Where There's the Will...

I was an odd freshman (who wasn't, right?).

It was 1998, the Year of the Tiger, and I felt like prey.

Band nerd, speech and debate, theatre, chess club, choir, and math/science club were just the beginnings of what would be an overall horrific successful high school career.

Backpack in tow, my best friend and I navigated past pubescent uncertainty and headlong into outright confusion of adolescence.

I was lucky, looking back, to have moved from Colorado a couple years prior, to wind up in a school that celebrated hard work and work ethic, that trusted the students to build their own educational experience and strive to perfect it.

Things changed in April 1999.

April 20th to be exact.

In one fell swoop, two high schoolers changed the course of educational safety. They brought up questions like "What does it mean to create a safe space?" and "What rights do students have in their environments?" and "What are the legal ramifications of protection?".

Teachers, administrators, and students were tossed into a debate, and the debate wasn't about schools. It was about gun control, i.e. controlling who has guns and who doesn't.

I didn't know then that I would become a teacher, and, twenty years later, be thrust into the exact same situation as my teachers then time and time again. One week ago today, I sat staring at the screen, wondering what if Ms Swartz, Ms Lindemann, and Ms Cyrus were thinking the same thing I was, but this time about Marjory Stoneman Douglass High School.

In 1999, the entire high school was on alert. There was no texting, there was no Snapchatting, Instagramming, or Facebooking. There were no noses in devices. We had good old fashioned note-passing, prayer at the pole, and teachers who were willing to talk about violence, human transgressions, and solutions to problems.

This year, something was off. We had just finished celebrating Valentine's Day with a luncheon, and the next day, all that was on the lips of the students was who was going out with whom. They were walking the halls talking about the Valentine's Day Dance. They were chatting about who said what in History, and all the while I kept thinking, 17 people died in a school shooting and all you care about is getting ice cream after school?

That led me down a road I swore I would never go down as a teacher: utter distrust in the emotional stability of my students.

Don't worry, I wasn't on that road for long. For, I realized, students [sic] children are the products of their environments. And, it wasn't them who had this disassociated, dispassionate response to a school shooting. It is society's response imprinted on them.

Since 1999, schools have done little to prepare against another attack, notably making that fancy little sign stating that schools are gun-free zones a little larger... Isn't that grand? There have been over 800 legal proceedings since 1999, but what have they done to prevent Sandy Hook or Virginia Tech?

In short, nothing. Obama's 23 executive orders aimed to curb gun violence didn't prevent the massacre at Marjory Douglass.

As a student in 1999, after hearing about Columbine, I locked myself in my bedroom before my mom, a teacher, coaxed me out into the open to discuss what had happened. Truth of the matter was that school shootings, while accounting for only 1% of physical violence toward adolescents, were frightening. You can say that airplanes are the safest way to travel, but when 300 people plummet out of the sky, it's still shocking, a stark realization that we live in a bubble, and when the bubble pops, life comes spilling into the dark void of death. Apologies for going a little macabre.

I wondered what it would have been like to be in the classroom with those 13 people who died that day. I wondered what it would have been like if my best friend had been one of those 13, if I had been one of the thirteen, if I had known one of the shooters, and the weight of those questions nearly suffocated me. I wanted action. I wanted to scream at the nation. I wanted to be a part of the change that would forever revolutionize the classroom.

I didn't want to teach, but I wanted to see teaching change.

I say all this to put it all into perspective now. Then, when I was 14, I stared down the halls of Hirschi High School and wondered if ducking into a classroom would save me. Now, I look down the halls of my school and wonder if ducking into classrooms would save my children.

Then, I yelled and demanded action.

Now, I see that judicial action has failed and it's time for a new direction. Legislation is helping nothing. Laws are useless against the raging mind of a killer.

However, there is a comparison of note. Each of these shooters was borne into a life half-lived. They were young, impulsive, and they had a record of disciplinary issues. They were antisocial, aggressive, and divergent. They had potentially or actually had prior encounters with law enforcement. There were signs that these individuals were troubled past what we normally attribute to teenage heartache and the thousand natural shocks they inherit.

Then, I ask the question: did our schools fail these students?

In short, the answer is no. And, I use this metric: out of the total number of students being served in the nation, state, or city, how many have committed this crime? Since 1999, there have been 25 fatal school shootings. That's, taking into account the 2 involved in Columbine, only 26 students who had fallen through the cracks and snapped. 26 out of how many in the nation who have successfully completed their education and went on to hopefully be contributing citizens of society, students who had never taken a gun into their schools and started pulling the trigger. Overall, I'd say the educational system is doing something right.

