Tag Archives: sandy hook

I’m Tired

I’m tired.

I’m tired of hearing about kids dying by gunfire. I’m tired of writing about kids who die by gunfire. I’m tired of wondering whether people are tired of me writing about kids dying by gunfire. And I’m tired of arguing whether anyone should be writing about kids dying by gunfire.

At least we all agree on one thing: it’s a tragedy when a kid dies suddenly and unexpectedly simply because someone else decided, for whatever reason and sometimes without even knowing their victim, that they should die.

Or do we?

In the wake of Sandy Hook, one of my friends essentially implied that my shock and horror were racist because of the fact that these were white kids in a well-to-do town where “that sort of thing doesn’t happen.” I bristled, and wrote back a fiery response stating that I had no idea of any of the demographics of the tragedy when I first heard about it, that it was the age of the kids and the sheer number of victims that provoked the depth of my reaction.

And then I cooled down and thought a little more about it. And the truth is, Sandy Hook had to be reported in the media for me to learn about it. And the media, like it or not and however unconsciously, do report crimes against white people differently from crimes against people of colour. So my reaction, however colour-blind, and independently of the anti-racist attitudes I actively try to communicate and nurture, was nonetheless embedded in the cultural racism of our society and the privilege of my own whiteness. Like it or not, I couldn’t deny it.

Recently, 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton was gunned down in a Chicago park. Again, there was an angle to her story that would pull at the heartstrings of the country – an honor student at her high school, loved and respected by friends and teachers, a majorette who had performed at President Obama’s inauguration, randomly shot by gang members in a city where gun violence is out of control.

Oh, and, for those who might wonder about such a thing, she was Black.

Her race shouldn’t matter, of course. Which is kind of the point. But – how many people, in learning of the tragedy, whether or not they made any assumptions about Hadiya’s race, assumed the gang members were Black?

And suppose that gang member was Black and shot a Black member of another gang? Would that death have received the same attention?

My grandmother used to say that each person, whatever else was true of their lives, was born to parents who loved them and had dreams for them. Perhaps a slight overgeneralization, but basically true. And at any rate, each life has value, each life has its place. The loss of a life is a loss to all, a collective loss, not just to those who knew the person.

And so, I write. I follow the Twitter account @gundeaths, whose aim is to share and in so doing mark every single gun death in the U.S. I bear in mind the words of my friend as well as the words of my advisees when they spoke out against empty gestures when kids die by violent means and the too-often-imposed veil of silence over other tragic deaths such as suicides. I contact my members of Congress, wade into discussions of how to reduce violence, prevent suicides, and ensure as many kids as possible grow up to have their own kids. I work to rid our society of embedded racism – as well as gender prejudice, socioeconomic prejudice, and, well, prejudice in general.

Oh, yes, I’m tired.

So?

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Bending the Arc

It has been one month and one week to the day since the shooting at Sandy Hook, and still many of us are depressed and in shock. In quiet moments at holiday gatherings, online in virtual discussions on bulletin boards and through Twitter, many of my friends and family have shared that they felt subdued this year compared to in normal years. This is in no way meant to diminish, share, or hope to begin to understand the grief that parents and family members of those who died must be feeling; it is simply the truth of our reality.

Over the weekend following the news, one of my online friends started a private discussion about how best to react in public. Everyone agreed that this should not be about either appropriating grief or self-promotion. Everyone agreed that whatever happened in the short term, it’s what happens in the long term that really matters. For some of us, that translated to putting our voices out there. For others, it meant maintaining a respectful silence.

Another of my online friends brought up the fact that children are dying every day of gun violence, but the media – and thus the country – pays little attention. Indeed, Children’s Defense Fund has cited statistics showing that approximately eight children a day die by gun violence. That means over 300 kids since that horrible day, more than two Sandy Hooks every week.

It seems we are indeed embarking on a serious national conversation on gun violence. Gun control itself is of necessity part of this conversation, but so are many other issues – our culture’s attitude toward mental health issues, questions of insurance, what Gloria Steinem has called the cult of masculinity and the supporting cult of femininity, and looking at root causes deeper down: poverty, sexism, racism, and other prejudices.

And meanwhile, the issue of climate change hovers over us, casting its own shadow of uncertainty and doubt. It can all get overwhelming pretty quickly….

… and then I step into my classroom. A couple of weeks ago, for instance, my Life Skills class was talking about microaggressions, those subtle moments when a person, generally oblivious and well-meaning, insults you or otherwise makes you feel marginalized – for example, asking someone who, unbeknownst to you, is lesbian if she has a boyfriend. They had a great discussion about the role of intention in such moments as well as how the comments are received regardless of intention, and quickly saw the connection to stereotypes (which they articulated) and privilege (which they didn’t articulate but understood at a gut level). Several of them said they have never really experienced microaggressions, and one of them said she wished the world were more like Stoneleigh-Burnham. I told her I was actually working on a blog on just that very topic.

