In late January 2011 a student of mine brought a loaded handgun into my sophomore world history class. I’m thankful every single day that he kept the weapon in his backpack and had no intention of using it at school. By all accounts the student was difficult. He had limited English skills, had trouble reading, and generally appeared uninterested in school. School was not a comfortable place for him, and he was actively looking to join a local gang.
When I heard about the tragedy at Newtown, CT I simply broke down with emotional overload. Any tragic incident at a school naturally makes me think about my students. I thought about what things would have looked like if my student had decided to open fire in class on that day two years ago. I thought of all the things that could have set him off, and the potential for tragedy. I thought about how I had no idea the student was carrying and how every day a student could have a weapon in my classroom. Since what a student brings to school is out of my control, I also thought about what aspects of the situation are in my power.
I can control how I treat the young people that enter my classroom on a daily basis. An enormously high percentage of these incidents of mass shooting (and there are a shockingly high number in recent years) are linked by issues of mental illness, and young men who feel desperate and isolated.
At the most basic level it is in my power to non-judgmentally treat my students like human beings regardless of their circumstance. It is extremely easy to forget issues that do not directly impact our daily lives. Those of us who do not feel isolated can quickly overlook how deeply troubling feelings of isolation are. Sometimes all it takes is saying “hello, it’s good to see you today” to the awkward student in my class. The one that I know has very few, if any friends. Saying hello to the student sitting by themselves at lunch matters.
My student was isolated and looking for a place where he could belong. A local gang was willing to fill that need, when no one else would. He struggled in school. He was from a low-income family. He did not have many friends at school. He’d recently moved from out of state. His choice to bring a gun to school was a symptom of his feelings of desperation, and his extreme desire for somewhere to belong.
At a teacher I can help fill those holes. I take great care to treat every student that enters my classroom as a human being. Even when they make bad decisions, are having a bad day, and when life gets in the way of their academics. I know that there are times when I am the only person who asks a student how they are doing, or tells them I’m happy to see them. It’s such a simple thing, and goes a long way to ease feelings of alienation and isolation.
I have a strong position on the gun control side of the equation. I enjoyed the one time I went to a firing range and I support hunting. I also think personal ownership of assault weapons and handguns is ludicrous. I am completely willing to hold both thoughts in my head at once. I am not personally capable of controlling that issue. I can, however, make sure that I treat everyone with respect so that when they are near me they feel safe. People make desperate acts when they’ve run out of options. By creating a safe environment I can reduce feelings of desperation and help more people make positive choices instead of negative ones.