Why Don't I Matter to You, Congress?: A Plea from a Teacher

Sunday, October 4, 2015



A few years ago I was in a meeting before school when one of our clerks came in and told us that the police just called. We needed to immediately go into lockdown because a man who had been shooting randomly in the apartments across the street had been seen running onto our campus.

I had been worried about this kind of day. Columbine happened when I was in elementary school, but plenty of other mass shootings had taken place after I started teaching (Sandy Hook, Virginia Tech, etc.). Every time I heard about another school shooting I wondered what kind of teacher would I be in that situation. Would I bravely and selflessly put myself in the line of fire to save a child? Or would I panic and freeze under pressure? I scared myself just thinking about it.

People are quick to say what they would and wouldn’t do in an emergency or tense situation. I’ve heard so many people give confident answers about how they would react heroically in a life-threatening circumstance, and I’ve always wondered how they could be so sure. I think I’m generally a good person, but if I’ve learned anything being on this planet, I’ve learned that you can never know how you will think, feel, or react in a situation until you are there.

That day a few years ago, I was there.


Eerily, almost robotically, the other teachers and I got up and walked briskly but calmly just as our principal came on the intercom. In a controlled but clearly tense voice he announced we were on lockdown and told us to grab any students in the hallway that we could and usher them into our rooms.

I don’t even remember getting to my room, but when I did I had about twenty kids following me in as I locked the door from the outside. When I could see the hallway was clear, I went inside and turned off the lights. Students were asking questions nervously, but I told them everything was going to be fine and that they had to stay quiet. I happened to have my desks stacked on top of each other in a corner of the room for a class activity that day and told the kids to sit behind them, which was of sight from the classroom window. They did so quickly and silently, to my surprise. As noiselessly as I could, I slid a few desks onto their sides and up against the door so that they were barricading it shut but not able to be seen from the window at the door. My reasoning was that if someone were to break down the door, they could at least be deterred for a few more moments. I crouched on the hinge side of the door, between the door barricade I’d made and my students.

Once I was still, I could think again. I was surprised how easy it was to think. Except for my heart beating at full volume in my ears, I was completely calm and lucid.

Our prior training for a school shooting only went as far as turning off lights, locking doors, and hiding, but I reasoned that if the shooter actually made it into my room, it would not take them long to find my students. The only hope of stopping something from happening would be for me to act fast. I was at the perfect angle from my crouching position to tackle from the knees—the report had said the shooter was alone, so I knew my chances wouldn’t be great, but would be better than if there were more than one attacker.

For another minute or so, everything was silent. And then I could hear boots—a single pair—outside our building heading into our wing. I held my breath. I could hear a few students whimpering. Mine was the first door on the right after walking inside. If an attacker were to enter, my room would surely be the first target.

The footsteps came closer and were heavy but purposeful, a gait almost at a jog. I was afraid, but still strangely calm. I was made of adrenaline. Not the jumpy, scary-movie kind. A weird adrenaline that made me feel at once alert and perfectly still.

I watched the handle on the inside of my door jerk up and down. He was trying the door.

I’m ready to die, I thought. I felt a hundred things—regret, anticipation, certainty, uncertainty, courage, fear. I waited to hear a gunshot, a boot kicking down the door, something.

But then I heard the boot steps moving down the hall. I heard the other doors being tried. And then I heard them leave.
           
It wasn’t until later that day that I found out the footsteps I heard belonged to someone in a SWAT unit doing a sweep of the building. Why they didn’t announce who they were, I still have no idea.

Our school was in lockdown for around an hour before we were given the all clear. Evidently the shooter had run towards our school but never actually onto school property. He was caught minutes later in a neighboring apartment complex.

***

This wasn’t the first non-drill lockdown I’ve been in, and I know it won’t be the last. But this was the first lockdown where I felt almost certain of my own death at the hands of someone with a gun.

The good news is that I know I'm much braver than I thought I was. (And since I can’t even handle haunted houses, chances are you are much braver than you think, too.) I know that I can count on that weird adrenaline to take over and think for me when I'm in a situation like that.

The bad news is that I might actually be gunned down one day. School shootings are now common. 

This week, after hearing about Umpqua, I questioned whether I want to teach anymore, and not for the first time. The number of firearm-related deaths, whether mass shootings or not, in the past decade combined with Congress’s refusal to enact stricter gun laws indicates to me that the trend in America of mass shootings is only going to grow.
            
There are so many problems facing teachers and students in our country’s educational system, and I haven’t stayed silent about them on this blog. But for the first time I’m realizing exactly how much I’m up against. It’s a much larger beast than I thought. But for now, I will continue to find an answer to the question I’ve been pondering this week, which is really the question at the heart of every issue that has bothered me since I began teaching:
           
Why don’t I matter to you, Congress?

