My mother compelled me to write this. Over the last week, the students from Stoneman Douglas High demanded that, for once, constructive action be taken about gun violence. As I heard the same, tired, useless arguments hurled back at them, I found myself weeping and crushed. It took me until today to realize why I feel so badly this time. My mom, the teacher. I am writing for her, because she can’t do it for herself.
AN IMMODEST PROPOSAL
In the wake of demands for action, the arguments against taking action ring hollow. And the proposals by the “pro-gun” advocates sound all too familiar. The equal and opposite reaction to the Stoneman Douglas students’ demands includes more support than ever for the idea of arming teachers. Guns in the classroom. “They’ll stop a gunman.” “They’ll serve as a deterrent.”
A lot of folks have pointed out reasonable and realistic concerns about any such proposal. I’m not getting into all of them here. I am just focusing on one issue with this so-called solution.
Now I’m not discussing proposals for armed, trained guards, such as resource officers, sheriff’s deputies, and the like. The issue is arming teachers.
Let’s be clear about what that means. Guns are not magic wands. You don’t simply carry one, and all your problems go away. No matter what anyone tries to argue in that vein, you should know by now that guns don’t solve every problem.
No, if teachers carry guns, they have to do so prepared and expecting to use the gun. Which means they have to be prepared to shoot someone. That also means they have to be prepared to kill someone. Shooting to wound is a nice fantasy but not a good operational reality.
Now if you can see the obvious problem with that situation, you probably don’t need to read the rest of this. But if you can’t, I will explain further. I’ll start with my mother as an example.
MY MOTHER, THE TEACHER
My mom died when I was nineteen. In a car accident. I was driving. And every day since, I have lived with the guilt that, if I had been a better driver, or a more experienced one, my mother would still be alive.
My mom was a school teacher. She worked for several different school districts over the years. But for as long as I could remember, she worked for the Detroit Public Schools.
She taught in a variety of areas, but she specialized in special education. She taught at high school and junior high levels. But, for almost as long as I knew her, she taught speech at elementary schools. She ended up also helping with reading difficulties. Because she was a special ed. teacher, she worked out of two different schools, sometimes three. She traveled from one to the other throughout the week, with most of her materials stored in her car, not the rooms she used. Not easy. But, to her, worth it.
She loved children. She loved teaching children. She loved helping them on their way in life. She loved giving them the building blocks for their future. She cherished all of her children. She tried to help every single one of them.
As required, she dutifully wrote out the individual lesson plans needed for each and every student. Twenty, thirty, forty different lesson plans. My mother had rheumatoid arthritis. Her hands cramped painfully doing that. But she persisted, because it meant she got to work with her students.
My mother even learned American Sign Language to teach Sunday school to a blind and deaf girl. She adored children.
She would take naked dolls out of the toy donation bins to clean them up, smooth and style their hair, and make handmade clothes for them. All so some child in need, whom she would never meet, would have a nice toy, not someone’s beat-up cast-off.
She poured over the various options for school decorations to find ones that showed children from ethnically diverse backgrounds. She colored in the faces some of the ones she had, so that her black students would find themselves represented on her classroom walls.
She loved children. She gave herself freely and completely to them. Teaching wasn’t just her avocation. It was her vocation. Her life’s calling. Her passion.
Would she have given up her life to protect her students? Without question. While working for Detroit Public Schools she had jewelry ripped off her person, and various cars broken into or stolen. She was disheartened by those incidents. But not deterred. Her students were worth it.
I remember her students. My school did not always have the same days off as hers. Both my parents worked. So, when I was old enough, on my off days, I was often at her schools. Sitting in her classrooms, doing my homework, while her students went through their lessons. They were wonderful children, although, already many of them were grappling with the reality of prejudice and gun violence. Getting a primer on the stresses they would face once they were older. But their school tended to be a safe place away from those stresses.
My mother gave them stickers when they did well. Scratch-n-sniff ones were very popular. Some of the students were difficult. She took her time and patiently taught all of them.
I remember former high school students of my mother’s, long since grown to adulthood, still stopping by our house to talk with her. Sometimes, all those years later, still asking for advice and mentorship. Which, of course, my mother willingly gave. This continued until the day she died.
My mother would always be a teacher.
MY MOTHER WAS NOT ALONE
My mother was not unique. Most teachers I know, or hear about feel the same way.
Considering that teachers usually have a master’s degree or higher, they are not usually well paid for the work they do. They struggle to get benefits. They can’t always supply their classes. Don’t get access the newest textbooks. Don’t always get reimbursed for attending continuing education conferences designed to give them tools to better teach their students using the latest knowledge. They fight bureaucracy and red tape when they would prefer to be spending that time with their children. They work enormous amounts of overtime. They are constantly told that the youth of our nation can’t fall behind those of other nations. Then they are told the funding they need to make sure that doesn’t happen has been cut.
They endure a lot. But they put up with it because teaching children is worth it for them. Teaching children means that much to them.
Let me stress again. To most teachers, every child, each one of them, is important. It’s not about meeting the needs of greatest number. It’s about meeting the needs of each student.
Teachers reach out to each one. They stay after school, and lose even more free time, to help those that struggle. They try to come up with inventive ways to keep occupied the minds of those that find the class too easy. Each child matters. A teacher hates being told to “leave a child behind.” They agonize over the ones they can’t reach.
I NEVER THOUGHT I’D BE GRATEFUL FOR THIS
Oh, Mom. For once in my life, I am very glad you aren’t here. I’m so grateful you can’t see this. You can’t hear what people are proposing for our schools. The attitudes they ask your fellow teachers to embody in order to teach their students.
Because, were you still teaching today, you would face calls to arm you. To make you carry a gun. To make you be ready, willing, and able to kill a student. And I know the thought of that would tear you apart. I know if you were ever called upon to do it, you would hesitate. And if you did do it, I know you would probably never be able to live with yourself afterwards.
