And it’s true we are immune
When fact is fiction and TV reality
And today the millions cry
— U2, “Sunday Bloody Sunday”
If the conversation was going to be had in a classroom across America this first morning back after last Friday, then this was my version of it.
These are savvy enough kids of mine that I was pretty sure that at least some of them had heard of the Newtown, CT shootings. But what I wasn’t sure was how much they knew. Or what I would say. I am not the most subtle of speakers, to be honest, and my mouth has gotten me into my particular corner of hell more often than I want to remember.
Over the weekend, one of my friends from back east, who tangentially knows a friend who knows parents of some of the Sandy Hook victims, had asked me what, if anything, I would tell Kate. In truth, I hadn’t said anything to Katelyn yet. She was unaware of what had gone down in Connecticut, nor did it seem appropriate to bring the issue up if we didn’t need to do so. Friday was the day she had gotten her first school award, and Mommy and Daddy were there to see her get it at her school. We know now that there were parents of other primary graders converging on their own school 3000 miles away for entirely different, and ultimately, tragic reasons.
So my struggle for internal eloquence with how to deal with whatever question my 5th graders would have, was small potatoes. I probably could get away with saying nothing about it, should I choose. My daughter’s school district had put out reassurances from both the superintendent and the school principal that the issue would not be addressed. I had been given no such directive in my own district. I had leeway. Why go there? Because I couldn’t not. If explaining the American Experiment to 10-year-olds was what motivated me to take up teaching, then explaining this incident certainly fell under that large umbrella.
Nevertheless, for one of the few times in my teaching career, I felt it necessary to preface the morning, with words that don’t come out of my mouth very often:
“I know I like to take a weird slant and attitude towards most things regarding life in general, or even our learning at times, but this isn’t one of those times. It can’t be. Does anyone have any questions or comments about what happened on Friday or what they heard from this past Friday or this weekend?”
There, I had stepped into it. Had I been at my old school, I would have been truly concerned, since having a school leader given to openly over-moralizing everything, tends to color what you can and can’t say to your students. But in this instance, even had I been back in my personal purgatory of a year ago, I would have done the same thing, I hope. Just be honest…answer the questions, if there are any, as best as you can…
The questions come: About the rifles, the pistols, the mother being a teacher (which I gently corrected).
We talk about Aspergers, and how this one incident is not about Aspergers, but other things.
We talk about the school safety plan. Here I take pause to make sure I have all eyes and ears before proceeding. I know my job is to reassure them, to make them understand that the random acts of violence that coalesced in a horrible morning 3 days earlier are as equally a random act, as a drive-by in South Central, or botched holdup in East Los Angeles. Americans died, and a gun was involved.
One student brings up the Chinese knife attack, also from last Friday, sharing that his uncle said that “they had enough kids to lose a few out there, anyway…” I point out that no one in that attack died. I also find myself immediately adding that attacking someone with a knife is different than attacking with a gun. Maybe I shouldn’t have said anything more, but several of the boys begin to ask about assault weapons and how they are different from handguns.
Fortunately, I had begun the school year describing each amendment of the Bill of Rights to my students. When another student asks me about how hard it would be to get a weapon, I point out that both my aide and myself, should we want, could go out and buy a gun if we had the money to buy one. I explain, in as unbiased a manner as I can, how there has been a gun control debate in the country for longer than these kids have been alive. I finally, in a weak moment, admit that it is frustrating to me, personally, that it was harder for my wife and I to go through the legal magic show to adopt our daughter than it would be if I wanted to purchase a gun.
Again, though, the kids’ questions start to peter out after about half an hour. I remind them again that my responsibility as their teacher puts me in the legal position to take their well-being into account. That we have a safety plan that we’re supposed to follow, and we will follow it in order to keep them safe, be it an earthquake, a fire, or even something wholly out of the ordinary, as Friday’s sad events obviously turned out to be.
Then one final question, from G.:
“Wasn’t it a bad, bad weekend?”
“Yeah,” I reply.
But then I realize he’s talking about players on his fantasy football team. “Beast mode” for G. means the Seahawks’ Marshawn Lynch. Sandy Hook discussion over.
A few minutes later, the principal walks by our classroom. Would he be addressing the kids in each class about last Friday? No, he is the advance team, complete with walkie-talkie.
A PTA parent is dressed up as Santa Claus, visiting each classroom and handing out candy canes with his “elves”. Sandy Hook has immediately moved into the background. “Normal” had returned, such as it was.