For the past two years, I have asked my students to go on a quest through literature in my classes. They think of a time in their lives that they felt discriminated against or like an outcast. Then, they explain the situation and end with a question. This question guides them through the literature we read in class, and each piece of literature gives them a possible answer to their question. I’ve done this before – in fact, it was the inspiration for starting this blog all those years ago. This year, though, I decided to write another quest along with my students. I’m using this as “cheap therapy,” as my students last year told me they did. I am going to use this space to talk about school tragedies, since little else has been on my mind lately, so read at your own risk. If you want to keep up with my entire quest, click here.
I was a freshman in high school when the tragedy at Columbine High School unfolded on a television screen in front of me. I had come home from school to find the channel turned to the news rather than the mid-day talk shows my family was fond of watching. I looked on, wide-eyed, as surveillance footage repeated itself on the screen. I will never forget the images of kids my age lead by SWAT team members, running scared from the school building with their hands on their heads.
When I was a senior in high school, I was sitting in my biology class early in the morning. It was right at the end of the period and our teacher had given us some time to relax before leaving. She ran back in from the next-door lab room to tell us a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. I thought nothing of it, not even sure which building that was on the New York City skyline. Later that day, our band director wheeled a television into the band room and we watched the towers fall on live television. I finally got ahold of my dad, who was supposed to fly out of Pennsylvania that day but, fortunately, didn’t.
Almost eight years to the day passed. I was in my first year of teaching, sitting in the lunch room with other teachers in absolute silence. We were watching the deadliest school shooting since Columbine play out on the screen in front of us at Virginia Tech. After the Northern Illinois University shooting in my second year of teaching, I found myself facing a classroom of sophomores as wide-eyed as I had been after Columbine. The only thing I could say to them was, “It’s not fair.”
After that, the dominoes started to fall. A shooting in a movie theatre in Colorado. Another in a Sikh temple in Wisconson. Then, twenty first-graders and six teachers killed in Connecticut. Again and again, I found myself in front of classes of wide-eyed students, trying to at least give them some hope, but mostly just justifying their anger.
These tragedies are unspeakable, and I find myself bracing for the next one even while hoping upon hope that there isn’t one. While the nation debates security measures and gun control laws, I find myself wanting to do something even more powerful. I find myself wanting to teach. I know a lot of teachers who see these tragedies – especially those that take place in schools – and want to leave their jobs. After all, gun violence is the number three most common cause of death in the workplace, and the number one cause for women. However, as soon as I stand in front of my students and we start talking about making the world a better place in spite of these horrible events, I know I am home. Why do tragedies such as these strenghten my will to teach while solitifying others’ desires to leave?