Letters of Mass Construction

Teaching in Fear

I have cried a few times in my 21-year career as a teacher in front of my students. For those of you who don’t know me personally, this is not insignificant. I do not like to show my pain to the world. I sometimes have a hard time showing it to my closest friends. I can remember the first time I was reading the book Freak the Mighty to my class. My class had a very emotional reaction to a part of the book that caused me to tear up with them. I often tell this story to my students to remind them that words have power.

I cried with a student once as she finally admitted to me that the horror story her friends told me about her home life were true. It to this day the single worst case of abuse I have had the unfortunate displeasure to be made aware of. I cried when I called the authorities. I cried when I filled out the paperwork. I cried when I talked to my principal. It still shakes me up thinking about it.

I cried when Columbine happened. For days any student who wanted to talk with me about it would bring tears to my eyes. As a teacher it hit so close to home. All those young lives lost. All the horror that no person should ever have to go through. Students begging for their lives. It was too much. It is still too much.

And now there is another one. I am not surprised. How can you be surprised about something that happens so frequently. I have lost the capacity for surprise. I have not lost the capacity to absorb the horror of it. The horror never leaves me. Over the next few days and weeks all of the arguments will spring back into public. People will point fingers and make accusations. Others will demand their rights and talk of the inability to change anything. We have heard it all before ad nauseam.

I am writing today because I think that sometimes we lose sight of what this has become. How this infection has seeped into our culture and way of life. As a teacher my perspective of all these shootings is slightly different than many people. Sadly, this is because I sometimes now think of myself as being on the front line.

Let me give you an example. A few years ago my school had an officer involved shooting across the street. The officers killed a suspect who was holding several people hostage. At the time of the shooting our school was only informed that a shooting had occurred across the street. Nothing about the suspect being apprehended or if the incident was ongoing. We locked the school down. The incident happened before school and there were kids everywhere. At that time I was on my prep period so I stayed out and helped the administrators get all students into buildings.

It was at this moment that I had the single scariest moment of my career. I watched as someone hopped a fence across a field facing the apartments where the shooting happened. The person began walking towards our campus. I wish I could describe adequately the fear I felt at that exact moment. I swear to you I could taste it. I began to move rapidly towards the person shouting for them to stop moving, which thankfully they did. We had a conversation where he explained he was the food delivery driver and had left something at his last stop and had gone back to get it. I recognized him at this point and the uniform he was wearing. I explained what was going on and why he had almost given me a heart attack.

The whole thing was spooky but as a school we had done what we needed to do. We got all of our students to safety. We practice it for a reason. Every year we practice it I have a student ask me what am I going to do if there is a shooting and the shooter gets into our class. Every year I answer the same thing. I am probably going to get shot because my job is to keep you safe. My job is to get you back to your parents unharmed. I will do anything to make sure that happens.

Here is the sobering truth. The single biggest fear I have as a teacher is an intruder on campus. Anytime I see someone who doesn’t belong I worry. Anytime I see a car parked in a strange place. Anytime a backfire sounds like a gun. This is not an every so often fear. I worry about my students’ safety every day. I hate after school because there is absolutely no way to figure out who belongs and who doesn’t. This isn’t just my fear. My students worry about it all the time. They ask me how we can possibly keep them safe. It breaks my heart that the best answer I can give them is make it as hard as possible to reach you and hope the police get here in time.

Fixing this problem has no easy answers. Too many people are entrenched in their positions. It being difficult should not stop us from attempting it. I don’t accept my students telling me something is difficult and I certainly don’t accept my country saying it. When has something being difficult ever stopped us from going after it. I don’t really care where you come down on this in your politics. It is time to have an intelligent and thoughtful discussion. It is time to start making the difficult decisions as citizens of this country. It is unacceptable to me that my students and I live in a state of fear. It is unacceptable to me that my country seems to be stuck in quicksand leaving us unable to keep our children safe at school, at the movies, at the mall. It should be unacceptable to everyone, no matter how difficult the choices which will have to be made.

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One Response to “Teaching in Fear”

  1. Cookie Kotulla says:

    This is beautifully written. Seven years ago, we had walked into our Ben Franklin. I rushed to the back of the store (it had just opened) to check out the fabric section while Roger wandered the aisles getting supplies for a college course he planned to take. The ladies were all chatting away when Roger, pale as a ghost, came back making a motion for us to get down on the floor. A mentally challenged 23 year old man and his mom, a Life Flight nurse crouched with the clerks, Roger and myself. He whispered that there was a robbery taking place-he didn’t have time to let us know that there were two officers already on the scene and only one robber. The robber was a 40 something woman with her dad’s gun. She was addicted to pain meds and decided this Sunday morning would be easy pickin’s at the pharmacy in the store. Then there were loud words, Drop the Gun, put it down, put it down, put it down. The acrid smell of the gunshot haunt me to this day (Roger was in Vietnam, his reaction was not quite as devastating as mine. We stayed on the floor not knowing (besides Roger) who was shot and how many robbers were in the store. It wasn’t long after that a police woman came around the corner and asked if Sue, the nurse would come and check the body to see if she was breathing. I held her son’s hand tight and told him he needed to stay down and his mama would be okay. The policeman did kill the suspect who had been holding her gun to my friend’s head and asking for all the drugs that were prescriptions ready for pick up. Sue, checked her vitals and the woman was barely alive. She could not save her and when she died, Sue came back to us, her hands bloody, her eyes filled with tears but she remained strong for her son. We stayed in that building for 8 long hours. We were never afforded advocates who stood just outside the back door, ready to take us to a nearby hotel. The body stayed on the spot she died for over 7 hours as we all were interrogated. The story is longer but my point is that living that horror and then working as a volunteer at our local school, when there is a lock down, I cry, I shake, I pray-not always in that order. The security most of us knew as children no longer exists. Thanks for you beautiful piece. Know that I pray for all teachers and staff daily. My friend, Fr. Pat Hannon teaches at the University of Portland and when I saw the screen come up that a college in Oregon had a shooting, I almost fell to the floor. All the faith in the world, all the prayer in the world had left my being for a brief moment. God bless you Chris and sweet Sheri. I hope someday we will meet. Sheri will always be my niece, even though I remarried. Be safe and continue to be a caring soul.

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