We're at a crossroads. There are several narratives, and each narrative is telling us different things. We demand gun control, yet there are 300 million guns in the nation, and the only people who follow proposed gun control laws are law-abiding citizens. We demand stricter background checks, yet we don't know where to draw the line between unlawful and illegal. We insist on mental health checks, yet we don't know where to draw the lines between doctor-patient confidentiality, what classifies as a mental health disorder, and how and when symptoms present themselves.

We want answers now, but now answers won't solve the problem. We haven't an obsession with guns as a nation, compared to say... Switzerland. Or Finland. Or Sweden. The issue isn't the gun, but the person behind it.

At the risk of sounding like an echo chamber, the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is to put a gun in a good guy's hand. Because, let's face it, guns are only going to get circulated, sold, and manufactured. Guns are only as dangerous as the persons wielding them. In fact, two of the most horrific attacks on American soil weren't shootings. They were explosions, fertilizer or pressure cookers. The old adage that any person with the will to harm will harm with anything holds true. That being said, it's also important to distinguish between an assault rifle and the Armalite rifle. The AR-15 that everyone is so intent on demonizing is exactly like any other .223 on the market. The only difference is cosmetic. Assault rifles are not sold. They are for reserved for police and military. A hunting rifle is just as effective as an AR-15.

As I sat in my classroom in 1999, I remember thinking to myself that the students in that school were absolutely defenseless. Thankfully, the propane bomb didn't detonate or there would have been more casualties. I counted the number of entrances in the school. The number of hallways. The number of classes full at any given time, and I contemplated how different the scenario would have been were there someone there to stop the two in trenchcoats. If we had armed guards or willing teachers who carried, who knows what the outcome could have been.

I watched the news conference yesterday, and listened to the same testimonies Trump heard. I witnessed several hundred students leave the classroom in protest in solidarity with the students in Parkland, and while I may have been one to join them nearly two decades ago, now I see a different vision.

Students today, much in the same way as then, are driven by emotion, prone to act without forethought, and what makes it worse is that there are teachers who promote those behaviors.

I understand anger, fear, and desperate sadness. I understand being terrified about going to school the next day. I also understand the need more than ever for teachers to be the support. I get so upset watching students leave the school to protest, to shout and yell.

This solves nothing. This teaches children that when a problem arises, they can run from it screaming instead of being leaders in discussion, paragons of discourse, or forward thinkers of the modern era. By abandoning the classroom, teachers are sending students the message that there is no room for debate in the classroom, that they are free to leave and not think once about an opposing view and that the one place they should feel safe is actually just a holding cell. We are teaching children nothing other than that the loudest voice prevails.

This is not how the world is won.

It's time for us to think in the immediate. My freshman self wondered what would have happened if Mr Pipkin had a gun, how things would have been different in Columbine. Had Mrs Cyrus a handgun, would those two had gotten very far, with their rifles hung over their shoulders, their trenchers trailing behind them?

The teacher shouldn't be the first line of defense, but failing officers and metal detectors, who's next? Our teachers need to be empowered like Scott Biegel and Aaron Feis to step in and neutralize the threat to our children's lives. We can't do that if we expect our kids to leave the classroom whenever they feel uncomfortable. These protests can go on as long as they want, and legislation can come funneling down the pipeline as soon as it's signed, but it's not going to change anything in the future because it hasn't changed anything in the past. The first job of the teacher is to ensure the safety of our students, and if we can't do that, then who should?

The problem of safety isn't going to be solved by the government. But, it can be solved by the schools. We have to monitor more closely, love more greatly, and speak more clearly. Our students deserve a change. We are their mentors, idols, and caregivers. We have to assume the mantle of responsibility.

Society must assume the mantle of responsibility. There is no clear cut answer, as is true for most questions worth asking, but we can take immediate steps to deter further school violence.

The next day in 1999, I ate lunch with my friends. We crammed for the upcoming Biology test, and we walked to class together. In everything, I realized that friendships, positive connections, could do more to ease my mind than all the laws that were written in the books. I realized that we have to take care of each other, and the only people who could do that were us.

As a teacher now, I have a promise to keep to my kids: I will keep you safe no matter what, and I will listen to everything you have to say. I will challenge you, make you think, and hopefully inspire you.

They are my life.

They deserve theirs.


Popular posts from this blog

The Light of Amorth (working title)

Parenting: An Idea

Aren't We All, Cont'd