Books are for learning, not for stopping bullets
For several weeks after Columbine, every time I passed by the library at the Maryland high school where I taught, I was overcome by a sense of panic and dread. The feeling eventually subsided. Security was tightened; after a while, it loosened. New protocols, namely, shelter-in-place drills, were instituted. But as the years passed, school shootings became frighteningly familiar, the most horrific occurring at Virginia Tech — my alma mater — and Sandy Hook Elementary School.
And then, Parkland. Suddenly, it seemed, the nation had had enough. Concerned parents began to worry that the schools were not doing enough to protect their children. If gun control legislation were not in the offing, then the schools would need to step up.
Under immense public pressure, my school system decided to implement active shooter training. Sold to school personnel as a path to empowerment, the program is designed to equip teachers with choices. Instead of the only option being to shelter in place, that is, locking the door, darkening the room, hunkering down and remaining absolutely silent until the threat is eliminated, teachers can decide to get their students out of the building. This decision, of course, is contingent upon accurate and timely information regarding the whereabouts of the shooter. Another option is to go on the offensive: If the shooter enters the classroom, students and teachers can shield themselves with chairs and books and use those or any available projectile as weapons. The training also involves roleplaying, teachers taking on the role of the shooter, for instance, brandishing a Nerf gun and shooting the inhabitants of the room. And all of this, I contend, is meant to prepare everyone for the inevitable — arming teachers.
What has happened to education in our nation?
My own favorite high school English teachers inspired me to embrace a philosophy of teaching that I carried with me to the end: to use my platform as an educator to present to my students the best literature the English language has to offer to help them become better writers, critical thinkers and ambassadors of empathy for the human condition. And now I was expected to instruct my students to use those very books as weapons and shields against a shooter armed with a highpowered, rapid-fire assault rifle?
“There are more [ironies] in heaven and earth, Horatio/Than are dreamt of in your philosophy” (Hamlet, 1.5.167-8). Wemustbe honest. We would not be heroes; we would be victims of gun violence.
Educators and students should be thinking about how best to navigate and balance their workloads and personal lives — not how to stand down a shooter. I fear that the joy of teaching and learning is being encroached upon and overshadowed by undue and unrealistic expectations. I can only imagine what my precious teachers would think about what society is expecting of educators and students today. I believe they would harbor the same feelings I do — beyond the pale; outrageous; ethically untenable; philosophically unsound; psychologically damaging; and, at the very least, physically impossible. In a word: unthinkable.
Because ethical fortitude and common sense did not prevail, did not demand that our lives are worth the logistics and expense of metal detectors and security guards, I retired two years earlier than I had planned. And even though my decision was the absolute right one for me, I am left with a sense of loss — the loss of the experience of teaching my last group of freshmen as seniors, studying the masters with them and teaching them to be better writers, critical thinkers and, yes, ambassadors of empathy for the human condition.