Last week, the NRA responded to the unspeakable, horrific tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut with the proposal to have an armed guard in every school in America. Several NRA supporters went further: the phrase “arm the teachers!” frequented Facebook and my Twitter feed for days.
Guns have no place in schools. They have no place around children. They have no place in a learning environment wherein the most fundamental tenets are tolerance, respect, community, and peaceful conflict resolution.
My English curriculum–as are most–is designed to ultimately reveal to a student her or his place in the world, to show her or him that conflict, tragedy, and love, in all its forms, are universal, and that violence is most often predicated on ignorance. We still teach To Kill A Mockingbird to young teenagers because they see that hatred is learned (and can be unlearned). We still teach Romeo and Juliet so that we can dialogue about how violence and tragedy can be avoided, how teenagers are still misunderstood, and how parents might sometimes miss the opportunity to be sensitive to their kids’ needs. Last year, for the first time, I taught The Secret Life of Bees, a contemporary novel in which the young, white protagonist has accidentally shot her own mother, escapes from her abusive father, and finds solace and a home with a family of black women in the Jim Crow South. This book prompted discussions around how love can counteract vulnerability.
We teach the sciences so that students understand the miracles and wonders of the natural world; we teach history so that we’re not doomed to repeat our mistakes; we teach languages not just so that we can order food in foreign countries, but in order to digest that other cultures are as diverse and rich as those we know; we teach math… (I’m not sure why we teach math. I’m horrible at math).
Most schools in America have organized, student-led initiatives and clubs that aim to promote tolerance and cooperation among students. My school has a task force in which teachers train older students how to identify bullying, and who, in turn, create anti-bullying programs for younger students. Ultimately, the goal of the program is to promote self-awareness, confidence, community, and resources for all kids, including the most apprehensive and introverted.
But as anyone knows who’s survived high school, even the most Utopian spots are no match for the angst and turmoil a teenager can feel on any given day. No matter how rich the aim of his learning may be, it will be no match for the sight of a gun in the hands of an armed guard posted at the entrance of his school.
When our school goes on “lockdown”–a procedure our district practices often, wherein teachers literally lock our students in our classrooms in order to protect them in the event of a threat such as what we’ll come to call Newtown, what we once called Columbine–we automatically consider the reality of what we are doing. Last June, when our school went into lockdown mode, we learned that there was, indeed, a threat in a neighboring school. I quickly scanned the hallways adjacent to my classroom for any stray kids, locked my door, lowered and shut my blinds, and asked the students closest to the windows to move toward the middle of the room. It was oppressively hot, I was seven months pregnant, and we were dutifully silent. We were “in lockdown” well past the end of the school day. My class of 13 (11 of them boys), normally a rowdy, energetic bunch with much to say about everything, was silenced in terror. The event turned out, that day, to be perfectly handled, and no one was hurt. But every single teacher I know that day could only think the worst.
The very image–the very idea of a gun in our presence carries the tenor of threat, of fear, and for children, of a simple solution to the anxiety, depression, anger, and ennui that is so common among them. The sight of an armed guard, then, refutes everything a school stands for, everything we, as educators, try to accomplish in a day, in a career, in the life of a student who needs to know that every decision her or his teachers make comes from a place of caring, love, and compassion. There are already too many mixed messages our students have to sort through.