What Is Left to Say?
What is there to say anymore when news of yet another mass murder of children inside a school arrives?
The grief of the families of those killed is unfathomable. The lack of action by government is both predictable and inexplicable. Former President Barack Obama speaks of a nation “paralyzed” by these events, and that sounds right. But it also makes you wonder what it is that could actually shake us into action, what we could do that would make the next massacre even a little less likely.
I had intended this week to write about the importance of “atmosphere” to learning, the need for students to feel safe and supported, to be well-fed, to breathe air and drink water that is not harmful to them, conditions that should be a bare minimum in our schools, but conditions which many schools nonetheless do not meet.
But what is the point of even addressing these issues when we cannot prevent nineteen students and two teachers from being murdered while locked inside their classroom as the police wait outside?
What is there to do but rage? What is there to do but despair? In face of that helplessness, I try to remind myself of why we educate our children in the first place — our desire to nurture curiosity, agency, and self-confidence in young people and to develop their abilities to collaborate, contribute, explore and be decent, thoughtful members of a community. It’s meager balm, but I remind myself of how this continues to happen in schools across the country every day, thanks to people who dedicate themselves to these values, people like Irma Garcia and Eva Mireles, who didn’t know the job would also mean giving their lives to try and protect their students.
There’s no lack of reasons for why school shootings must end, and none of them are political. I have to believe there is universal agreement that children should be safe. That teachers should be free to do their jobs without fear. That parents should be able to trust that morning drop-off is not the last time they will ever see their children alive. These gut-level arguments are reason enough that something has to change. But let’s add one more reason to the list: School should exist as a kind of sanctuary organized around the goal of helping students learn. If we’re being true to the principles that drive us to educate our children, then we have to attend to this one — but in our numbness, we seem to have lost sight of it.
Instead, we have somehow normalized the notion that students must be prepared for a murderer to enter their classroom, that they must do drills where they imagine their own deaths. We ask students to recast the space in which they are supposed to be free to learn as the setting in which they may have to outwit a killer. How do you sit at a desk and learn when you know that this is also the thing you may have to flip over to protect yourself from bullets fired from military-grade weaponry?
Are we willing to keep asking this of our children?
Education cannot insulate students from the difficulties society faces. But if schools are to do the next best thing, helping students acquire the knowledge and the sense of personal agency that will allow them to make sense of, and act, within the wider world, then we must all do our best to make sure those difficulties don’t follow students inside the classroom.
Had they lived, the children murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary during President Obama’s administration would be graduating from high school. The children murdered at Columbine High School would be old enough to see their own children graduating high school, and even college.
If they could see how we still struggle and suffer, what would they wish for us? They might ask, at the very least, that their deaths would be worth something. That the opportunity to learn and do better was not squandered.
Maybe reconnecting with our values can help us seize that opportunity.