Outside is America

mockingbird-by-kathryn-erskineAs much as I would like to avoid the Facebook postings today, the news about the Connecticut school shootings was unavoidable, as was the subsequent philosophical split between those who don’t want to “politicize” the tragedy and those who view events like today as a time in which we have no choice but to turn to politics.

Politics is, after all, by definition, the act in which we come to decisions as to how we want to govern our country.  When 26 die, including 20 children, certainly, the government failed in its overall intent to provide for the general welfare of those most in need of that provision.   At some point we need to have that discussion in our governmental and social processes.  Sadly though, we spend more time trying not to offend each other’s sensibilities in what must now, in my opinion, become an essential national conversation.  The can gets kicked down the road again.

But that’s not what’s got me on my soapbox.  Of bigger concern today was how I was supposed to have any sort of measured discussion and explain this to my students, 5th graders. I am growing weary, after Columbine, Virginia Tech, Arizona, the Dark Knight Rises premiere in Aurora, followed by this week’s bookending by the Oregon shooter and today’s heartbreaking events in Connecticut.  I am growing weary because it’s getting difficult for me to be as unbiased about any explanation over either the subject of school shootings and/or the Second Amendment as my training tells me I have to be.

When I first encountered Kathryn Erskine‘s 2010 National Book Award Winner, Mockingbird, it was shortly after the shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in early 2011.  Teaching at my old school, we had been sharing out newspaper articles in the 6th grade language arts block.  When the shooting happened, the heartbreaking profile of young Christina Taylor Green in the New York Times captivated a number of my students, who took her story to heart.  I had already purchased Erskine’s book to use as a possible Read Aloud choice before this had happened, if only because of the Virginia Tech shootings which moved the author to write her book.  Given the manner in which my class responded to Green’s profile, I felt that Erskine’s book provided an ideal opportunity to have a thoughtful discussion of what the effect such a tragedy has on those who survive in a victim’s family.

In Mockingbird, young Caitlin is an 11-year-old with Asperger Syndrome.  She is forced to come to grips with the death of her beloved older brother after a shooting at a middle school.  She struggles with her condition, throughout the book, in order to provide not just closure for herself, but also for her father, as well as the young son of a teacher who was also killed along with her brother.

Last school year, after the Aurora, Colorado shootings, I found myself turning to that book again, in order to try to explain the aftermath of those events to my 6th graders.

This morning, the wife and I were part of a large gathering at Kate’s school.  Our personal handful of kindergartner was receiving an award for her ability to “think outside the box” in terms of her creativity.  Coincidentally, Kate’s school borders the community that was a scene of a mass shooting of its own late last year.  As the morning developed and Kate got her award, I then headed back to my own classroom to relieve my sub for the afternoon.  Hearing of the Connecticut shootings, I couldn’t help but do the cruel math as to what subtracting one of those classes of kindergartners from today’s event in such a brutal fashion might do the assembled parents and grandparents in the room.  The buzz of Kate’s accomplishment quickly wore off, as I realized I would have to be explaining yet another school shooting to a group of my students, just as I’ve been doing so often since I began my teaching career in 1997.

I didn’t say anything to my kids straight away though.  I powered through a Math lesson, got the class off to the lunch, and then I tried to update myself on the day’s events.  I shuffled through my collection of Read Aloud books I had planned for the immediate next few weeks.  I put Ralph Fletcher’s Fig Pudding, my traditional Read Aloud for this time of the year, back on the shelf.

When the kids came back in from lunch, I showed them Mockingbird, and began reading.


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