Dear Students and Former Students,
Do you remember the day after Columbine when you walked into my high school English class and refused to work? You sat staring at me, waiting for an explanation on how a massacre could happen to teens your age just twenty-five miles from our school.
You had friends at that school. Students who played on your baseball team. Kids you knew from elementary school. Your parent’s friends worked there. You didn’t know how to categorize the pain you were feeling. You had a date with that girl next weekend.
Now she was dead.
This was real. This was close to home. This was unimaginable.
I stood before you breathing shallowly, struggling with my emotions and lack of sleep. I waited for you to start the conversation.
A boy in the front row asked, “Why?”
I took a deep breath and looked at him, nodded my head slightly, then looked away. A big part of teaching is not always having the first answer.
The tall girl in the back said, “We’re supposed to be safe at school.” Her face was red and blotchy, maybe from crying all night, but she didn’t cry now.
I nodded after each question to let you know that you were heard, then motioned my hands in a “come here” gesture to let you know I wanted to hear more questions.
Nothing in my twelve years in the classroom had prepared me for this day. What should I say?
She raised her voice and demanded, “How could this happen?” then sat clenching her teeth.
A girl in the back sat shaking in her chair as if she were cold.
I’d worried all night about the right way to talk about this in our classroom. How could I explain a horror so large that it would change our culture? The fact that I was suffering through my own reality shift wouldn’t help. You needed a salve for your souls, not a group hug.
Normally I could send you to the office, but that wasn’t an option today. We got a directive that only those of you who might want to copycat the shootings or who might be suicidal were permitted to get help from the counseling or administrative offices today.
The rest was on me.
Although I had no training in how to explain the execution of students in a school setting, I had to trust that listening to you was the first step because when there is a problem, listening is always the first step.
Slowly you raised your hand to talk. You explained your feelings, admitted that you were awake most of the night and that you were in a state of shock: not hungry, not tired—just dazed.
I listened and reminded all of you to keep breathing.
After a while I mirrored the question back to you. “Why?”
You had many answers.
I listened, ever the moderator. The news pushed those same theories that the two boys killed their classmates for an underlying reason, insinuating that the victims deserved to be shot.
I said, “There is never, ever a reason to walk into a school and start shooting. Never. Ever.”
“What if they were bullied?” a boy asked.
I repeated. “There is never, ever a reason to walk into a school and start shooting. Never. Ever.”
“But, what if….” You asked every side of this question.
I said, “There was no reason. There never is, unless you consider meanness or wanting an inflated sense of power. Those boys weren’t smart for creating the perfect crime, they were dumb for punching a hole in their life boat.
By killing innocent people they would never celebrate the fun in life like graduating high school or experiencing their first kiss or traveling to the very place they always wanted to see. They would never marry or hold their baby for the first time.
They would never feel the sense of community from joining a march for what they believe in or from volunteering for the fire department. They would never again eat a hot fudge sundae on a hot summer day, go sledding or adopt a kitten. By making this one choice, they will miss out on a lifetime of fun.
There is never a reason to walk into a school and start shooting. Never.”
I waited a moment before continuing. "All people struggle to find meaning and make their lives count. Am I supposed to feel sorry for them because they felt left out and unloved? Hello? Welcome to the teen years. Hello?"
I said, "Those boys didn’t become famous. They became an embarrassment to their friends and families. They’re not clever for killing innocent people. Killing is easy. Cowards kill. Rather than fixing their lives, they ruined others.” I paused and looked into your eyes.
"Those shooters are cowards." I said.
A girl in the front of the class was nodding her head in agreement.
I let my ideas sink in, then ended with one final thought: “If you can make life better for others, you will be the most powerful."
We started a unit on leaders who created change using nonviolent principles; it was the only action I could think of as a next step.
You agreed that there was no power in killing.
You believed me.
And. Maybe some of you remember that after the school shooting in Bailey Colorado in 2006 at the elementary school where I was working, you fifth graders worried about safely walking across the playground to get to my mobile classroom behind the school. Bailey was less than 40 miles from our school; you were afraid.
At the time I told you that we were safe because nobody would expect to find students running across the playground in the morning. I told you that if there were an emergency in the school, we’d be sitting in our classroom eating popcorn and working hard. We could use my phone to call your parents so they would know you were safe.
You mostly believed me, but ran faster as you moved between your classroom and my classroom just in case I was wrong.
And I remember how insensitive you, my fourth grade students, were after the Virginia Tech shootings in 2007. You told me that you didn’t know anyone in Virginia, so why should you be upset? You thought the victims were probably at fault; why else would the shooter be so angry?
When we were preparing for the school-wide moment of silence, you told me that you didn’t care about being silent. I threatened failing grades and intense homework assignments if you talked during that one minute.
My irrationality confused you; I was usually cheerful.
The principal announced the one minute of silence over the loudspeaker. You quieted. My tears fell as if commanded to do so.
When did your skins grow impenetrable? Had you already become insensitive to violence? Was it my job to help you feel the pain of injustice or should I protect you from connecting to life’s wrongs?
When the minute was over I told you that there was never, ever a reason to go into a school and start shooting. Cowards kill.
You listened. I don’t think you believed me.
And do you students remember how right after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings in 2012, when you were in 7th grade at another new school for me, you told me that you were afraid something bad would happen in the classroom and that gunmen would come in and hurt us? Do you remember my answer?
I told you I wasn’t afraid. I told you that the school’s locked front door would keep any gunmen out, regardless of the fact that a gun can shoot it’s way through glass. And then I said that if they did come into the classroom, that I would very nicely ask if they would like to sit down. I would even let the biggest, baddest guy sit in my seat, the teacher’s seat.
If he had a gun or started shooting, I told you that I’d pick up a chair and hit him over the head again and again until the police arrived.
You laughed at my secret weapon (a chair!) and were comforted by my words.
You questioned me for months about locks and safety and whom you should trust.
I told you that there was never, ever a reason to go into a school and start shooting. I told you that cowards kill.
You didn’t believe me.
I’m in my 29th year of teaching and school shootings have become a norm. I have nightmares about trying to protect you during an emergency. Sometimes in these anxiety dreams I instruct you to close your eyes so you can’t see what is happening, other times I’m able to talk the gunman down with stories. I tell good stories in my nightmares.
And please don’t tell me to pack a gun. It would take years of training before I could successfully use a gun to protect a group of people. Likely a gunman would use my very gun to hurt us all.
My students, I promise you that if there is an emergency at our school, I will do everything I can to keep you safe as we sit behind a locked door, in that back room, in the dark and wait for safety to arrive.
Do you students remember the day after the Parkland shootings in Florida in 2018? We'd worried that your parents had burdened you with the stories of the murders or that you had watched the news or that you overheard family members talking.
You entered our pre-k/kindergarten classroom as you always do: with a ready hug, stories about your morning and wondering if we'd be going outside to play. We teachers were grateful that you were spared the trauma of learning about school violence.
How much longer can we protect you?