I hate lying to kids. I hate watching a naiveté they think they’ve long outgrown die in their tearless eyes. Most of all, I hate the idea that kids’ lives are worth less than an adult’s political expediency. Because I value kids’ lives, I refuse to lie to them about adults. Hence the end of innocence.
It started with the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, and with senior Emma Gonzalez’s feisty, compelling challenge to lawmakers: Do something real to keep guns out of the hands of dangerous people. For once, go beyond empty expressions of solidarity and sympathy and have the guts to resist the gun lobby. Create meaningful background checks.
My school – Odessa High School – decided to reach out to the students in Florida: the survivors and victims, and their families and friends. We circulated pretty pages of Hallmark paper for all the students and staff to sign in a show of solidarity and sympathy. I thought my students deserved something more, so before I sent around the card, I displayed Gonzalez’s passionate speech — and suggested that, by all appearances, many students coping with trauma and grief in Florida would prefer a more palpable kind of solidarity. They might want students elsewhere to discuss what happened, to give voice to real fears and real frustrations. They might want those who sympathize with their call to change gun laws to do some research, and then to take more direct action by forming groups, writing lawmakers or contacting student organizers in Florida.
This was — and still is — a discussion my students want very much to have. It’s more than a little creepy to have a chat about a school shooting in a school classroom. Kids ask what we would do if a shooter came on campus.
Kids ask why law enforcement officials want teachers to barricade their students in a classroom during an attack, then slide under a locked door a green or red card revealing explicit information about the status — the existence, really — of people behind the door. The green card means everyone’s OK; the red card means trouble. Is this information for law enforcement only, or will a shooter find it useful as well? The dissemination of such information is policy, though kids have reasonable questions about the rationality of such a policy. But the most haunting element of a conversation about shooters on campus is simply the fact that our words and bodies inhabit a space that we can all so easily visualize — we’re familiar well past the point of contempt with the lineaments of our halls and rooms — as actively under assault.
It’s terrifying to have to say, “Yes, I would lock that door. We would gather here, behind these desks. Would anyone do anything heroic — or stupid? There is no way to know unless the thing we’re discussing and dreading happens.”
But my kids had other questions. Most students do not follow politics at all closely. They are, though, mostly aware that in Texas the de rigueur position is to oppose any substantive infringement on the Second Amendment. They listened, though, to Emma Gonzalez throw the “B.S.” flag on the president and other leaders for not taking any concrete action — even though, horrifyingly, school shootings are becoming fairly de rigueur themselves.
Students wanted to know how someone who had been reported to law enforcement – many times – as an imminent threat to public safety could get his hands on an assault rifle. They wanted to learn about gun show loopholes and the exact criteria for background check denials in Florida and in Texas. They were curious about Australia’s programs to buy back firearms, and to standardize regulations on background checks and waiting periods. They wanted to know why we had not tried anything substantive, as week after week our toll of innocent lives snuffed out gathers itself like a tsunami – and Australia has no school shootings at all.
Here’s what students hear from lawmakers: Any change in gun ownership restrictions will create a slippery slope, down which we’ll fall into a dystopian nightmare in which right-thinking, God-fearing Americans lose the self-evident right to purchase all weapons – including automatic weapons that can kill hundreds of people in minutes.
I said nothing, but saw the truth in my students’ eyes: Politicians are bought, body and soul, by the NRA; our leaders accept the dystopia we already live in, in which a child’s life counts far less than a score from the NRA. Students’ eyes, now much older, open in terrible, stark awareness of how their lives are compared to — and counted as less than — an adults’ calculation of electability.
Newman is a teacher in Odessa.