Today I wasn’t sure I could get out of bed because the task at hand seemed to large. I was not sure I had it in me to stand in front of a group of teenagers today. To tell them that they are safe here. To tell them that sometimes the world is ugly and messy but that I believe in all of the good things for them. To tell them that I think they can make the world a better place. To be prepared if someone were to try to harm them. I hardly ever call in sick, even when I really am. Today I was sick and tired of this world we live in. But I remembered that the students of mine are often reminders to me of the good in the world. I remembered I had important work to do.
I started my classes today by talking about what happened in Florida yesterday. I told my students that I do not have anything eloquent or profound to say, but that I felt like it was important to have this conversation regardless. I feel the same way about writing this piece. It will not be eloquent or profound but it will be raw, because that is what I feel right now.
I was in 2nd grade when Columbine happened. I remember coming home from school, walking up the driveway, and grabbing my usual after-school snack of goldfish crackers and a Diet Coke (Michelle Obama would NOT have approved). I remember my mom glued to the TV in our living room as coverage of the school shooting in Colorado was happening. Usually she would have turned this off or told me to go elsewhere. Instead, we watched together as students streamed out of the school, parents cried, and experts analyzed. As more and more news came out, including the motive of the shooters, I very vividly remember my mom telling me how important it was that I be kind. Always, always, always be kind. It wasn’t unusual for me to crawl into bed and watch the Today Show with my mom before getting on the bus. I couldn’t believe when halfway through interviews of parents and students sobbing she told me it was time to get on the bus and go to school, where I clearly would not be safe. She told me something that I’ve carried with me every since. “You can’t live your life in fear or you let them win.” When I got to school, my teacher addressed it. I remembered that today as I questioned how to talk to my students. If a 2nd grade teacher could lead that conversations with a bunch of 8 and 9 year olds, I could lead it with young adults. From that day on, we said the pledge as well as a statement about being kind to each other and preventing violence in our school.
I was nannying the summer a gunman shot up a movie theatre. I remember making breakfast with the 12-year-old in my care when she asked me why something so awful like that could happen and how do we stop it. Her question broke my heart all over again. I didn’t know how to explain gun laws and mental health to a 12-year-old. Heck, I don’t understand it all myself. I told her a lot of things are out of our control, but we can always choose to be kind, even when the world is ugly.
I was preparing to start student teaching when the news of Sandy Hook broke. I questioned if this was a job I could do. It wasn’t what I signed up for. I wasn’t equipped for it. I had written hundreds of lesson plans and a mathematical thesis, but no one taught me how to barricade my students into a classroom and shield them with my own body.
I’ve huddled in the corner of my classroom, both for drills and possible threats. During one instance last year, I was on prep and grabbed a student out of the hallway when the announcement that we were on lockdown came across the loudspeaker. As I sat silently in a corner with a student waiting to know if we were safe or not, all I could think of was that I had eaten a candy bar for dinner the night before. I can’t even feed myself a proper dinner and yet I am expected to know how to handle an active shooter.
I’ve participated in active shooter trainings, where I practiced disarming and restraining a gunman, barricading students in a classroom, and making life and death decisions. I’ve looked around my classroom and questioned what I could break a window with, what I could arm my students with, and where would be the safest place to hide them. I’ve questioned if I could get them out the door and to safety in time.
Today I pulled up to work and saw parents dropping of their kids. I thought of how tough that must be, entrusting us to do everything we can to keep the most important thing in their life safe. Today I looked at my class rosters. I thought long and hard about whether or not every one of those students felt like they belonged in my classroom. I asked myself if they felt loved for and cared for and welcomed into my classroom. I wondered if their needs were being met. I hoped that every one of them knew that I would do everything in my power to keep them safe. I stood at my door and tried to greet every student as they walked in, hoping they knew how very glad I was to see them today and every day.
Thoughts and prayers and blog posts are great. Sharing articles and tweets and having courageous conversations are important. I currently have a student in my class studying abroad from Germany. Today he asked me what is it with the US and guns. He has been here since the beginning of the school year. In his short time in the United States, he has seen more mass shootings than he ever has in his entire life in his home country. This is awful and sad and embarrassing. We need to do better. It’s not like this everywhere and it doesn’t have to be like this here.
We need common sense gun laws. There is no reason why a civilian needs access to an assault rifle. We need background checks. We need to keep guns secure. We need proper training and resources for gun owners. We need to recognize that all people need access to mental health care and social services. And maybe more than anything, we need to increase the resources provided to schools. We need to increase the access to mental health resources and social services in our schools. My school’s social worker and psychologist are two of the most incredible women I’ve ever met. I am repeatedly inspired by the work they do. I also know that their plates are overflowing. Yet they answer every email, address every student concern, and make time for every student who knocks on their doors. Every school needs them times ten. We need to recognize that in addition to trying to teach content standards, raise test scores, collect and analyze data, and all of the other “academic” tasks teachers are handling on a daily basis, teachers are also continually trying to build relationships with students and look out for both their physical and mental well-being. We need to lessen those burdens wherever we can, and that means more funding and resources. Will this prevent every tragedy? Probably not. Will it prevent some? Absolutely.
I will continue to love and care for our kids, as will teachers all across the country as they do day in and day out. But as long as our politicians care more about money than the lives and safety of our kids, that love will never never be bulletproof.
Here is a website to find out how to contact your elected officials: https://www.usa.gov/elected-officials