How I Teach in a Climate of School Shootings

Is an empty classroom now the safest kind ? (Photo: Stacey Newman/ Shutterstock)

Every time a campus shooting has happened in the 13 years since I became a college counselor and professor in Washington D.C., I tell myself that it’s not something that only happens at colleges, and that these things can happen anywhere.

I have repeated this mantra so many times now that I’m starting not to believe it. It turns out it’s not that comforting to remind myself that I could really go to work at any job and die unexpectedly, and that the odds of this happening on my particular campus are still pretty low, as frail a grasp on statistics as I have.

After the Virginia Tech mass murder, I don’t know what I expected, but it certainly wasn’t nothing.

Humans cope in strange ways.

When the college campus shooting happened at Seattle Pacific University a few weeks ago, I saw a tweet from an educator who said that she’d be wearing a bulletproof vest to her campus when school starts again in the fall. At first I assumed she was kidding. Then I wasn’t so sure. The news was advertising protective blankets for students in case of an attack. A loud kneejerk answer to the Sandy Hook massacre was to arm teachers. School supplies may just be evolving with the times.

So I retweeted it, and half meant it myself.

I thought back over the timeline in my brain to August 2001, my debut as an educator. 9/11 happened a month later. Then, one year later, D.C. faced the Beltway snipers. The first of this series of random murders in my area was just 10 minutes from the campus where I worked.  Eventually, our own campus was put on lockdown because the unknown shooters were killing people in quick succession from their vehicle, and it was unclear where they’d end up next. So they thought it best that we all stay put.

Twelve years later, the region has settled down, but it’s not something I forget. It’s not something my body has forgotten, either — I can tell just by the reactions it elicits when I think about it. You can never go back to a time before you knew about, or experienced something traumatic. It doesn’t define, but it informs. I don’t know why we still don’t all walk from the gas pump to the car in zigzags anymore, really. That simple life task required Zumba moves to make you more likely to miss a bullet, and God forbid you had to go inside and pay.

After the Virginia Tech mass murder, I don’t know what I expected, but it certainly wasn’t nothing. I expected to feel more protected or to see a reduction in access to assault weapons to the average person in my country. I’ve often thought about my peers, the counselors who may have worked with Seung-Hui Cho, the student who ended up killing 32 people and himself, or those who have worked with any of the people who have killed students and faculty at so many schools around the country. I wonder what they said to Cho, what they didn’t say and how they now live with that.

I think about what I say to my students, and what I don’t say, and how I do not close my door during a session ever. I think about how I subconsciously scan duffel bags and jackets for something I probably couldn’t detect anyway. I think about some of the escalated conversations that occur when 18-year-olds don’t get what they want or expect. I think about what I’d report, and what I’d think of later that I’d wish I had said. Because now it all makes sense, that throwaway comment or offhand reference. I have passing thoughts sometimes, during and after an interaction, that a potential for a scary outcome might be result. But it never has in my experience, so I don’t dwell on it. I can’t. I keep moving.

I wish I didn’t have to think about my job that way. I wish I was as confident in being the outspoken, fairly demanding teacher and adviser I’ve always been, knowing that it’s next to impossible to predict if someone around me might pull the trigger. Often during these shootings, the people who are gunned down aren’t of particular significance to the perpetrator — they are symbols of perceived injustice. In the wrong place at the horribly wrong time. They could have been anyone.

I think back to Tech, and beyond that to Columbine, and more recently, to the much littler littles at Sandy Hook. I think about possible survivor guilt, the natural human impulse to feel relieved it wasn’t you, and if it wasn’t you, how much guilt we then may feel in response to that relief. Regardless, no one around could possibly ever be the same. No one wins.

No one should die just because they show up for school or work, and that where they work or go to school happens to be where a person with deep issues and some guns is headed. No one. No matter how many times it happens, no matter how serious comments about bulletproof vests become, it will never be just another day at the office. I feel like it’s framed that way on the news sometimes, and it scares me for us, quite frankly. It makes me wonder what motivates humans and governments and societies to act. How bad does it have to get?

I may never stop wondering what kind of teacher I’d be if I didn’t have all of this in the back of my mind — not in the forefront, mind you, because we are too busy. There is work to do, and we have to keep on doing it. But it’s there. And I’ll never stop wondering, in terms of the shooters: what could we have done for you? And would you have listened anyway? Would we?

I can advocate for change. I can speak up. I can hope for the best. But mostly what happens is that I just keep doing my job.

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