How do we send children to school in America?
The bravery on my Facebook news feed, and the empathy I hope it leads to.
It’s late August, and that means that my friends from America are sharing photos of their newly decorated classrooms and memes about frazzled teachers lightheartedly navigating a world of break-ups, students on their mobile phones, and juggling school admin with their actual job of teaching kids what they need to know to pass a test at the end of the year. I’ve also got plenty of friends-turned-parents posting about the turmoil of seeing their child grow up so fast, accompanied by pictures of their children, smiling, carefully chosen outfits and new shoes displayed, backpacks on. Sometimes there’s a fierce call for more school funding for supplies and crowdfunding for classroom staples like pencils. But it’s generally all so cheerful. Singularly positive. And I think I know why.
Nobody wants to talk about the new dynamic of schools as war zones. Maybe my parent-friends are just crying at how big their baby has gotten. Or maybe those tears are also trepidation. Is today the day their child won’t come home? Maybe my teacher-friends are just nervously but eagerly awaiting pedestrian teenage drama and sharing memes to laugh it off. Or maybe those memes are wistful. As in, remember when this was all we had to contend with?
I suppose this is the part of this article where I need to don my gun credentials as armour for the incoming comments. I grew up in rural West Virginia. The opening of deer hunting season was an unofficial holiday. Teachers knew not to plan anything important because nobody would be in class. And like a lot of rural West Virginia, I grew up poor. My dad and I hunted for food. I learned how to skin and gut a deer, and we had a chest freezer that we restocked every autumn so we could survive the year. It was a way of life.
I also don’t think I need a primer on not letting fear change us, lest 'they' win. I grew up in the shadow of the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001. I also had most of my family try to talk me out of studying abroad because of the terrorist attacks in London in 2007. I still went and I never learned to think of Muslims or Islam itself as my enemies. I didn’t change in light of their actions.
But despite this, I struggle to understand how parents are sending their children to school as if nothing is wrong. I won’t touch on the obvious, material reasons why they have to, such as needing to work, or feeling unqualified. I refer only to the knee-jerk reaction I believe I’d have to never let my kid take the risk that public schools in America have become.
Americans as a nation have so wholly accepted the grim reality of school shootings as inevitable that kevlar backpacks are the new back-to-school trend. Occasionally we’ll see lip service paid to things like mental healthcare but we know nothing meaningful will come from it until there is a more fundamental change in America’s government.
The silver lining, if there can really be one, is the hope that this might instill a sense of empathy in us as a people. The sort of empathy that might bring about an end, or at least a decline, to America’s tendency to build its identity on eternal war.
Let me explain.
I believe that there is a correlation between the fact that it has been over 150 years since there was a war fought on American soil, and that Americans historically have so easily decided to bring war upon other nations around the world. Most other nations do not invade with impunity like we do. But most other nations also have people still alive who remember living through the Blitz, or the Red Army’s advances through their village, Arab Spring turmoil in their backyard, or Agent Orange decimating their environment. America’s military strength and geographic isolation have afforded it a level of protection that have also blinded it to the realities of living under threat of occupation.
On Oct 29, 2013, a young Pakistani boy called Zubair testified in front of Congress: “I no longer love blue skies. In fact, I now prefer grey skies. The drones do not fly when the skies are grey." Our incessant interference has consequences like this. The destruction of normalcy. Turning innocuous things into threatening omens. This is the same effect (I hope) school shootings are having on Americans. Not because I want this to be the new normal, but because maybe if we come to understand the stress and fear of living with the uncertainty of violence every day, we’ll be less likely to visit that terror on other nations.
Educators and parents have had to discover vast wells of courage to continue playing at normalcy in public schools. Perhaps in addition to the capacity for compassion, accessible mental healthcare, and sensible gun control, we can also discover empathy for the people we’ve terrorised. We’re capable of so much growth, so much potential.
I cannot fathom the bravery on my Facebook feed, of all these back-to-school moments. I hope more than anything that soon children can dread school for the reasons I used to: not completing homework, dating drama, and boredom. Not because it’s a game of Russian Roulette.