I know that you would have died to protect your students. I know you’d be proud of and amazed by these students at Stoneman Douglas High School. But, at least you don’t have to witness people clamoring for you to shoot children.
BETRAYING ALL TEACHERS STAND FOR
Because, under this proposed solution, that’s what the teachers at Stoneman Douglas High School would have been expected to do. The shooter was 19. He was a former student who’d been expelled. They would have known him. They would have known he was one they had failed to reach. They would have been wishing, at that moment, that there was some way yet to reach him.
They would have been expected to kill one student for the greater good of the rest of the students. And one of those teachers might even have done it. But it would have betrayed everything they believe within the core of their being.
This kind of solution asks teachers to do the opposite of what they are called to do. What they feel passionately that they must do. Help every child. No child is more or less important than the others. Help all of them. For teachers, it’s not about “then needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one.” Each one of their students and former students matter. And asking this means asking a teacher to kill a student instead.
Don’t kid yourself. Some school shooters have not been students. But enough have that one has to assume it is a strong possibility that a teacher with a gun would be expected to take down one of their own students.
Most of us, even those who have military or law enforcement experience, don’t find the thought of killing another human being easy. Don’t fool yourself. If you are planning to stop a shooter, there is no “shoot to wound.” You have to be prepared to end someone else’s life. Someone’s child, sibling, spouse, or friend. Most people, even those with training, have trouble with taking a person’s life.
Now consider if that person’s focus is on building lives. On recognizing the value of each of those lives. Something already traumatic for most of us would be devastating for most teachers.
Let me put it you simply. If a teacher is forced to take a life because of this “solution,” more than one life may end that day. Because it will emotionally wreck the teacher doing the shooting.
MILITARY BACKGROUNDS DON’T MAKE THIS EASIER
Even if that teacher is former military. A lot of veterans of World War II turned to teaching when they got out of the service. It was a chance to turn away from violence. To build and nurture instead of destroy. And what could be more sacred than building a child’s life.
I think most of those battle-hardened men would be wrecked if they had been required to shoot a student. Could they do it? Possibly. But what thanks is it for brave service to this country, if we then turn and ask our veterans to be prepared to kill our children at home?
ARMING TEACHERS IS NOT A REALISTIC SOLUTION
What this so-called solution boils down to is an excuse to avoid actually addressing the issues in play.
Asking for armed teachers is not proactive or preventative. It’s reactive. It’s meant to respond after the situation has already begun. Not to prevent it from happening in the first place.
Some argue that it would be a deterrent, but that’s not been borne out by past experience. Most shooters, when asked, have indicated that, whether someplace was a gun free zone or had no guards, had zero influence on their decision making. They went to the place they wanted to target. Period. So, don’t think that the presence of armed personnel would stop this.
Further, there have been shootings in concealed and open carry venues. As for Stoneman Douglas, it had an armed resource officer. His presence was no doubt known to the shooter. It did not deter him at all.
The presence of guns, in this instance, does not deter. It does not serve to prevent shootings.
THE PROBLEM IS SOCIETAL
As I’ve pointed out before, we have a growing problem with gun violence in our society. This is not in response to over-regulation. In a lot of ways, regulation has been rolled back, and this violence has risen in its wake. No, this is a sign of deeper issues within our society.
You can blame it on mental health issues, although most shooters are not “mentally ill.” You can blame it on depictions of violence in our entertainments, although, that’s been there all along, and most folks don’t turn violent in response. You can blame it on a lot of things. If you’re more honest with yourself, you will admit that many factors are in play.
But don’t deny the common factor in all of these incidents. The guns.
And don’t deny that our society does indeed have a problem with gun violence.
But think about that for a moment. Our society has a problem. How do you fix it? We have to move to change as a society. The society as a whole has to fix it.
Does asking teachers to handle the problem instead do that? No. It’s one big dodge. Dump the burden on already burdened teachers, and leave the rest of us in comfortable denial.
We have a problem as a society. We fix it as a society. We don’t pass the buck. We don’t duck responsibility. We don’t go through contortionist’s maneuvers to sidestep addressing the issues themselves. We don’t try to avoid actually doing something about the guns and the other factors in play.
We’re America, right? We’re better than this, aren’t we?
A PLEA ON BEHALF OF MY MOTHER, THE TEACHER
I had to bury my mother when I was only 19. I don’t have the words to express how amazing she was. How wonderful it was to have her as part of my life. How fortunate I was to have her as my mother. There is so much of my life I wish I could have shared with her. I miss her to this very day.
But I don’t wish her to see this. To see what our country is doing. To hear what it is asking of her and all other teachers like her. It would break her heart. It would crush her. Even if she never had to carry a gun, or shoot one. It would still devastate her that we think this way. That we think this is how we make things better for our children.
So, I’m begging. For the sake of my mother. For the sake of all she held dear. For all her fellow teachers. For all their precious students. For all of our children. Please stop.
Stop asking this of teachers. Stop supporting this horrible idea. Stop trying to make teachers take the responsibility for society’s problems.
Please start looking at the real factors in play directly in the eye. Face them head on. This is society’s problem. It’s going to take all of us to fix it. We have a hard road ahead of us.
Start giving the stink eye those who offer simple solutions like, “arm all the teachers.” Especially those who will consider no other solutions. Start doubting the positions echoed by those who attack children for daring to demand solutions in the wake of surviving a physical attack. Start questioning those who purposefully try to cut off key parts of the conversation, like guns. Start distrusting those who declare that gun restrictions won’t even be considered.
Stop pushing off our responsibility on others. Let’s take up this burden and see it through. Let’s come up with realistic solutions. For my mom. For our children.