Walking into the school where I teach was a strange and unsettling experience last week. Though Newtown, Conn., is 2,063 miles away, it didn’t feel like it. The specter of the horror followed me in the door. … I thought of (slain teacher) Vicki Soto and wondered how prepared I would be if anything happened.
As I entered my room, I instantly took inventory. The naked windows stared at me, and I wondered if I would ever receive the blinds I had requested in August. I thought I had better get some paper to cover them in an emergency.
Next, I looked at the closet. Maybe I needed to clean it out. All my students clearly wouldn’t fit. Are closets the best strategy? Should I put my one filing cabinet in front of it? Should we crouch in that corner? Would I be able to keep my doors locked?
After finishing my inspection, I thought about what to say to the kids. I had read several articles, and I hoped I was prepared, but one never knows with kids. They can surprise you. And they did.
All day, my students asked if I would dive in front of a bullet if a gunman came in our room. I’d like to think I would protect my students at all costs, but who knows what a person will do when faced with abject terror. I said I hoped I’d do the “right thing.”
Then some wanted to know if we could jump out the windows and run if an intruder entered our room. I remembered years ago I had watched a show about school violence. The experts clearly outlined how school plans would result in more tragedy.
I tried to get my students on a more peaceful track, explaining it was unlikely something would occur but it was important they listened and were quiet when we had drills. I read from a Christian Science Monitor editorial: “The best antidote is to embrace the opposite of those thoughts and feelings. These include empathy, calmness, mercy, hope and openness, all of which have as much substance to deter killings over time as do metal detectors in the moment.”
And since one article suggested actions helped kids, I suggested that instead of writing a holiday letter like I planned they write to people in Newtown and reach out to those in pain and comfort them. That began a new debate about what they should write.
When a student visited our class, I got another surprise. When Newtown came up, he shouted out that a lot of white kids shot up people and he didn’t understand why everyone was so racist about “Mexicans.”
Here I was, a “white” teacher in a predominantly Latino school. What was I supposed to say? This was a human tragedy, not a “white,” “Latino” or “African American” tragedy.
Still, he was the exception. My students have good, loving hearts and some chose to write letters. Quietly, they looked up at me and their sad eyes were filled with the monumental pain of this horrible tragedy.
As much as I didn’t want to talk about Newtown, it was necessary. My students are not unacquainted with pain and loss, and to ignore this sorrow is to deny their humanity.
John Donne’s words still ring true: “No man is an island, Entire of itself,/Each is a piece of the continent,/A part of the main./…Each man’s death diminishes me,/For I am involved in mankind. …” That’s what I want for my students: to be “involved in mankind.” That lesson is not always easy or comfortable, but it’s necessary for their future and America’s future.