I didn’t have room for it yesterday, but this morning I woke up sad. None of the usual Friday feeling, but rather images of panicked students and law enforcement running through my brain. Even though I’ve long since stopped following the details of these occurrences, the refrain in my head plays all the way to work. Oregon. More death. It’s happened again.
As a teacher, each incidence of school violence is not only national, but personal. “It could have been me. It could have been my students.” After a while, you either accept it as an occupational hazard and push the black blob of fear down, or you don’t/can’t/won’t, and figure out what to do from there.
However, what is not so matter-of-fact for me this morning is a question I’ve been holding for years now. A question I haven’t asked for fear of exposing my ignorance on politics and other grown-up things. A question I haven’t asked for fear of smart people contradicting the truth that I know.
The question I have is this: why schools?
Why aren’t the majority of these shootings at malls, movie theaters, churches, parks, or any other spaces with lots of innocent people? There has to be at least one or two places that are easier to get guns and other homemade weaponry into than schools. Maybe the familiarity or habit of school makes it the safe and easy choice, especially for those who are mentally unbalanced? But that doesn’t ring true either. I have many students who spend almost as much time at Starbucks or the park as they do at school. Maybe it’s media coverage? But would a school shooting really get more coverage than any other type of shooting? I watched horrified as the coverage of the church shooting in Charleston continued to wash through the media in waves. Maybe I just don’t understand the mind of someone desperate enough to walk into a place, any place, and start shooting.
I’ve been round and round with this question in my mind to no avail, so the lack of public discussion about it still floors me. I think we’re right as a nation to be talking about gun control and the treatment of mental illness when these thefts of life occur, and I don’t want to downplay those in the slightest. However, I think we are wrong not to ask about the setting of these grisly stories. For me, the setting says only one thing: people go to schools to hurt because they are hurt at schools.
Their voices are denied or ignored, by teachers and fellow students, when they do not fit the dominant paradigm. Narcotics, both legal and illegal, can not heal the experience of being invisible, unheard. The pressure builds and drastic steps are taken, drastic steps that could have been avoided. Yes, this hurt may be in them already when they come to school, but when they come to a place that is rumored to hold hope, ideas, and answers, and find only conform, conform, conform, they are let down in a way that burns.
This grieves me more deeply than I can find adequate words for because I have also seen children’s lives saved or discovered at school. Teachers lay down hundreds of thousands of hours each year in love, sweat, and tears to meet the needs of those given to them. So how do you even begin to do that math? One life saved is a total victory. One life lost is a total defeat. Where does it leave us? Well, where we are now I suppose–not talking about it, swimming in stasis, inertia, intention with little integrated action. Forced as educators to ignore the obvious pain of some in order to keep the ship moving. Forced as parents to choose public education because anything else is ridiculously out of the price range of most.
I don’t have answers, but I do have the ability to invite students to dissent within the classroom, to laugh at and point out the obvious ironies of the system we are in, to smile into the eyes of each child who walks through the door, and to start our day with, “Okay my beloveds, let’s get to our warm up.” Until more people will entertain the question of ‘why schools?’, it will have to be enough. Teachers, parents, students…let’s stop sitting on the question. ‘Why’ has the power to sprout and take root in unexpected ways.