A funny thing happened on the day that schools all over the US were supposed to be attacked again, and the world was scheduled to end.
Never mind the fact that on Friday, Dec. 21, many districts nationwide closed and a lot of schools locally and elsewhere saw significantly high rates of absenteeism. Some parents refused to send their kids to school; other kids, being kids, milked it and began vacation a day early.
As a teacher, I’ve been through this before. In the beginning, it was the horror of Columbine. The following week, one could cut the tension in the schools with a knife. And on the first anniversary, I remember the hype being even worse. The stress levels were off the charts. More than a dozen years later, I’m also now a parent with school age children.
Following the latest horrific school tragedy, a well-meaning teacher in Florida coined the phrase “our 9/11 for schoolteachers”- google it if you like-as he looked ahead to returning to the classroom following the shooting. And true to the pattern established after Columbine, each passing day in the schools saw the tension levels ratcheted up. By Friday many schools even had an armed presence in the hallways. Outside my own classroom a kid accidentally dropped his books –a couple of my students flinched automatically and then shot glances at one another. But I don’t think anyone laughed.
When a student “joked” that he heard we were all going to die Friday, the marker got capped, that day’s lesson went out the window and a new one began. I turned one of their desks around, pulled out the chair, and sat down. We clarified the lockdown procedure; I explained my expectations; they listened. Then the questions came.
Thus we began the “national conversation”. And it was not about gun control.
It was about fear control.
I did not psychoanalyze or attempt to explain the inexplicable. I listened to the concerns, but gently steered the conversation back to the elephant in the school hallways- the unadulterated undercurrent of anxiety and fear pulsing through the building.
I told them that if a couple designated school safety officers with concealed carry permits might make people feel better, maybe a paradigm shift should be part of the discussion. But let’s consider first how we got here.
I told them that in preparing my own lessons, and thinking and writing about them at my blog, I constantly am exploring what it truly means to be an American. The actions of the perpetrator do not define us. After catastrophes, as a people Americans are consistent in exhibiting an outflowing of love, compassion, concern and “the demonstration of wish and good intentions”- a term once used by a friend, a Holocaust survivor, to describe the reaction of the American soldiers who found him in his pitiful state. This national inclination to want to help others who are suffering makes me proud, but there is another reaction that needs to be brought up.
Everyone wants to help. To me, though, there is something a bit discomforting about a nationally known TV doctor attempting to comfort a grieving child in Newtown. Whether or not the star sanctioned it, it was transformed into a photo op. I found it unsettling when another daytime television megastar softly pitched questions to a sobbing child about his dead brother. A promotional soundbite let me know that “coming up, the All New Dr. “X” show will be on the ground in Newtown.”
It was incessant, and we ate it all up. It made us sick, yet we came back for more. We posted links on Facebook. Our kids were bombarded with this, and it would just a matter of time before the “did you hear” rumors circulated. Every school chief information officer in this nation had the door pounded in that week, I will guarantee. Parents demand action and criticize policy. The “how safe are your schools” surveys begin. And it all trickles down.
It seems today that our fears are fueled exponentially by our desire for information and the media’s accommodation of our needs. Fear and death sells, and rules the day. For some reason we seem to be drawn to it.
So we steered the discussion back. As a teacher, I do not accept the notion of “our 9/11 for school teachers”, just as a parent I chose not to be subjected to the incessant media broadcasts of terror and anxiety in the days following the attack. We can’t control others, but we can control how we react. But if, as a nation, we decide we want to send our kids to reverse prisons every day, then we have made our choice.
The day after our conversation, on Friday, December 21st, one of the students who did venture back into school commented that she felt better, felt safer. Maybe it was the two officers patrolling the halls.
But I hope our classroom conversation had something to do with it as well.