I was sitting in a staff Christmas party when the news of Sandy Hook broke in the form of a text. I immediately took to Twitter and then CNN, and slowly the laughter and raucous banter of a faculty newly released into winter break faded into a surreal backdrop. Hands shaking, I glanced down the hallway and allowed my imagination to travel down the corridor to the now-vacant classrooms. The faces of the students filled my mind. Earlier in that day they had been squirrely and squirmy, eager for the break. But I, just as eager, and full of holiday cheer, had taken it in stride. With the news of the school shooting looming in front of me, however, all I knew is that I wanted to be back in that classroom with them, and the thought of them scattered for two weeks of break filled me anxiety, not relief. I waited for a lull in the festivities, and then handed my phone to my boss, who happened to be sitting at the table next to me. He scrolled through the news, and then closed his eyes in a deep heaviness and pain as he handed me back my phone. As the party died down, he informed the staff and faculty, and we said a prayer.
As we dispersed into a now-somber afternoon, I returned to my classroom to take down the Christmas decorations. I dismembered the tree that we had taken a class period to decorate some weeks earlier. I had played Bing Crosby, and I supplied them with far too much sugar, to the chagrin of my colleagues. All December the tree had cast a warm glow about it, and the students loved to pull their desks around it in a semi-circle for class discussions and reading together.
The room began to look naked without the festive trimmings–but even more exposed and unsafe in light of the news from Connecticut. I stood at my usual vantage point for teaching and stared at the door to the classroom. Through tears I noticed the row of desks that stood between the door and me. On any day those desks were filled with tiny people for whom I would do anything to keep safe. Furiously I leapt into action. I dragged the gnarly podium, which I had taken to calling the “bully pulpit,” across the floor with a scrape, and turning every desk, slowly reoriented the entire room so that they were facing me, and I stood between them and the door. Trembling with a mixture of fear, rage, and helplessness I played the imaginary scenario in my head, of “harm” in some form bursting through the door. What realistically could be done? I spotted a vase on the shelf that I had used those first few weeks of school when I had my act together to keep fresh flowers on my desk. It was the object in the room the best size to hold, to throw, and even to smash in a moment of desperation. I took the vase and stashed it in the top of the podium, all the while hating the impotence of knowing that nothing I could do would ultimately be able to keep evil out of my classroom if the situation arose.
I was the same age as my students the first time the idea of an active shooter in a school setting entered my world. The day of the Columbine tragedy, I remember spending hours glued to the news, watching the students run out of the building with hands raised. I learned the victim’s names, studying them in newspapers and magazines. The horror of it all was tempered by the fact that we had no prior category for it. A scenario like this seemed like such an anomaly.
School shootings are no longer an anomaly, and I am no longer a student. As a teacher, this occurrence is intensified by the love and fierce protectiveness we feel for our students. With each report comes a chilling feeling of helplessness, and then a new round of thinking and planning ahead. Then there’s social media and the knowledge that our students aren’t limited to the filter of the evening news like I was during Columbine. They can pull up Twitter and hear the gunshots and the screams, watch swat teams burst into a classroom with guns drawn, and even see bloody bodies in the background. Sights that would only traumatize a select few before the internet, are now being disseminated on a mass scale to the un-shielded eyes of our students.
After the Florida shooting I took some time at the beginning of class to ask students how they were doing. One student said he was worried about society becoming desensitized to it. He said, “It feels like it just keeps happening, and no one does anything about it.” I think maybe I had expected to come in that day and try to offer words of comfort to a shocked and distressed classroom, but to find them calmly coming to terms with a world in which the adults in charge have been unable to protect them was reality far more disturbing.