I hope I never die in a school shooting, or a shooting at a movie theater, or in a place of worship, or on a street corner. But if I do, let my death be on the consciences of those who learn about mass shootings, have the legislative power to do something about it, and look the other way.

Love,

Teach

32 comments:

  1. I am worried when people ask for stricter gun laws. Guns are already not allowed on school property, with serious penalties, but that doesn't stop a sick-minded person from bringing one anyway. That just ensures more time to attack before they can be stopped.
    I live alone, I shop alone, and if I went missing on a weekend, it could be Monday before anyone knew I was gone. If a strong man attacks me with or without a gun, I have a chance to slow him down with pepper spray, but only if he isn't high. With a gun, I could stop him. I hope that never happens, but I want the right to protect myself. If guns were not available, there are other weapons, and the weak would have to submit to the strong. Or, I guess I could learn to use a crossbow, but concealed carry would be a problem.
    In the classroom, aside from a can of wasp spray, all I could do is throw something at the attacker or try to disable him enough that he wouldn't get past me. The fact that banks, celebrities, politicians, etc have trained people with guns protecting them but our children only have their teachers and local police 10 minutes to an hour away is what makes me feel like noone cares. Tighter gun control leaves me less protected.

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    1. I am in full support of law abiding citizens being allowed to use guns for self-protection, hunting, etc. I think what people are suggesting is not that that right be eliminated but that the ease of obtaining guns be adjusted so as to stop crazy people from getting them. I personally don't think it would make a difference, but since what we currently have in place isn't helping, I think it makes sense. I think people are being paranoid about losing their gun rights; it's that kind of all-or-nothing thinking that creates the divide in opinion, I think.

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    2. Less protected? All it takes is one moment and that gun is taken from you and used AGAINST you. Do you train with your weapon every day? Week? Month? Are you practicing shooting in a hostile, adrenaline-filled environment where there is noise, people screaming, running, etc? When you do practice, do you have someone trying to attack you and take your property or pretend to try to rape you? I seriously doubt it. Even the military and the police lose their skills VERY quickly and mess up if they don't train regularly. Shooting at a non-threatening paper target will NOT prepare you to defend yourself against an attacker. Guns really do not provide the protection people think they do.

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    3. Excellent point, Katrina. That's why I don't carry pepper spray, let alone a gun. It's a false sense of security.

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    4. I grew up in the States (I was 16 when Columbine happened) but have lived for the last 11 years in the UK, where gun control laws are extremely tight and very few people have guns. The fact is that the concerns most people have about not being able to protect themselves or being made vulnerable by stricter gun laws just don't play out in reality. Gun violence is so rare over here that it gets reported on the news whenever it happens--if they did that in the States, they'd need a 24 hour rolling news channel devoted to nothing else. Since Dunblane (the school massacre that prompted the reform on gun laws), there hasn't been a school shooting here. At all. I feel incredibly safe here, far safer than I ever did in the States. People often ask me if I would ever move back, but my answer is always no: apart from the NHS, which ROCKS, I could never, ever send my children to school in the US. However slim the likelihood is that they will be shot at school, it is exponentially greater than over here, and no one seems to be doing anything to change that.

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    5. I have no problem with mental evaluations, that would be fine. I don't know that it would necessarily keep unstable people from getting guns, but maybe it would slow it down.
      As far as protection, I've known people who have protected themselves with guns. That adrenaline actually focused them and kept them calm enough to handle the situation. Fortunately I don't know anyone who has actually had to use it, the sight of the gun stopped the crime. I know if you aren't comfortable with the weapon and don't practice safety there is a great chance for a problem, like with many other things we use. You do have a point, responsible owners practice regularly and ALWAYS use caution.
      What exactly is your solution, Katrina? Crimes against women don't always involve guns. Taking them away would not solve that problem. It would just leave women less protected.
      Bec, I know gun violence is low, but what about other crimes? How do people protect themselves?
      For the record, I don't think teachers should be armed. My point is that the gun free zone is basically a welcome sign to armed evil people. SOMEONE on campus should have SOME way of stopping them.
      I really posted this from my heart. I wasn't trying to make anyone mad. It was typed in a rush, so I apologize if I sounded callused. It scares me to death to think of my students (or any children) being targets, and all I can do is hide them, then if that doesn't work try to tackle the criminal before they can open fire. I think I feel as strongly as you that this needs to be stopped, even if our methods differ.

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    6. From the point of view of most of the rest of the world, you sound utterly, utterly insane.

      You are measurably less safe with lax gun laws. "[posting] from the heart" isn't appropriate when there are already facts available.

