Sunday, April 20, 2008

Guns and Grammar

Here's a real life mystery based on real-life violence. The growing trend of school shootings is raising a rather odd debate, one that would have seemed laughable twenty years ago: should teachers be allowed to carry guns?

This question has been pondered by various lawmakers over the last few years, and what's interesting to me is that the response is not an overwhelming "no." For example, one recent story on NPR highlighted this college English professor's willingness to carry arms in his classroom.

As a teacher myself, I must tell you that I think about school shootings almost every day. I wonder, in fleeting moments when I hear an odd sound or an unusual banging noise, what my best first move would be: should I run to lock the door? Should I beckon students to the back of the room? Push out a screen and have them start climbing slowly out a window? Would I be able to maintain the necessary silence, or would panicked screaming give us all away to some miscreant storming down the hall?

Most of all, I wonder: will I have the courage to stand up to him for the sake of my students? Never mind the fact that I would die in vain, since after killing me he could certainly start killing them, as previous assassins have shown.

But I think what bothers me and many other Americans is that we are tired of the "sitting duck" scenario. We are tired of the notion that young people can't be safe when they are trying to learn; that in the back of their minds, they must fear assailants with the physical vigilence of soldiers even as they try to metaphorically navigate their way through challenging texts.

So a part of me, a part in the realm of fantasy only, would like to imagine myself as not a sitting duck. That, if confronted by some tragic creature who sees violence against the innocent as the only way of leaving the world, I could say, "No--this will not happen today!" I could pull out a handgun from my drawer full of novels and tell the students to stay back, as though we were in a John Wayne movie and I was that flawed veteran of life that ol' Duke always used to play--and I could give us all at least a fighting chance.

But here's the reality: I'm not John Wayne. And students don't want to feel that frisson of horror that would certainly shiver down their spines if their teacher opened a drawer to find them a pencil and they saw the gleam of metal--that unmistakable image of violence and authority that has never had a place in the classroom, and for a reason.

Across the hall from me is an English teacher who has been at the school for more than thirty years. She is meticulous in every respect. Each morning she writes an inspirational quote on the board with perfect handwriting, then sits at her desk to study the day's crossword puzzle before her students begin to flow in. She is small and petite, eloquent and ladylike. She has traveled all over the world. She is seventy years old, but has walked the Chicago Marathon for many years. She is strong in spirit and in body. Her students love her. This is her identity. If she were to strap on a shoulder holster for the remainder of her career, it would be jarring for us all--but it would also suggest that we have given in. We teachers would be sending the message that we have acknowledged the violence of our society, the likelihood of gunfire, and the need to answer in kind.

I don't want to be a sitting duck, nor do I want our children to feel helpless in their desks. I realize that airplanes have resorted to Air Marshals, but how many of them are there? Are they really present? Has that solution been feasible?

If it becomes necessary to put an armed security guard at the entrance door to every school (while locking all other doors), then I guess that's the way it will have to be. But to ask teachers to carry those guns means they will have to bring that symbol of violence to their podium, and then students will have to decide if that increases their feelings of security or gives them a heightened sense of fear.


Clair Dickson said...

I'm a teacher too, and guns won't help nearly as much as making schools a better environment. Maybe I'm biased, but something interesing about the alternative high school where I teach is this: we have many, many students who were invovled in or expelled for fighting at their previous schools. In our school, we have had 2 (TWO!) fights in TEN years. Why?

I think it's because of the environment. I'm not a proponent of massive muti-megaplex high schools. Too big, too many problems, not enough people KNOW the students.

But I could be biased. I have a school with 200 kids and few problems with the kids.

A cattle prod, though. I'd like a cattle prod... ;-)

Julia Buckley said...

Great point, Clair. Yeah, I've sometimes considered a squirt gun--you know, just as a waker-upper. :)

zhadi said...

Maybe a taser?

Excellent and thought provoking post, btw. My cousin is a teacher and I'd be interested to get her take on the gun issue. It's just so sad to see security check-points at schools. I went during a much more innocent time...