On February 15, I walked into my school, saw my perfectly planned lessons, and thought about my first period seniors who would be walking into the room soon and the sophomores I would see later. With the horrific school shooting in Parkland weighing on my heart, I knew I could not just forge ahead with Hamlet and Antigone. As much as I care about those fictional characters, I care about my real, live students exponentially more. I began every class on Thursday with the same question, “Before we get started, is there anything we need to talk about?” They had so much to say.
I want their voices to be louder than politicians’, pundits’, lobbyists’, internet riff-raff’s voices. Kids don’t have a platform to express their feelings and ideas beyond the boundaries of their peers. Much maligned for exercising their free speech all over the internet, teenagers are sure no one is listening to them. It turns out they are mostly right. When my fifth period class unanimously said no one had spoken to them about the shooting all day, I was shocked; I was heavy-hearted by the time most of my eighth period told me the same thing. One very articulate fifteen year old stayed after class to thank me for “being real with us and talking to us like we matter.” They do matter and their voices should be amplified.
My students don’t understand why everyone talks about gun control, but does nothing. Though they are not convinced this is a solution, they do notice it’s the first thing politicians and other adults talk about when there is a mass shooting incident. Logic tells them if all of the adults really thought gun control was the problem, they would have done something to solve it. They wondered aloud why no one seems to want to stop school shootings. They also feel unprepared. No one talks about what to do beyond huddling in a dark corner if an active shooter is on campus. They do not trust plans that haven’t been shared with them. They have a lot of questions and no one to really ask. Well, they asked me – and I answered every one – but I only teach approximately 125 of the 2,500 students on campus. They had real, valid security concerns: Can’t a shooter just shoot out the glass next to the door? What if we take in kids from the hallway and one of them is the shooter? If we are huddled in the dark and the shooter moves on to the next room, aren’t we just hoping someone else gets killed? What if I’m at lunch? How will 25 of us fit in that corner and stay silent for hours? What do we do if the shooter comes into our room? Isn’t it better to just run? How will we know what is happening? These were not easy conversations.
One of my students shared with us that every time our principal makes an announcement in the middle of class her heart flutters because she is so nervous. Another admitted she almost brought a knife to school one day because she saw threats of a shooting on the internet. Like us, they are worried they are becoming desensitized to violence. They worry too about how to make that desensitization stop. They were terrified by and angry about all of the videos on line and didn’t understand why Snapchat would have a “school shootings” section to search for the videos. Many of them reported they don’t know a serious threat from a joke. Apparently, in the hallways of our schools, students regularly mention bringing a gun to “shoot up the school.” One boy pondered aloud how the parents must have felt to not know about the safety of their children. Then he cried when he thought about the parents whose children died at school.
Throughout the day, my students told me they realized there could come a time that I would have to decide whether to risk my life for them. They know teachers must walk into the hallway to lock their classroom doors in our school. They told me they knew what that meant. One student was courageous enough to ask me if I thought I would do it if the time comes. I answered that honestly. This is not a decision I or anyone can make when the time comes. We choose when we decide what kind of educator we will be; we choose when we realize the responsibility of caring for someone’s child. It was an easy choice for me, though it may not be so easy for others. I was raised by firefighters and their wives. We all understood that sometimes sacrifice was necessary and as a family, we knew our fathers, uncles, and grandfather would prioritize a life in danger above their own. It is the knowledge all families of first responders share. I think my own husband felt it for the first time when he told me to “please be careful at school today.”
As difficult as it is to imagine that educators must be prepared to make life and death decisions, we have it easier than our students who are, at times, fearful of dying in their home away home. School should be a safe zone, we all agree. Obviously, we are in need of serious conversations and planning; we need reform of some kind. Let us remember to include the most important voices in those conversations. They are not the loudest, but they have information we need. Any conversation without them is empty. Perhaps that is why we are in this state, perhaps our students are the missing pieces to bring the solution we so desperately need.