The Rude Pundit has spent this week on the issue of guns because a crazy son of a bitch took his crazy Mom's crazy guns and shot a bunch of kids a week ago. It just seemed important, you know? Not to concentrate on the mental health aspect, not the "culture," whatever that means, but the guns because it's the guns. This is being written while Wayne LaPierre of the NRA tries to make it about everything but the guns. It's pathetic.
Today, one-week after, he wants to bring it back to the classroom. Beyond the politics, beyond Newtown, teachers of small children had to go back to school and talk to their kids about what happened.
Here is a response to the Sandy Hook shooting sent to the Rude Pundit from a 2nd grade teacher in New York City. You'll forgive her the occasional surges of outrage:
It is a typical morning in my classroom. I stand outside the door, shaking hands with my students as they enter, asking after new baby siblings and cold symptoms, commenting occasionally to my friends that need that morning boost: "We're going to have a great day!" They unpack inside the room and they move purposefully. One student sits at a desk and writes a letter to another, explaining a small grievance. The girls are a little bit more talkative than usual this morning and I don't mind, but I keep my ears tuned like antennae for words I'll need to react to (shooting, Connecticut, killed-- "we'll talk about that in a bit, okay?"). They read our morning message, and it's all about math today and about deciding whether their answer is reasonable.
This is our every day. This room, this space, this group, this teacher- none of it is perfect, but it is ours and it is sacred. Do. Not. Disturb. Amazing learning-type-stuff happening ‘round these parts.
Furthermore, I think to myself, as they read and respond to my message-- we are not reasonable.
We are perfectly unreasonable, these kids and me-- as we, day in and day out, exchange a love of learning and love of one another and an understanding between us that I have come to believe can only be found in an elementary school, amongst these smaller-than-you people who are totally wired for learning, and do so with an incredible zest and vigor that it acts as a contagion on even my worst and most exhausted days.
Of course, I have no way of knowing if this was true for the teachers and students at Sandy Hook. Of course this isn't about my class. And sure, I'm "just" a teacher without a firearm to protect myself. Goddammit. What happened a week ago was personal. It paralyzed me at my very core. I am incredibly angry. I am tremendously sad. Yet I am also shamefully, terrifically relieved in this order: "It was not me. It was not my class. Not my kids. It was not anyone I know. It was an isolated incident. We would have been in our math groups, learning about two-digit addition. Where the fuck is the lockdown procedure handbook? We are three floors up, so would we have more warning? Our closet has no doors. I am in the middle of the hallway and directly across from the main office. How far would they fall if I had to toss all 25 of them out the window to safety? (There’s a second story roof deck, right?) How long would that take?" The other thought that kept me up? "I'd take a dozen bullets if it meant saving just one of my kids." I humbly beg your understanding: that is not heroic. That is the job. I am, amongst a hundred other things, a protector. I protect them from one another, I protect them from themselves at times, I protect them from the weather, hell, sometimes I even have to protect them from their own parents. Again: that is the job.
Taking a bullet, is, of course, not really the job. But safety sure as hell is. We talk about safety constantly in our school. It is a tagline in our daily life, hitched onto practically everything we (or the kids) do (or don't do). Hold the railing...so you're safe. Eyes forward...so you're safe. Hands to yourself...so your friend is safe. I moved the desks...so you could be safe. I thought when I first started teaching that the "safe" line would lose its juice-- would be somehow devoid of all potency with overuse-- but here's the heartbreaking truth of the matter, and what makes me full-out weep with sorrow every time I think about the shooting:
The “safe” line? It works every time. Well, almost.
Yes. Really. Because kids want to be safe. And they expect you to help them do that. They will tell you, if they did something stupid, that they didn't know any better. And they're generally telling the truth.
Safety is sacred. You know it, and they know it. It's a cause that everyone can agree on.
All this to say that we had to approach this topic with our kids, of course. For safety's sake. I was honestly surprised to learn on Monday morning that some teachers thought it was best not to bring up Newtown unless their students did. They asked about how parents would feel. Some folks were worried about getting asked "too many questions." My m.o. with my kids is always the same: proactivity. Get out in front of issues, before they bloom and spread into a hybrid mess of concerns you hadn't anticipated. I knew we had a chance--a narrow window through which we could help steer this conversation.
How do you turn the incredibly sad, the paralyzing, the absolutely unthinkable into a conversation to be had with seven year olds?
Well, first you start with honesty: "As, I'm sure most of you have heard, something absolutely terrible happened in Connecticut on Friday. Raise your hands if you know what I'm talking about...Yes, it’s true that children, teachers and the principal were killed."
"I'm sure you have a lot of questions. And I'll take them, but first I'm going to talk a little."
And then came Mr.Rogers. Thank heavens for Mr.Rogers.
I told the kids exactly what I needed to hear to deal with what had happened: We are safe in our school just as we have always been. We will practice drills to be sure that we are prepared in the case of an emergency, which would be a very unusual circumstance. (lots of nodding)
Then: horrible things will always happen in this world. Sometimes the world can exceed our expectations for being a kind of terrible place. Sometimes those things are designed by nature, like Hurricane Sandy, or the hundreds of other natural disasters that have happened and have killed people and destroyed many lives. Sometimes, horrible things are designed by other people, like wars and bombs and shootings just like this one.
Our job right now is to "look to the helpers," to think about the people in the community who are doing everything they can to support the families who have been effected by such a terribly tragedy. Kind of like how there were a lot of people helping out when people lost their homes and businesses during Hurricane Sandy.
But WHY did he do it, Ms.P?
I know that is the question you all have in your minds. Why would someone do this? How? Lots of people have ideas about why. Honestly, though, only he really knows. And he is gone. Which means we will never know.
For me, now, I could get involved in the gun control debate or the mental health conversation or any choice of the myriad topics available based on my personal connection to the tragedy-- but day by day they become more and more tangential and less a central part of the conversation I'm really interested in having. How do I help my kids understand that they can all be the helpers? Not just to clean up after the horrific messes made by others, but to elevate us all to be better.
As for my girls, they understood. They still feel safe...because they have no idea that I’m considering flinging them from a third story window in the event of an emergency.
Hope springs eternal in my classroom.