Questions From Under A Table

Each spring, the juniors at BFA end the year by writing college essays, personal statements that answer one or both of two broad questions: “What has made you who you are?” and “What do you care most deeply about?” Every few years, I feel inspired to write an essay of my own to share with them, both as an example of the style (“This is how you write for strangers instead of your teacher!”) and to model the importance of continuing to reflect this way into adulthood. This was one of the two that I wrote this year.

Today seems like the day to share it.

I’ve always heard that looking at a situation from a new perspective can be enlightening, so I’m on floor, under a table in my journalism class, which I teach at an international school in Germany. Arms folded on a chair, I see only my students’ feet, scrunched up under computer desks repurposed as shelters. How normal this is, hiding under tables and listening to a school holding its breath while principals test the doors.

Some students ask me later if it was a drill, those who didn’t hear a few days ago that a practice lockdown was imminent. Sweet and naïve, they actually thought a genuine threat would go away after five minutes of silence. Most knew better, of course, students who’ve lived all over the world, weathering bombings and witnessing revolutions, who’d quickly recognize the sound of shelling or gunshots. They know that real lockdowns last a while.

Though I don’t share their experiences, I know it, too. I’ve been practicing lockdowns for ages, both as a student and a teacher, ever since a morning in April, nineteen years ago, when two boys in trench coats opened fire on the halls of Columbine High School. I was fourteen and several states away when it happened, but ever since then I’ve understood that the schools I love could become hell on earth with just a few shots.

I have always loved school, not just the learning—which years of home schooling proved could happen in a bedroom as well as anywhere—but discovery in community. I love it enough to keep showing up, now twelve years after my own graduation, day after day, to keep learning alongside that revolving crowd of laughter, questions, stress and brilliance known as high school students.

The attacks of September 11, 2001 probably did more to shape America as a nation, but it is the school shootings that have shaped me–as a student, teacher and now a parent. I’ve lost count of them now, but certain images still haunt the undersides of tables and desks. I see Sandy Hook Elementary, whose unthinkable attack virtually guarantees that my two-year-old daughter will practice lockdowns in just a few years. I see professors and teachers who literally gave their lives to protect their students, holding doors shut and pulling kids out of the way of bullets.

As I hide under the table and remember other teachers hiding under other tables, choosing between their own safety and the students they love, I know in my soul that this shouldn’t be normal. I shouldn’t have had dreams in which my schools were under attack, or spent the first four years of my career wondering which of my students could be armed, knowing that statistically, at least some of them were. School shouldn’t be like this, and no matter how sad I am, I can’t stop asking how we got here. 

I ask where the guns came from in the first place, and why there are so many of them. I ask who or what taught the shooters that this violence would provide any solution to their problems. I ask every question, because the answers are so important. I acknowledge normal, but never, ever accept it. Yes, we can pray to God to heal a broken kid, and a broken system, and a broken nation, but if God could use me to protect these students I love, possibly with my own life, God can also use me to ask questions that need asking, seeking answers that—like these young people, just feet at the moment—are too important to give up on.

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