Similarly, Carroll Perry, a newly retired teacher at my son’s school, said at their baccalaureate service last spring, “There has been progress, and there will be a lot more. The cynics forget that people like you are coming on to the scene, and that you view today’s challenges not as insuperable problems, but as your stewardship.” I look out at you students here, and I completely agree.

Today, for the second time in history, we hold the inauguration of a Black president. President Obama‘s re-election, as he himself has said, proves that 2008 was not an anomaly. Earlier in his career, when he was still a Senator and candidate for president, he had the opportunity to speak at a commemoration of the 40th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He noted, “Dr. King once said that the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice. It bends towards justice, but here is the thing: it does not bend on its own. It bends because each of us in our own ways put our hand on that arc and we bend it in the direction of justice…” (Obama, cited by Howe) When a 7th grader says “When you start to get interested in boys or girls or whatever you find interesting,” when another 7th grader says “I just don’t see what the big deal is if Black and White people go out together,” when I suggest to the drummer prior to an Upper School Rock Band performance that I wouldn’t drum in a skirt and a Senior comments without missing a beat, “But we wouldn’t think any less of you if you did,” you can feel that arc bending.

The long struggle for social justice may get overwhelming at times – of course it does! But as long as we are in it together, as long as we see steady improvement, as long as there are people like you taking your place in the world, there will always be hope.

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Filed under In the Classroom, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School, Uniquely Stoneleigh-Burnham School

The Necessity of Maladjustment

My shoulder grew progressively numb as my friend, convinced that everyone who claimed to be a pacifist had a breaking point, kept hitting it over and over. His face began to contort, and through gritted teeth he hissed, “I’m going to make you hit me.” But I didn’t hit back, and eventually he walked away in disgust. I’ve always wondered what he took away from the incident. Me, I took pride in having successfully maintained my principles of non-violence, though as it turned out I couldn’t have moved my arm if I had wanted, and it hung uselessly at my side for at least five minutes as I walked to my next class and took my seat.

Several years beforehand, when I was in eighth grade, I first read Daybreak by Joan Baez. In a series of poems, dreams, vignettes, and essays, she explored her own pacifism and the principles by which she unflinchingly led her own life. It was one of the most influential books of my childhood.

As I grew in adulthood, though, I couldn’t help but think that it wasn’t always as simple as Ms. Baez made it out to be. One evening, not long after I began teaching here, we invited Andrea LaSonde Anastos, then co-minister of First Church in Deerfield with her husband George, to talk about her life and work. Among other subjects, she touched on her own pacifism, inspiring a question from one of the students as to whether she could ever conceive of a situation where she might choose to use violence. She said before she had children, she would have said absolutely not, but that she now realized that if someone went after her kids and she had the chance, she wasn’t sure but what she would take them out without hesitation. Oddly, I was comforted by her admission. I believed (and still do) there was a big difference between personally suffering for one’s principles and watching others suffer, perhaps even die, for the same reason, and I myself wasn’t sure what I would do in the same situation. She made it safe for me to feel that ambivalence.

One month ago today, a gunman broke into Sandy Hook Elementary School, and you know the rest. This country has a history of mass killings, and so often the initial shock and outcry subsides after a few days or maybe weeks and nothing ever changes. But there is some evidence that things may be different this time. Here at Stoneleigh-Burnham, our Student Council has written all students “[inviting] you all to wear GREEN and WHITE to commemorate the one-month anniversary of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, CT.” (Claire L.) No doubt, we will be just one of countless schools doing so.

And this doesn’t even take into account the many individual actions private citizens may be taking, such as writing their Representative or Senators, or engaging people in conversations both face to face and through social media. In a country far too often divided along partisan lines, I feel like I’ve seen more sincere effort to reach across those lines and find common ground than with any other issue in months if not years.

As many people are saying, this is going to be a marathon and not a sprint. Meanwhile, according to the Children’s Defense Fund, an average of eight children die each day due to gunfire. That’s 56 kids each week, and nearly 250 since Sandy Hook. This lends a certain sense of urgency to the marathon.

