I was 24, and it was a cold December day in Jacksonville, North Carolina; 1997. I was just barely into my second year of teaching and not anywhere near confident or commanding. It was a defining day in my life, one of those days where you get a solid message of pause that rocks you to the core and you are never, ever the same.
My classroom, at Jacksonville High School was a remote one, the school's population was over-crowded so my classroom was in a trailer near the other buildings like a few others. It was small, and cozy and I made the best of it. I actually loved the autonomy, and did the very best that I could to make it a place where my students wanted to be.
It took me some time to find my way here; I was barely 115 pounds, and I've never looked my age. I was given the harsh treatment from my inner city, fast-talking, street smart students who didn't give me any breaks and tested my internal fortitude every single day. My saving grace was that I could relate to them at a level that eventually earned me credibility with them, but this currency is fickle and some days were much better than others.
This morning was a somber one; the day before five students had been shot in a high school in Paducah, Kentucky. It's surreal walking into your classroom after hearing about a tragedy like this. I think mostly because of my starry-eyed nativity it hit me harder, but I know it rocked us all.
In one of my morning classes, I decided to use the current event to open a discussion regarding classroom safety with my Senior class. I was married to a Marine at the time and I remember asking him when I learned of the shooting what the best thing to do in this situation is, and he said the very best thing to do was to drop to the floor and lay as flat as you could and to be very still.
I opened up the discussion with my desire to talk with them about school safety and my thoughts on how personally responsible I felt to keep them safe. I said, and I remember it so clearly, "If a gunman were to open that door right now and start shooting, what would you do?"
There was one boy in this class that never wanted to be there, he was a tough kid that I knew had bigger trouble outside of the classroom. Before I could call on anyone or have an orderly conversation, he pointed to the boy next to him who wasn't the most popular in class and said, "I'd grab him and use him as a human shield."
The rest of the conversation is a blur in my memory, and I trust that i navigated it with all of the grace and grit that I had at the time, but the comment and the exact moment in time in my life will always be seared in my memory. It's a moment that I've replayed in my mind various times and I replayed it again yesterday.
From that moment on, I spent my entire teaching career on a personal mission to "leave no child behind," until the exact law and other politics made it hard for me to stay. In every classroom in America there is a potential crisis and tragedy waiting to happen - this was true during my tenure and I can only imagine how much more true it is today.
The Paducah, Kentucky shooting happened twenty years ago. In my short teaching career of eight years Westside Middle School, James Parker Middle School, Thurston High School, Columbine High School, Deming Middle School, Buell Elementary School, Lake Worth Community Middle School, Santana High School, Red Lion Area Junior High School, and Roncori High School shootings happened - and countless others.
Every single child killing other children is determined to be a profile of a child in need of love, of attention, of special services, etc. Almost never do you read that the suspect's actions are a surprise to anyone who knew him/her or taught him/her. In yesterday's Parkland shooting article I read one classmate's account of the shooter and she said he often spoke of "shooting and killing people."
Sometimes the student has been suspended, or bullied, or suspected of being angry or having mental illness. This was the case, again, in Parkland.
The aftermath, as I'm watching it unfold again from the outside this time, is always the same too...we blame gun control laws, we wear ribbons and send love and prayers, we talk about it and "support" it for a few days or maybe even a week on all of our social channels and then the news fades away until the next time.
It's time now more than ever for each of us to participate in a real solution. A solution that each of us has intimate say and control over, not a solution held captive by money and politics and power, a solution right here for each of us to embrace and be responsible for.
It starts first at home, with each of the children we have an incredible amount of responsibility for. It starts in our towns and in our communities where we see each other and interact with each other. It starts in our classrooms where we know these children intimately. Instead of blaming guns, let's take responsibility for what we CAN change.
Parents, teachers, schools, community centers and programs, friends, enemies even, it's time to take things more seriously than ever. Bullying is real. Anger is real. Isolation and depression are real. Threats and acting out are real. Mental illness is real.
Parents are more stressed, and more away from home now than ever before. Children are becoming more and more desensitized by the day; I did a huge research project on this and the adverse effects of video games back when I was teaching...I can only imagine what the statistics are now. We are moving fast, turning a blind eye, telling each other to "get over it," even bullying each other as adults. We are medicated, numbed and numbing...
I don't think there is a magic solution, and the yogi in me wants to throw love at it but I know better than that. Every school, every child, every parent, every town, every person should do their part. Every person.