Tomorrow morning, I go back to school. Back to my classroom, to my students, to the profession that is my passion after a weeklong Mardi Gras holiday. However, I will also return to an unusually timed school assembly, to an emergency lockdown drill, to anxious and also angry students, to an unsettled faculty and to locked classroom doors. My own children who are ages 9 and 11 attend the same school where I teach 10th and 12th grade. They are merely across campus from me, which is always a comfort, but tomorrow will feel entirely too far away. Tomorrow, my heart will beat just a bit faster behind the mask of a calm exterior (“We Wear the Mask” Paul Laurence Dunbar). Tomorrow, my heart will break all over again for those lives lost and for the fact that this is the current reality of education—one that I refuse to accept as normal or futile.
And can I also just say that tomorrow, as I climb the steps to my classroom, the memes and the snark that are flying around on social media don’t make any of that any better. No matter how smart that meme you are sharing or tweet you are retweeting feels or how victorious your comment to that person you don’t know but felt the need to take down made you appear, it doesn’t change one damn thing about the days every teacher and student face as they go back to class. Not one damn thing.
Voices need to be heard—I’m in no way denying that. We as a nation, should be in discussion. As I scrolled through social media this weekend, I saw so many people tirelessly attempting to house meaningful conversation and to share fair minded articles of importance. I also know, however, that what I saw more frequently wasn’t a national conversation on an important issue, it was a downward spiral, in many cases, through the wars of “I’m right and you’re stupid.” Real change isn’t enacted in that way.
As a teacher, every decision I make in the classroom is made with my kids in mind—which poem to share, how to respond to a writer so that they learn to elevate their craft and still maintain confidence, when to reach out to a kid in need, what kind of professional development will best benefit my classroom and those who populate it, and so much more. Even with that, I can understand how those removed from schools might not see this issue as anything more than a political scenario to be argued in any petty way possible. So let me say it like this, I’m glad you had that moment of vitriolic facebook or twitter fame, but none of that extends comfort or safer circumstances to the students I will walk through the day with tomorrow and everyday for the foreseeable future. If anything, it makes them less hopeful that any kind of change is possible.
Issues of school safety are far bigger than political and personal opinions. The lives of our children are at stake. They get it—our kids see this so clearly. They get that they didn’t have a say so in who has been elected and in what policies have passed because they aren’t old enough to vote. They have had to rely on us—the responsible adult population—to make decisions that would keep them safe. They get that we have failed them and they are witness the arguments we are stoking in response instead of making any kind of real change.
So what are our kids doing? They are organizing marches and protests to make their voices heard—to be taken seriously—to be considered as important if not moreso to the voting citizens and leaders of this country than the preservation of longstanding political allegiances and opinions. And I would say that it is about time the rest of us wake up and pay some attention.
A former student of mine who graduated last May, Marshall Ponder, sent me an email today with a piece of writing attached that he had composed out of sheer frustration with the current state of affairs in this country. With his permission, I’m going to share a bit of what he wrote:
“…In terms of recent events, I’m at a loss for words. I’ve found myself struggling to formulate my ideas into words in the past, however, those matters were for describing beauty, wonder, and amazement; for the most part the light, not the dark. The one thing I do know is that children are dying, innocent children, our children, and we as a nation point fingers, send thoughts and prayers, yet continue to do jack shit about it.
Today much of my time has been spent reflecting and researching the school shootings our nation has endured. From Columbine, Sandy Hook, and Parkland I find nothing from my research besides deep sadness and skewed political opinions pointing fingers.
If you know me then you know I come from a background of gun wielding outdoorsmen. I was raised around guns my entire life, taught the importance of safety, the effects of what could go wrong and so on. My father and grandfather did an excellent job of educating me in this field that many in this nation are not accustomed to.
In this ongoing yet immobile debate of what ought to be done to protect ourselves from this internal terror, there are two major factors at play, access to guns capable of destruction and depraved mental health; both of which need to be dealt with in full force if we want to eradicate this terror. Even if stricter gun laws don’t solve the problem completely is it not worth a try? At this point any sort of progression towards peace is worth the effort. From a gun owner’s point of view, put restrictions on buying guns and ammo, because we as a nation have proven that we aren’t capable of handling a responsibility as large as that, time and time again.
…I wish I could write more about the mental health issue side of this debate but I’m exhausted. Thinking on this subject matter breaks me down in a way I’ve never experienced. To the people in Washington sending thoughts and prayers, get your head out of your ass and take a stance. If only the people who run our country could go visit each and every one of those families who were shattered, then maybe, just maybe, they’d be inspired to do everything in their power to prevent this from happening again.
The divided nature of this country has driven me to a point of insanity. Learn how to love your neighbor despite how different their views may be, hug your child, inspire love not hate, and reach out to those you see are in need. If we all came together and got close to the problem at foot, then maybe one day we can send our children to school without the panic they may be gunned down, maybe one day we’ll live in a world where different views are rejoiced rather than spat on, maybe one day we’ll see more laughs and smiles, and less crippled frowns, maybe one day…”
Marshall is 19 and he is broken down and exhausted and still he sees this issue so much more clearly than so many of the rest of us. His words also exemplify why I am so passionate about teaching high school students. He sees the brokenness of school safety honestly and is able to put aside what is comfortable for the reality at hand—to sacrifice long standing beliefs in order to stand up for what he sees is right—to see the world through the eyes of another and to push for change. I place my students regularly in situations that ask them to think in this way because as an English teacher, I’m not just teaching reading and writing, it is also my job to help mold empathic human beings who will leave high school ready to make the world a better place. Honestly, we are all capable of this vision and called to it. That is the hope that is left in this world-the hope that impels me forward to my day with my students tomorrow. The hope that we will “inspire love not hate, and reach out to those… in need.” The hope that we can rise above our selfish desire and create a world our children deserve.
I’ve shared this poem before, but it feels appropriate:
“The World Has Need Of You”
by Ellen Bass
seems to need us
—Rainer Maria Rilke
I can hardly imagine it
as I walk to the lighthouse, feeling the ancient
prayer of my arms swinging
in counterpoint to my feet.
Here I am, suspended
between the sidewalk and twilight,
the sky dimming so fast it seems alive.
What if you felt the invisible
tug between you and everything?
A boy on a bicycle rides by,
his white shirt open, flaring
behind him like wings.
It’s a hard time to be human. We know too much
and too little. Does the breeze need us?
The cliffs? The gulls?
If you’ve managed to do one good thing,
the ocean doesn’t care.
But when Newton’s apple fell toward the earth,
the earth, ever so slightly, fell
toward the apple.