I went to ninth grade afraid.
Like many students who leave Christian schools, I entered the “real world” (in my case public high school) with a head full of warnings. I was somewhat apprehensive that in my first month of school I—a fourteen-year-old honors student, a decent violinist and a mediocre volleyball player—would be ridiculed for being a Christian, trapped at a party full of illegal happenings and forced to spend my hard-earned babysitting money on drugs.
None of this happened. No one seemed bothered that I was a Christian, though the fact that my dad was a pastor elicited a whole bunch of questions about the WB show Seventh Heaven, which I’d never seen. I didn’t get invited to any of the wildest parties, and it wouldn’t be until I got to my (Christian evangelical) college that substance use and abuse would be even in the periphery of my social circle.
What did happen, though, was that in April of my freshman year two armed high school students shot fourteen of their peers at Columbine High School in Colorado. It didn’t matter that it wasn’t my school, that it was several states away. It was a high school like mine, full of kids like me. It mattered to me, to all of us.
Turns out, I had been afraid of the wrong things.
It’s Teacher Appreciation week, which is a bigger deal here than in Germany where I taught for seven Mays before this one. (I felt pretty appreciated there most of the time, at least by my students, but we didn’t often mark it with much special fanfare.) It’s written on the little letterboard at the elementary school across the street from my house, and I hear the teachers and the kids talking about it when I walk by. Little treats and gifts in the staffroom, assemblies and cards and notes reminding teachers that they’re loved. This is great and important.
I think about the teachers in my life whom I’ve appreciated, and why. Though I’m the kind of person who does recall specific lessons, even now (a history teacher wearing a crown to be Queen Isabella comes to mind, as does the English teacher who described Walt Whitman as the N.A.P., “naked American poet”), I realize that this isn’t common. Like many others, I also remember the extra-instructional roles of teachers, the way that they were academic cheerleaders, career mentors, informal counselors and general adult witnesses to our young lives. The best ones cared about us deeply, a care that built up our confidence in our abilities and future. I’ll never stop appreciating teachers who do this well, going the extra mile to make students know that they’re loved and safe, nor stop trying to reflect it in my own teaching.
But it’s a strange contrast, the flowers and the cards and the letterboards, considering the new roles that teachers have taken on in the last twenty years. They are the front line observers, always on the lookout for the kids on the fringes, those whose marginalization or mental illness could lead them to turn frustration into violence. They are trained in crisis response, considering which closets would hold the most students, whether it would be better to throw a desk or go out in the hall to lock a door that only locks from the outside. They are first responders and grief counselors, placing hands over wounds and arms around shaking shoulders. Some have sacrificed their very lives in service to their students.
For teaching our children to spell and multiply, we bring roses and Starbucks cards. What can we do for all of these new responsibilities that teaching has accumulated?
I’ve written before that the school shootings of the past decades have done more to shape me than some larger, more national historical happenings. It’s personal; twenty years later, I can put myself anywhere in these scenes, as a student, teacher and now a parent. I never stop worrying that my own schools, or my daughters’ future schools, will be in the news someday, as my former university already has been.
When two Boeing airplanes crash in similar ways, we investigate and the company is held accountable. We can all name dozens of ways that air travel has changed since the attacks of September 11th, all changes designed to keep something like that from ever happening again. (Remember when you could bring a full water bottle onto a place, or for that matter meet Grandma’s flight at its arrival gate?)
I would love to say that everything changed after the shooting at Columbine, that I could mark the before and after with demonstrable difference in our practices and policies surrounding violence prevention in schools or in our nation in general.
Instead, some schools have installed metal detectors. We all practice lockdowns. And it’s easier, often, to acquire a gun than adopt a rescue puppy.
We have to do better, to do more. For our children, our teachers, our future. It’s easy to buy flowers for a teacher, but let’s spend this time also asking hard questions, questions to which the answers, though not simple, are getting more important with each passing year.