Hello. I have not abandoned you, the benevolent 6 or 7 who have read my ramblings on this blog-with-training-wheels. Well, I haven’t abandoned you any more than I have abandoned my free time, personal space, vegetable-based diet (I can’t seem to find time to cook…), and laundry. Since I last wrote back in September, my work weeks have rarely seen the short side of 65 hours and my land of dreams, what should be a respite from teaching, only bring me back to the classroom with less control, more bizarre circumstances, and even less concrete outcomes. My existence has been filled with math manipulatives, caked with snotty tissues and dried spilled milk, and, indeed, bristling with a lot of love for two-and-a-half dozen people.
The life of a teacher, particularly a novice one swimming a frantic side-stroke in her first year, is brimming with responsibilities that extend beyond the 24-hour structure of time we humans have strapped onto our days. I am accountable to these 29 small people who need to learn about so very many things in their minds, hearts, and bodies. They also need to eat and pee and navigate a world in 2012 that even I can barely grasp. So, certainly, I can’t exit the room for a second to leave them to their own devices. Heaven forbid I hydrate and need to use the bathroom more than twice a day. I have never experienced such an all-consuming level of responsibility that brings more daily headaches than rewards, but goodness those few rewards are sweet.
After all this time, why am I drawn to write today? I am actually quite sick and stayed home; the snot that fills my facial cavities has forced me against my deepest desires and sense of commitment to sit at home in my pajamas. While it feels great to be alone, to be in silence, to be free to pee when I please, of course I find myself on my computer to write guided reading lesson plans, plan future math quizzes, and email my co-teacher to see how the monste…angels are doing in class. But I have paused from the routine to revisit this writing venue because as I blow my nose and lament what may be a sinus infection, I feel a sickness that is neither viral nor bacterial, at least in a physical sense. It is a sickness and, above all, a deep sadness that in the past few days has birthed so many questions.
Less than a week ago, 26 students, really young, small people, and adults were violently murdered in Newtown, CT at Sandy Hook Elementary School. A mere 90 minutes from the elementary school at which I currently work, this event in a beautiful New England town is now another heinous scar on the character of our society.
When I learned of the incident last Friday, December 14, 2012, I had just said ‘Goodbye’ to my own students as their parents took them away for the weekend. I returned to my classroom and sat down to check my email and phone messages, both of which were flooded with questions begging if I was ok. My fellow second grade teachers began to pour into my classroom to ask if I had heard the news. As we watched live news coverage and friends navigated their Smartphones for information, we watched the violent story unravel into a heap of devastating reality. Another boy. Another gun. Another massacre.
I can’t suffocate the tears that creep to the surface every time I allow my mind to consider this question. I can’t stifle the anger and sadness and utter confusion. This world of grief and violence feels so foreign to the world and life I am trying to create and yet I am just as much a part of both. How can this suffering be?
And now this first week of the aftermath, adorned with finger-pointing for the purpose of identifying an explanation, has nearly come to a close. The media has poked at several theories – guns, mental health, violent video games – to explain why a boy may have committed this act. I do not believe it is one single reason, but rather a “Perfect Storm” of experiences and truths woven into a single time bomb that, once again, seems to threaten that we make real changes now or else. Each time something this horrendous comes to pass, it is another scar and another reminder that we are not doing enough to support a healthy human experience for all people. There is a collection of dirty things we must unearth, honestly face, and discard to reveal a better existence and guns, mental health, and violent video games are certainly in the pile.
I am tired of zealots saying guns aren’t the problem. They are a problem, if not the problem. We are not living in the 1700s, in defense against loyalists, and so the words of the Constitution and Bill of Rights pertaining to our right to bear arms are no longer relevant to the realities of this society. So, no, it is not only guns, but guns are a problem. I am saying this as an extreme social liberal, but a registered Independent who has several shades of Libertarianism in her political thinking. I support individual liberty, but not at the expense of the safety and liberties of others. Not when it is downright dangerous. Individuals and groups who are so chained to extremist thinking about our right to bear arms must shed their need to associate with an ideology and begin to engage with what is truly happening in our world. If we continue to have abstract discussions about what rights we ought to have, rather than taking action about human rights that are currently being stolen, we are all doomed.
We are similarly doomed if we remain unaccountable towards individuals with mental illness. Our society is fast, cut-throat, and I believe inherently a bit, if not quite, violent. We convince ourselves we are too busy to slow down and consider others who cannot or do not want to move at the same pace or in the same way as the socially-acceptable majority. I do not know the life experience of the boy who slaughtered all those people, but everything points to his loneliness and potential mental illness. It’s not an excuse but an all-important siren that sounds our inability to allow all people to feel welcome and receive the help and support they need. We are diverse in desires, preferences, skin, eye, and hair color, body shape, and mental capacity. How can it be that we may produce some of the most complex vaccinations and cures but we cannot provide – and do not promote – mental services for our citizens? How is it that we seem to work harder for big salaries than big hearts, and value fluency in math over fluency in kindness in schools? As a teacher, it pains me to think I am missing something in a student who feels sad or ostracized. I barely have time to ensure each child in my reading group understands our text – how the hell can I adequately check-in with each student to ensure he/she is feeling safe and loved? It is all of our jobs, then, to quite simply – rather, quite complexly – pay attention and be compassionate. I wonder if this boy would have made different choices if someone in his life had highlighted his capabilities and shown him he deserved to be loved.
Finally, for now, I must mention video games as several news sources have suggested their role in the shooting. I go mad when I consider video games, I really do. My students, particularly males, live for video games. They work hard in school to earn behavior points so they can go home to play their games, which are violent and cruel and bloody and vapid of anything healthy for a growing human being. I am quickly nauseated by the thought of our Christmas economy being powered by these electronic boxes that give you points when you shoot other people. My personal bias: burn them all, and maybe replace a few with games that educate. If not, spend some of that Tech Valley money and brains on creating character education programming to at least neutralize the games’ nefarious effect on us all.
I am not writing about this to claim a conclusion or another level of understanding. I still cannot comprehend how or why a person could do this to other living beings, particularly in an elementary school that is filled with innocence and the anticipation of many years of life to come. I also do not believe that knowledge about the above factors can explain the occurrence or even fully prevent future instances from happening. I do, however, feel firmly that our thinking must change, as must the way in which we interact with our neighbors and our world. I have always been called an idealist, but I no longer believe this hope is ideal; for us to survive, literally to survive, we must change and this hope must become a reality. I want a world where people love themselves and can translate that self-respect into compassion for others… Ha! As I type, I am chuckling at my hopes in the face of the truths we face in this present moment. It is difficult not to be cynical, but I still have hope. It’s in the face of my students when they get excited about math, or psyched about Christmas break, or fart on the carpet. It’s my dog and my boyfriend and my housemates and my family. It’s my mom’s hospice patients who are navigating their last breaths and the grandmother who contacted me to say she is studying psychology at a community college so she can better understand her granddaughter’s ADHD. It’s you and me doing our best even when things seem grim. I am heartbroken for this tragedy, yet another, but I am still hopeful. What other option is there?