I spent the first part of the day traveling in a car and checking Twitter – where I heard about awesome things like marriage equality celebrated in New Jersey. I also heard about awful things like drive-by shootings at Coptic Christian weddings in Egypt. I spent the second part of the day driving – during which I listened to songs about it being alright to cry and lard stuck on doorknobs.
So when I arrived home with my kids from a long weekend away, I had no idea that we in these grand United States of America had experienced our 16th (that’s SIXTEENTH) school shooting this year. This Monday morning school shooting claimed the life of a teacher and the shooter, a student at the middle school. The student apparently got the handgun from his parents. Think for a second about what that means. Parents enabled – either willingly or through negligence – their child to have easy access to a firearm. Forgetting for a moment that most gun deaths in our nation are suicides, if a parent doesn’t care enough about his or her OWN child’s life to make sure a firearm is secure and locked away, how about thinking about the rest of us? How about the people who probably spend more waking time with your kid than you do?
Sitting at the laminated table, chipped and scribbled on, the hair on the back of my neck stood at attention. The 16-year-old across from me was clearly disturbed, and his outburst in class — shrieking vulgarities at both the teacher and his classmates — had been serious enough that the veteran teacher had called for assistance from the Deans Office. So I sat, holding my voice low and steady as I repeated agreeable phrases in response to his verbal attempts to ruffle my feathers through abusive language. It was only when he stopped in the middle of another creative use of adjectives, looked right at me, and asked, “How you know I’m not packing?” that I felt threatened.
Teachers love what they do. Most teachers love what they do. The Breakfast Club had it wrong. Summer vacation is not worth the energy suck that teaching can be. If you don’t love it, you don’t last. The good ones face pissed off students who think that sitting in a class looking attentive is worth a good grade. The better ones face belligerent parents who think that paying high property taxes equals an extra few points to make sure a college that the teacher’s children will never be able to afford will accept their kid. The great ones are generous with their understanding without allowing hardships to be excuses. The best ones will take a bullet for their students, literally and figuratively.
“How you know I’m not packing?” I didn’t know. My eyebrow arched. “Are you? Is there something you want to tell me?” We’d found machetes in the ceiling tiles, broken glass shards, sharpened butter knives, hammers, butterfly knives, corkscrews. But in my years as a Dean in this NYC public school, we’d not yet known of a student with a gun. Guns are expensive. Guns are serious. Guns, as one student told me, have a life of their own. A knife doesn’t misfire or go off down your pants. (Apparently, shooting off one’s penis is a fear held by many a teenaged boy.) Showing your dad’s knife to a friend doesn’t end up with a hole in your friend’s body.
So, knowing the day-to-day drama and kindness and frustration and exhaustion and exhilaration and care that the vast majority of teachers experience with their students, it was exceptionally upsetting to me that the indignation at Martha Stewart saying that many bloggers are not necessarily experts was all over the interwebs, but nary more than a peep about a teacher — who was not only a math expert, but also a Marine and member of the Nevada National Guard — being shot dead by a 12-year-old using his parents’ unsecured handgun.
This particular student wasn’t packing, but because of his threats, both verbal and physical, towards a male dean and the student’s girlfriend who HAD to stop in to see if he was okay, the sixteen year old ended up walking out of school in handcuffs that day.
Since the school in which I taught didn’t have metal detectors, there may have been some students who had guns on them. Or maybe not. The relative lack of privacy in school kept a lot of items out. But some could have been. And there were several times the possibility of being attacked or shot flashed across my mind over the 12 years I taught in a NYC high school. The irony, of course, is that almost all school shootings — sixteen so far just in 2013 — don’t occur in urban schools. We’re already calloused and immunized to the horrors of urban gun violence, and judging from the lack of response today, it looks like the scabbed wounds of school shootings are no longer painful.
That didn’t take long.
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