Bullets in the Classroom
In April of 1999, I was in eighth grade. I don’t remember a whole lot about that particular year, probably out of self-preservation, but I do remember learning about the Columbine shooting and what the aftermath felt like. I remember, for the first time in my life, experiencing what it was like to be on the periphery of a national tragedy. I lived in northern New Hampshire, where I attended a small, rural public school, just about as far to the east as you can get from Colorado, but there were enough similarities between our communities that it felt close to home. I remember the photos in Newsweek of students clinging to each other and crying. I remember the faces of the male teenage shooters, their descriptions as “loners.” I remember a lot of people talking about how crimes like that don’t happen in places like this. It was an anomaly. It was an aberration. And then it happened again. And again. And again. The shooters continued to be male. They continued to be labeled as loners. They continued to be white.
There was a lot I didn’t know in eighth grade. I grew up in a family of readers, so my vocabulary was quite good, but the word “terrorism” wasn’t on my radar. I’d spent a lot of time in New York City, my father’s home, and in England, my mother’s. The places I visited were safe because my family was there and after the shock of 9/11 we continued our same travel routine. I was born into safety. I didn’t know that. I understood certain things about my privilege, but I didn’t know safety was one of them. I didn’t know that I would study literature in college. I didn’t know that I would fly to Washington to watch our nation’s first black president be inaugurated. I didn’t know that I would become a teacher or that I would move to Maine and then to Spain and then to Maine, again. I didn’t know that I would read about people dying because of guns so many times my heart would not be shocked each time.
Sixteen years after Columbine, I am standing in front of a room full of sixteen year olds on the coast of Maine. It is my ninth year as a high school English teacher; it is their second year of high school. Most of the students in the class were born in 1999. They are used to mass shootings. They grew up with the word “terrorism” in a way that I did not. They know how to separate the two because they’ve been taught through culture, politics and the media that terrorists are foreign and mass shootings are “stuff [that] happens.” They practice lock down drills. And so do I.
We are talking about the shooting in Oregon. I fight away tears as I admit, to my students and to myself, that I was not trained for this, that even though this is the world I grew up in, I did not sign up for the possibility of such violence and terror when I decided to become a teacher. I did not sign up for the possibility that my students might not make it through college, not because of a failed class or a lack of financial aid, but because of gun violence. How can this be our reality in the United States of America? When did public schools and community colleges become war zones?
I became a teacher to follow a family friend’s personal motto: “Heed the generous impulse.” Teaching is my impulse, the way I know to be generous in this world. I love literature because I believe it allows us to be better, opening doors to unfamiliar words and allowing for difficult conversations about subjects like race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, gender and sexual orientation. So each school day, I talk about books with my students. We work on writing, reading and critical thinking and on the days I get it right, we learn and improve together. We become better.
I’m not a heart surgeon or a firefighter or a soldier or a fisherman; this should not be a dangerous career. Every night, I expect to go home, breathing. I acknowledge my privilege in this belief system. I know that as a white woman, my level of fears and anxieties will never match those of people of color in this country. I’m not afraid of the police for myself. I am not afraid of being shot on the street. I have a level of protection I have to remind myself to recognize inherent in the color of my skin. Yet these mass shootings are not happening in Harlem, where my grandmother lives. They are happening here, in rural or suburban communities, like the one in which I work. But we have ingrained in us that violence lives only in places like inner cities and is perpetuated predominantly by black men, even though white males perpetrate almost every school or mass shooting. We do not talk about race or hate crimes or supremacist leanings or terror when we talk about mass shootings. We do not talk about the fact that The Onion keeps recycling the headline, “‘No Way to Prevent This’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens.” We do not talk about the gun lobby controlling our politicians.
Why don’t we talk about shootings the way we talk about bombings? How is a shooting not an act of terror? Of course anyone who would kill others like this is ill, but what of the hatred behind these acts? And what of all the people who die every day from guns? Why do I have to get fingerprinted for a background check to be a teacher and someone can stroll into Wal-Mart and walk out with a gun? Why, when walking to Longfellow Books in Portland, Maine, last week did I see a man with a gun in his pocket walk by a police officer with a gun in his holster? Is that supposed to make me feel safe? Does it make them feel safe? How do I talk about analyzing poetry with my students when I want to hold them in my arms, remind them how much more brilliant and smart they are than I was at their age and ask them to fix this?
When the terror at Sandy Hook Elementary took place, I was living in Barcelona and teaching at an international high school where my students struggled to understand why there were so many guns in the United States; I had to tell them gun deaths were commonplace. Just before class on Friday, I was thinking about how to address the latest shooting with my students here. I refreshed the news feed on my phone; I had to scroll down to find the story. The bell rang and my students filed in. I said, “I need to talk to you about something” and they looked at me with fear in their eyes. One student said, “Are you leaving?” and another asked, “Are we in trouble?” “No, no,” I said, “I need to talk to you about the shooting in Oregon.” They visibly relaxed.
We talk honestly and openly. There are hunters and pacifists in the room, there are students who grew up on Fox and those who grew up on NPR, students who never watch the news. At first they disagree, but slowly, as they talk, I see polarization begin to disappear. The student who started the discussion saying President Obama’s analogy between our efforts with terrorism and gun violence was “stupid” ended the discussion by saying, “If I have to spend time and hours getting certified to save someone’s life with CPR, you should have to get a background check to buy a weapon that could end someone’s life.” They listen to each other.
And yet, throughout our 85-minute period where we should be talking about Huckleberry Finn, several of my students — my beautiful, awkward, hope-filled, talented, normally ebullient students — say, “It’s never going to change, is it?”
How can this be true? How can any of this be true?