      "I don't know that it would necessarily keep unstable people from getting guns", you say. Well how about going and looking up the vast body of data we have on that before you reach a conclusion? This isn't a hypothetical exercise.

      All of the questions you pose are answered. There is no debate. You are dangerously stupid, at least on this specific issue.

      America: you have lost your minds.

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  2. I've been teaching for more than twenty years. I often think about that question, "What kind of teacher would I be?" We had our drill last week. My middle schoolers know what it is. They get it. I wish they didn't. I was teaching when Columbine happened and all the others that followed. I don't have the answer, but something has to change. Thank you for writing about this from the teacher's point of view.

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  3. With all the frustrations and difficulties we face as teachers, your question sums it up. Why don't we matter? Not just teachers, but students, parents, and citizens in general? At this point most of us feel that our voices are not being heard and our concerns and fears are being dismissed. What we're doing now (ignoring gun violence and refusing to change policy or law) isn't working. Obviously. So we have to try something else. I completely agree with one of the previous comments here. It's not all or nothing. We have to begin working toward change one step at a time. Thank you for sharing such a thoughtful post.
    One Lucky Teacher

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  4. Thank you for writing this. I am a US citizen who has taught overseas for my entire career and can't imagine being in that situation. I can tell you that in the 5 countries I've taught, we never once had to practice a drill for a gunman in the building.

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  6. I'm an Australian teacher marrying an American and moving to LA soon. I do get scared about one day being in a position such as you describe here. In the two years I have been dating my now fiancé, there have been approximately 69 school campus incidents involving guns in the US. That is compered to zero in Australia. The only reason that statistic is so vast is because good people stepped up and defeated bullies of politics for the greater good. I hope that happens in the US sooner rather than {[insert number of deaths between now and then]} innocent lives later.

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  7. Thank you for your post. You continue to represent what we teachers deal with on a daily basis. I was engaged in a verbal altercation, if you will , with a person who indicated that I lied when I told how I had a student actually say to me 3 years ago (nearly) how "They don't care if we die." when relating her remarks soon after Newtown. No one understands and I read commenst by people talk about how more guns protect us. Bull. The blood of every human being, old and young, who has been wounded, killed or terrorized by the mioney controlled, weak willed and couwardly 'lawmakers' who bow to the NRA and their lobby. Shameof all who contribute to this gun crazy "my rights!' argument. Bull. I was in my 3rd year when Columbine happened. The common conversation between we new teachers bcaem, "Who would you take a bullet for." When the people who TELL me how I should carry a weapon into my classroom come on a daily basis and teach today can do so and tell em WHO they'd take a bullet for without reservation, may be I'll change my mind. But I doubt it. Talk is cheap.

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  8. It's sad that we have mass shootings.. it's sad that we don't have a better mental health system. It's sad that people don't take personal responsibility for their actions (if you have really made a decision to die.. kill yourself.. not others). It's sad that big cities like Chicago have more killings (not related to mass shootings) than we've had in mass shootings for a decade... despite strong gun control. It's sad that every time we have one of these mass shootings, we make these people famous, encouraging others on the edge to get their own fame on their way out.

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  9. God yes, this. 100% this. I have given more thought about dying in my classroom than I ever thought possible---and I don't think it's just paranoia making me think that way. Thank you for stating exactly how I feel so clearly.

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    1. We hear so much rhetoric ~ guns don't kill, people kill ~ stricter gun control ~ better mental health care ~ and, of course, the ever popular Second Amendment. I never hear any plausible solutions to this problem. I don't believe there will be resolution until the NRA lobby no longer has control over Congress.

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    2. You are 100% correct. Not till the creeps in congress die, retire or get kicked out will this change.

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    3. If you click this link, there is another link that will allow you to read the full article. I do believe it is worth your time given the content posted here:

      http://hsx.sagepub.com/content/18/1/125.short?rss=1&ssource=mfr

      But it's the last line of the conclusion that seems to be the most interesting: "Mass murder just may be a price we must pay for living in a society where personal freedom is so highly valued."

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    4. If the link will not load, you should be able to google the title of the article and one of the authors and find the full text via PDF:

      Mass Shootings in America: Moving Beyond Newtown by James Alan Fox

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  11. This post resonated very deeply with me. I'm so glad you decided to post it, even if you were concerned about the tone. It needs to be said - often, and insistently - until something changes.

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  12. The story is what it is. We need restrictions on owning guns for teenagers because as we all could see murders sometimes occurred at schools. I think that “How to Be Confident and Open for Your First Interview” is useful for everyone.

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  15. I don't think it's teachers and schools alone that don't matter. I believe in the right to bear arms but there still needs to be tighter control.

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