tidy, the bed made,
the books in confraternity on the shelves.
She did not throw stones, major in philosophy
or set fire to buildings, though acquaintances say
she hated war, had heard of Cambodia.
In truth she wore a modicum of make-up, a brassiere,
and could no doubt more easily have married a guardsman
than cursed or put a flower in his rifle barrel.
While the armouries burned, she studied,
bent low over notes, speech therapy books, pages
open at sections on impairment, physiology.
And while they milled and shouted on the commons,
she helped a boy named Billy with his lisp, saying
Hiss, Billy, like a snake. That’s it, SSSSSSSS,
tongue well up and back behind your teeth.
Now buzz, Billy, like a bee. Feel the air
vibrating in my windpipe as I breathe?
As she walked in sunlight through the parking-lot
at noon, feeling the world a passing lovely place,
a young guardsman, who had his sights on her,
was going down on one knee, as if he might propose.
His declaration, unmistakable, articulate,
flowered within her, passed through her neck,
severed her trachea, taking her breath away.
Now who will burn the midnight oil for Billy,
ensure the perilous freedom of his speech;
and who will see her skating at the Moon-Glo
Roller Rink, the eight small wooden wheels
making their countless revolutions on the floor?