Martin Luther King, Jr. has written, “There are some things within our social order to which I am proud to be maladjusted and to which I call upon you to be maladjusted. I never intend to adjust myself to segregation and discrimination. I never intend to adjust myself to mob rule. I never intend to adjust myself to the tragic effects of the methods of physical violence and to tragic militarism. I call upon you to be maladjusted to such things.” (King)

I hold out hope that our country has finally become permanently maladjusted to events like Sandy Hook. I hold out that hope not only because I see Dr. King’s ideals in my students but also because I know so many people across the political spectrum who have been deeply moved by Sandy Hook and who sincerely want to leave a better world to our children. It will not happen on its own and it will not be easy. But the alternative is simply unthinkable.

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Filed under On Education, On Parenting, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School

Resolution

Annual discussions of whether making New Year’s resolutions serves any purpose, and if so how best to make them, are by now as much a part of New Year’s traditions as the resolutions themselves. But for those of us who teach, the chance to make mid-course adjustments is often irresistible. That tug may be especially strong in a year when many teachers report a more subdued holiday season than usual with the events of Sandy Hook so fresh in our minds.

The last day of school in December is usually a festive day, with the morning spent in classes, a holiday lunch with advisory groups, housemeeting with the faculty skit, an afternoon of athletics, packing, and relaxing, and the evening Winter Solstice Concert. This year was no exception, with perhaps one of the more touching examples being my French II class, which had voted to take their Unit 3 test the day before vacation rather than waiting until January and also decided to postpone the final day of in-class Secret Snowflake to add a special element of fun to the last class of 2012. They were all done by about 25 minutes into class, and one by one (or rather two by two) took off to their rooms, the school store, and other destinations so they could reconvene and take turns beaming at each other as they read cards and opened gifts.

Yet Sandy Hook was never far from our minds. On this, the third day of classes after the shootings, my seventh-grade Humanities class was suddenly ready to discuss it. In most cases, other students knew the answers to each others’ questions, and I filled in details as needed. They did a great job of distinguishing verified facts from what was possibly true, and processed their emotions together as well. My eight-grade Life Skills class made snowflakes, as requested by the Sandy Hook PTA, to send to decorate the children’s new school. And one of the middle school bands prepared to provide what would be one of the highlights of the day.

They had worked on an arrangement of the song “Titanium” by David Guetta et al. The arrangement was quieter and more contemplative than the hit version sung by Sia Furler, and the song’s theme of resilience against overwhelming odds gained depth and resonance. However, the lyrics refer explicitly to gun violence, and a mere five days after Sandy Hook, emotions were still too raw and the sense of shock too strong for us to be able to do it, even this arrangement, even sung by children. They were deeply disappointed, but understood and accepted graciously the decision to strike the song from the evening’s program.

Several hours later, one of the band members came up to me and asked if they could still perform that evening if they could find a song they all already knew. I said yes, provided I could learn the music in time and we could find time to practice. And so, at 3:30 that afternoon, we gathered in the gym with newly printed lyrics sheets for “Mistletoe,” performed and co-written by Justin Bieber, and began rehearsing. Greg Snedeker, the instrumental music teacher, joined us partway through to add a bass line, and after an hour’s work, we felt ready to go.

That evening, as the students and Greg set themselves on stage, I explained to the audience about the program change, our reasons why, and what the new piece would be. I won’t pretend the performance was flawless – for starters, I missed the second chord of the piece. But we hung together, the kids sounded great, and by halfway through the piece the audience, caught up in the spirit, began to clap along. They stayed with us through the end of the piece, and their applause was warm. Several people said they would keep a memory of the evening, one describing it as “a Christmas miracle.”

Sorting out facts, processing emotions, dealing with the need to do something, and affirming our common humanity are all common responses to tragedy. But, as countless people have written over the past few weeks, if that is once again where it all ends, then all the sound and fury will truly signify nothing. And, as countless people have also written, this will be a marathon and not a sprint. There are convincing arguments that we need a national conversation leading to action in the areas of gun control, the treatment and coverage of mental health issues, the cult of masculinity (and the supporting cult of femininity), and how best to protect our children. I also read a proposal for a new national War on Poverty as part of our response.

In short, we need to address the root causes of such horrific events in the long term as well as figure out the best course of action in the short term while we are working to better our world. It’s work that can quickly become overwhelming – how can each of us, as just one person, hope to accomplish all this? But at the same time, it’s work none of us need do all alone and all by ourselves. Each of us can find our own ways of addressing various issues which will intersect, overlap, and reinforce each other.

And so, as 2013 begins with that feeling of hope and promise that accompanies all new beginnings, let us rededicate ourselves, each in our own way, toward bending the arc of the moral universe towards justice.

