I am an American teacher.
As we all are trying to sort out the horror of the murders of innocent children and adults, a horror we will never fully understand, there is one area I need to sort through myself. I am afraid of this, and don’t want to face it.
I may be a coward.
Every teacher would say that he or she would die for their students if need be, that they could not live with the guilt if they could have saved a life and didn’t. I think this is true for all humans, not just teachers. And yes, I would like to believe that this is true for me, too. If someone was trying to harm my students, I have a sacred, unwritten honor to protect them at all costs, even at a cost to my own children. But there is a shaky side to this feeling, a sickening, quaking view, that I don’t want anyone, ever, to be put in this position in the first place, especially teachers. Or me. I don’t want to die a hero: I don’t want to die, period, as a result of my profession. I don’t want anyone to, ever. Hear the fear?
One thing I teach my students is that there are many paths to personal success and happiness. Some choose to be police officers, or emergency technicians, doctors, nurses, etc. Some choose a military career. Many of these involve life and death decisions, and in the case of fire, police, and other first-responder personnel, sometimes the ultimate sacrifice of lives. These professions do everything in their protocols and power to see that this doesn’t happen, to prevent this, and when it does happen, the magnitude and loss is horrific. Those professions are directly involved with the ‘bad guys,’ and they are trained to do so. And even with all that training, their hearts are broken, the psychological effects can be everlasting, and sometimes they are broken. They may have gone into this line of work with their eyes as open as they could, but nothing prepares any of us for the realities that come with any grand and large hope: parenting, careers, marriage, or love. We learn as we go.
But I want to look at this from the teacher’s perspective. And make no mistake: there are truly heroes, those who made the ultimate sacrifice, and it completely, utterly shatters my heart. Stories such as Victoria Soto’s will never be forgotten, and nor should they. I can’t untangle or analyze the monster’s motives; I can only honor and pray for those whose lives were taken, and those left behind.
What I wish, though, is that we take this and turn it into action. Not just prayers, not just wishes. But honest conversations, hard conversations.
When I got the news yesterday from an acquaintance, (who didn’t know that I am teacher) he was suggesting all teachers should be trained with guns and carry them. I would suggest that his remarks, while ludicrous, are also dangerous and extremely misguided, but I also believe he is not alone in his opinion. More guns, more violence. Ironically, as my husband said yesterday, the NRA would argue that by not allowing their version of the Second Amendment rights, we allow the government to set up a police state, and yet, many of their members would advocate for more armed personnel in our schools, thus making it a police state. (Please do not try to engage me in a pro/con discussion of the NRA: I know many responsible gun owners, and responsible NRA members.) There is no logic to a gun. There is no purpose other than to kill, and kill quickly. We’ve all seem to have forgotten Trayvon Martin and our outrage over vigilantism. We respond to our fears, rationale or not, with more violence. We try to find the quick fix, like telling people not to wear hoodies. One thing we are is amazingly reactionary: in times of crisis, we Americans are emotional, compassionate, and forgiving. But we are perhaps too “forgetting” as well.
Every one of us has different reasons for going into teaching, but one thing we all have in common is we love one another. This love comes in the form of sharing our time, hearts, knowledge, and spend hours reflecting on our practices to improve, to reach, to make the path clear for our students. To guide, to instruct, and we learn from them, and the reciprocal love we share cannot be denied. Our professional relationships with parents and communities can be at times antagonistic, when we believe they are harming their own children (and quite often, they are) or undermining a course of action. But I remind myself every single day, every single day, that that child in front of me is somebody’s baby, someone conceived in love, brought into the world, and wrapped in hopes, worry, and care. I am never far from this promise. My students are on the edge of young adulthood and all the angst that this brings.
Teaching is so many things that “no one ever told me.” There are more facets to being a teacher than any course of teaching certification can possibly prepare us for. But it is clear that many of our routines and practices are directly related to saving lives: fire drills, earthquake drills, and now lock-down drills. We’ve recently had suicide prevention training at my own school in light of the loss of a student last year, which I am just now able to talk about, barely. I am sure if I went to my district and said I need counseling they would provide it. The presentation and training were a two-part statistics and ‘how to’ talk to a student one may suspect of being suicidal, and the signs to notice, and levels of potential risk.
What struck all of us in the face during these very tough conversations was our collective question, “Okay – we have a student in danger. Then what?” And the flummoxed, pained body language answered the question: there is very little help out there. I learned that students can seek counseling under the age of 18 without their parents’ consent, however, they must show proof of insurance. This is a deadly Catch-22. But help isn’t something, or someone else: it’s us, it’s the teachers, who are there witnessing the bullying, the friendships, the academic struggles, the writing, the art, the clubs and interests, that shape and mold our children’s worlds. We are the first responders.
The first day, a Tuesday morning, we had our presentation on suicide prevention, the regular security guard was out on a family emergency, and word got around the school, and on Facebook, and some of the key investigative students formed planned fights. That Tuesday, there were seven fights in our building. My conversations with my students was to share with them my insight into their worlds: they have been raised in a world of violence as entertainment, and not just ‘make believe’ violence. This violence is in the form of them staging fights to film and upload to YouTube. It’s happened among my own students. It may have happened where you live. An amazing student of mine told me later, “Mrs. Love, I know you said that kids are bored and do all this violent stuff to be entertained, but I think they also do it because if they look at someone else’s life that’s worse, it makes them feel better.”
How could I have forgotten the trellis of human misery?
I cannot stop all bad things from happening. I can’t. I can only prepare. If I work in a profession that requires lock-down drills in addition to fire and earthquake ones, then so be it. My students know I have always taken these extremely seriously. My children were toddlers when Columbine happened. This is what they have grown up with. They have never not known a time of school shootings, increased violence, marginalized lives, and guns, guns, and more guns everywhere. I would like to start working toward a time when this are seen as “quaint” as a 1950s “duck and cover drill.” A relic from the past, from a time when the US was violent.
This “interactive map” shows the horror and disproportionate violence that has become all too common for U.S. schools. I hate that word ‘disproportionate’ in terms of this conversation: one shooting is too many.
So if I am a coward because I am asking the question, “In what other ways can we better serve our students, our nation, and ourselves?” as opposed to continuing the arms race that has become our nation and our schools, then so be it.