April 1999. Two disillusioned teenagers, both victims of vicious bullying, enter their Colorado high school brandishing weapons. Then they open fire. Fueled by rage and resentment, they did not discriminate as they shot into open crowds throughout the school. Video captured the alarmed students as the shooters entered the lunchroom and sprayed bullets into the fray. Scared teens, some crying and trembling, ducked under lunch tables. Screams echoed off the walls. When the rampage was finished, the boys committed suicide in the library, ending the long, terrible episode of violence.
That same month, I was a sophomore declaring my major at Berea College in Kentucky. At the time, I had contemplated teaching high school English. When news of the tragedy hit campus, I severed all of my hopes of teaching. It was a strange case of deja vu. Late in 1997, there had been a similar incident in Paducah, Kentucky. Armed with a shotgun and pistol, a male student assaulted a morning prayer group at Heath High School, killing three and injuring five. Something deep within me still wanted to serve in education, but the fear was too strong. I finished my English degree two years later, but remained adamant that I would NOT pursue Education.
But life has a way of curving your path toward your destiny, even if you stubbornly stomp in the opposite direction.
Now, nine years into my teaching career, I learned about the Connecticut tragedy while students file into my room for Creative Writing class. Surrounded by consciencious and talented individuals, I reported that another school shooting had occured, this time at an elementary school. The students were both saddened and outraged. “Who could do that to a bunch of little kids?” one asked. A wave of shock swept through the room. “That is so sad!” another remarked.
Unfortunately, this was not the first time I’ve had to report such ominous news. In 2007, I told a room full of seniors that two hours north of us, a single shooter had claimed 32 lives at Virginia Tech. One of my students had recently been accepted there, and was nervous about his own future. Eventually, the student went on to have a very successful career at Tech, despite his initial misgivings. While at this particular high school, we had two real lock-downs after students threatened violence against the school or administrators. It is a sober reminder how tragedies like Columbine have forever changed the landscape of public education.
Honestly, it’s hard to go to work the day following tragedies such as this. Some students are understandably absent, as parents fear a “copy cat” will strike in the local schools. Whether we acknowledge it or not, there is a dark cloud which tends to hang over our classrooms after these events. I remember, during the second lock-down, I had to squeeze 15 students into a book room, while trying to read Hamlet. As we plodded through an ironic play which questions the meanings and motivations of life (“To be or not to be”), I looked up to see 15 faces contorted in fear. Should students be forced to face their mortality this early in life? It is a hard thing to witness. We comfort, we carry on. But why?
Why do we continue to have faith in humanity? It is difficult to grasp the concept that 20 families will not celebrate Christmas with their children. Perhaps there were already presents under the tree for them. Their stockings hang expectant. But instead of celebrating the birth of Christ, these families will be mourning. Mothers, who cried themselves to sleep, wake up this morning with the reality that it was not a horrible nightmare and weep afresh. The brave adults who risked and lost their lives will miss all of the Christmas parties and get-togethers. Their spouses, children, and extended families will feel the emptiness. A quiet house, a vacant side of the bed, her dirty coffee cup in the sink, the houserobe hanging behind the bathroom door undisturbed. Those victims should be enjoying the warmth of the fire, but now they will be returned to the cold, hard soil. When we ponder such horrible things, how can we believe that the world can be better?
But you see, I believe we must be resilient and maintain our faith in humanity. Hope is essential. The reason I get up every morning and enter a classroom full of adolescents is because I genuinely believe that they can shape the future, that they can spread light through the darkness of ignorance, that they can make the world a better place. Knowledge really is power. The world can be better if we teach the next generation to love, share, and be compassionate. There is no excuse for the heinous acts that occur, but must we reply by losing hope? The young are depending on us to protect them, to instruct them, and to model for them how to cope in such a tragedy. Do not forfeit hope. We cannot insure ourselves against evil people, but we certainly can choose how we respond the day after. Do not allow such events to erode our positive perspective of humanity; the malevolent shooter is an exception to a race that is flawed, but ultimately aspires to do good.
I have experienced far too much goodness, even in the shadow of fear, to relinquish hope.
So tomorrow morning, I will get up and return to my classroom with optimism in my heart and prayers on my lips. Thirteen years ago, I was frightened into stagnation, but I cannot be controlled by fear. The Bible tells us that true love casts out fear. So today, I choose love. I remain motivated by that hope. For my fallen colleagues in Connecticut, I carry on because, I feel, that is what you would have us do. It is our duty to reach out to our kids and teach them what faith and hope and goodness are. We must look up and continue on. We cannot let anatagonists like this shooter compromise our vision for public education or of humanity as a whole. We have the power to change lives, so let us not become distracted or grow weary.
For more great insight on this tragedy, please read William O’Flaherty’s blog – http://lewisminute.wordpress.com/ William is a trained counsellor and shares his wisdom about how we react to such tragedies, including how we discuss them with our children.
My prayers continue for the families of victims of Sandy Hook Elementary School and for the community of Newtown, Connecticut. Please join me.