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Filed under In the Classroom, On Education, Performing Arts

Lost Forever

Like most of the country, I spent most of the weekend feeling devastated and overwhelmed. I was fortunate in that our annual girls basketball tournament took up most of my time on Friday and Saturday and insulated me somewhat from the pain and anguish of thinking about the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Except between games. And during half-time. And during time-outs. And sometimes in between time-outs. There’s a comfortable and safe feeling in a gym anyway, especially at our school, and as a long-time fan of girls and women’s basketball, watching a level of aggressiveness and intensity, a quality of competition, and an evenness of talent I did not remember from some of our earlier tournaments did my heart good. But a dull ache was there and, sooner or later, I was going to have to face up to what had happened in Connecticut, as a teacher and as a parent.

A young teacher named Erin had written the MiddleTalk listserve run by the Association of Middle Level Education asking for advice on how to talk about the tragedy with our children and how best to support her students. My friend Rebecca Lawson had written back with an impressive list of resources from Fred Rogers’s video, soothing in its sensibility and sensitivity, to an article in the Washington Post. That seemed a good place to start, and I worked my way through the resources, periodically staring out into space before shaking my head and refocusing on my computer screen.

I also knew I wanted to stop through my office before classes on Monday and read through our school’s Crisis Plan. I knew right where it was, but felt I could not live with myself until I had read through it again. And again. In my mind’s eye was the vision of my Humanities 7 students sprawled in their beanbag chairs, so comfortable and so safe in so many ways, brimming with the confidence and happiness that comes so much more easily with such a feeling of security. Nothing, I vowed, nothing would take that away from them. Not if I had anything to do with it.

And I can’t even bring myself to write about my son. Suffice it to say in an earlier draft of this blog, it took me five minutes to even bring myself to type the letter “s” as tears streamed down my cheeks. I picture him walking from his dorm to class, sweet and kind and smart and talented and with so much still before him…

On the way home from school Sunday night with the Crisis Plan on the seat beside me, I felt a deep surge of emotional anguish and needed to do something to calm myself down. I reached for my phone, and asked Siri to play me some Taylor Swift. “Long Live” celebrates Ms. Swift’s relationship with her band and the notion that what they built together will endure, and the song resonates deeply with me as I think of my own Rock Band students (as readers of “Moving Mountains” may remember). The song “The Best Day” (about which I’ve also written here before) celebrates her relationship with her family in general and her mother in particular. The sounds of the home video of her at age three talking with her mom about her pigtails got to me, and by the time she got to the line “I know you’re not scared of anything at all” (Swift) I was a wreck.

Because of course parents are scared, sometimes. Parents are human. Parents love their children so much it almost physically hurts at times.

And teachers feel much the same way about our students. My friend Jose Vilson wrote a beautiful blog on the need to put children first, truly listen to their voices, to let them shine. Taylor Swift echoed those thoughts in “The Best Day,” writing “And I love you for giving me your eyes / Staying back and watching me shine.” (Swift) But Jose also wrote about the unbearable loss of children’s voices at Sandy Hook: “Their hopes, dreams, and visions for the future in a world in dire need of real change, not just a shuffling around of things for compliance, all gone.” (Vilson)

What might we do to support real change? How can we find the will and the way to actually take action this time and reduce the likelihood any other children’s voices will ever again be silenced before their time? In a discussion I had with friends and relatives on my Facebook page, we touched on the need to acknowledge and address a variety of issues. Arguably, the availability of guns, the stigma attached to mental health issues, the unwillingness of insurance companies to provide the same level of coverage for mental health as they do for physical health, our consumption of graphic violence and the provision of same by the media, and the cult of masculinity are all contributing factors we need to address, urgently and by whatever means possible.

In “The Best Day,” Taylor Swift also writes about being bullied at school and her mom’s efforts to help her handle it. As she thanks her mom for having started her on the path to healing, Ms. Swift acknowledges “Don’t know how long it’s gonna take to feel okay,” and certainly tonight I can relate. But I can also guess where it is likely to start. Tonight, I will text with my son before bedtime, wish him well on exams, tell him I love him. And tomorrow, I will walk into my Humanities classroom, sit down on the floor, and ask for any student announcements. The chances are high are least one of them will refer to the Sandy Hook tragedy, and I will handle their questions as best I can, honestly and with compassion. If they express a need to do something, we can talk about that and I can share what I am planning to do. And when the time is right, we will turn back to our normal routines. My students will read the newest installments in their ongoing independent writing stories, applaud after each reading, and offer helpful comments. We will finish casting Act V of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” the play which we are producing in collaboration with other classes around the country, and we will start reading through the script to ensure they understand what each individual line means. Gradually, a sense of normalcy will return.

Some of our collective innocence is lost forever. But our hope for the future need not be.

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