In the wake of the most recent mass school shooting, the solution from the president and the NRA is a rehashing of an old idea—the “let’s arm the teachers” concept. It’s sort of like a cross between the old west and the nun with the deadly yardstick, I suppose. In the case of the president and the NRA, I am a bit cynical—I’m 100% convinced that they have latched onto this idea as a means to avoid actually doing anything about the gun problem in this country. That said, I can understand the logic of people who hear that idea and think it’s worth a try. For them, people who have never set foot in a classroom as anything other than a student, it makes sense. If a teacher has a gun, that teacher can end the attack more quickly by shooting the attacker. They don’t understand the flaw in this plan.
The flaw is the idea that shooters like the one in Florida, Columbine, Newtown, etc. are exceptions. We like to see these shooters after the fact, and say “oh look at all of those signs. We should have seen this coming.” The problem, however, is that the signs here weren’t all that rare. This was a teenager who had lost his father and then his mother, was expelled for fighting over bullying and/or issues with the opposite sex, and had an obsession with violence and weapons. To be clear, this teenager IS a monster—we know this because he killed 17 people. If we look at him BEFORE that act, however, he is not particularly rare or even uncommon. Schools, even the best schools, have MANY hard-luck cases: kids with difficult home lives, kids who have experienced tragedy, kids with emotional issues, and more. These are the kids who were in the classes most of us weren’t in back in high school. They were the kids who sat alone or with other kids like them. Most people, as students, don’t really see them. But they are there. They are kids like Jack.
I taught Jack during my very first year as a high school teacher. I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. As any good teacher will tell you, we desperately want to go back and apologize to that first group of students who we taught. Even still, Jack stands out. I still remember every detail about that moment—the moment of my first major “issue” as a teacher. The bell rang, students started filing out of the room, and this one little 9th grader dropped a folded up piece of paper on my desk without uttering a word to me. I hadn’t been collecting anything that day, but I picked up the piece of paper, unfolded it, and read this:
I had no idea how to handle this at first. This was a pretty good school. Jack was a poor student, but he seemed like a genuinely nice kid. What do you do when a student tells you that he intends to kill you? In this case, I brought the note to a mentor, who walked me down to the office with a serious look on his face and made me show it to the principal. I felt awful. I was worried this student would get expelled or arrested. He was suspended—for one day—and was back in class the next week. He apologized. His mother wrote me a nice note, expressing her horror that her child would ever write such a thing, and insisting that he was trying to joke around with me. He had fallen in with a group of bad influences, she said. Within a week, things went back to normal. He did not manage to pass my class that year, but he never tried to kill me, either.
That was the only year I taught Jack, but I kept tabs on the kid. I asked him how he was doing in 10th grade the following year, and offered advice on how to approach Shakespeare. I asked him how his mother was doing, in that “I know some of the horrid details of your home life but I can’t reveal to you that I know these things” way. I don’t want to get too into specifics, as the point here is not to reveal Jack’s true name or identity, but let’s just say that there was plenty in this 15 year old’s background that could have been considered a “sign that we missed.” I lost track of Jack in 11th and 12th grade. The next time I saw him was at his own graduation. He was supposed to be lining up, but he was frantically looking around for the tie that he “misplaced.” I am reasonably certain that he never remembered to bring a tie, but he could not walk without one. I loosened the tie from around my own neck and tossed it to him. He lit up with a smile, made eye contact, and gave me the most authentic “thank you” I think I’ve ever heard. He then rushed off to line up for graduation. Other than a quick hand-off when he returned the tie, I have not seen Jack since. I went off to graduate school, and I lost track of this young man who had seen too many things in his life and who had once threatened to end mine.
Why do I bring up Jack in this blog post? I don’t want to conflate him with the young man who did that horrible thing in Florida. Not at all. Nothing would make me happier than to hear that Jack is living a wonderful, happy, stable life right now. He deserves it. No, I bring up Jack because—until the young man in Florida decided to act on his threats—he could have been Jack. There are dozens of kids with horribly tragic circumstances in our schools. Only a handful turn out to be monsters. The rest? The rest are the special projects for teachers. They are the students we show up early for. They are the students who make the athletic teams even if they were on the bubble because we think they need the community the most. There is a phrase often associated with schools--in loco parentis—which literally means “in the place of the parent.” The phrase is usually used to indicate that teachers make decisions when the parents aren’t there. But what about the kids for whom the parents are absent altogether or might as well be? Teachers will always go that extra mile for a kid who has nobody else in their corner. It’s part of the nature of the profession.
It’s been a long time since I was in front of a high school classroom, but many of these kids stay with me: the kid who had no self-confidence and cried when she found out I called home for a positive reason; the kid who was on the path to being a massive bully before several teachers took him under their wings rather than giving up on him; the student who told me that his father beats him; the student whose parents sued the school system because he was gay and they wanted someone else to pay for his tuition at a school that could “make that go away.” These kids stay with me, even though I don’t really know what became of most of them. Every teacher has kids like this—kids with “warning signs” who we work a bit harder to help. What does this have to do with guns? Easy. No teacher—and it doesn’t matter how much training they have had or if they are former military—no teacher can aim a weapon at a student, even the toughest, most pain in the ass student that has ever graced their classroom, and pull a trigger. To point a gun at another person and pull the trigger, you have to be able to see that target as an enemy. To teachers, that isn’t “the enemy”—it’s our kid. Even in the best case scenario, there would be hesitation. Any teacher who claims to be able to do exactly that is either lying to themselves or should never be in front of a classroom or in possession of a gun.
The only thing we can expect from adding guns to school buildings is a significant increase in accidental shootings. So what SHOULD we do? I am not particularly comfortable around guns. Especially guns designed for the mass slaughter of people. I don’t think that stricter background checks will catch ENOUGH people. Some folks will always slip through. If it were up to me, I would want all semi-automatic assault rifles banned. I understand that a lot of folks feel differently. How about this as a compromise. Let’s flip the script. Instead of running checks to look for (and all too often miss) reasons why people shouldn’t have a semi-automatic assault weapon, why don’t we have a multi-step process of affirmative checks—if someone wants to buy a semi-automatic assault weapon, they need to explain why they want/need one, demonstrating that they have trained, have a clean record, have a plan for safe storage, etc. It’s not as far as I would prefer when it comes to gun control while still leaving the option there for people who are able and willing to demonstrate that they have the need, training, and stability for such a weapon.
As a solution, it isn’t perfect. But it’s a far sight better than putting a gun in my hand and asking me to end the life of one of my students. No teacher can do that. Even if a student did threaten to end my life, I could never fire a weapon at that student. I’d much rather lend him my tie.
Welcome to the "Blue Collar Scholar" blog at TheRenaivalist.com (i.e. Scott O'Neil's personal and professional blog).