Tag Archives: school shooting

#284: The American English Teacher Tries Not to Be Afraid While Doing His Job

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Two nights ago I woke up at 3 a.m.
and could not go back to sleep.
It was not a nightmare that woke me.
Just some disturbance in the force
that momentarily stirred me from slumber.
Immediately upon opening my eyes, though,

a waking nightmare:

I was thinking about those kids in Florida,
and I was thinking about those kids in Newtown,
and I was thinking about those kids at Columbine,
and my heart raced, thinking of my own students
in my classroom in a similar situation, or my son
in his teacher’s classroom, in a similar situation,
and I could not sleep.

Even my morning’s meditation, while I worried
that my lack of sleep would find me
dozing off on my cushion, resulted in this
kind of thought-struggle: the focus on the breath,
in and out, in and out, fighting against the thoughts
of making sure both doors into my room were locked
and lights were out, of huddling with students
inside a darkened classroom, of listening
for the signs of safety or of imminent danger,
wondering if I could take the risk to open my door
to let other students in, wondering what I
would do, what I could do, if a shooter
somehow entered my classroom.
These kinds of thoughts would have been
inconceivable to me in my first years
as a teacher in a public school.
Now they are ever-present, hiding in
the shadows of every waking moment.

I walked into my schoolhouse yesterday, a place
that I love, a place I consider another home,
a place that houses over a thousand
human beings that I love, young people
and adults that I consider another family,
as I have done every day since Columbine,
and I try not to be afraid while doing my job.

When I’m there, in that building, doing the work,
it’s easy. I’m immersed. I’m present. These young
people bring me the gifts of their minds and their
personhood, their presences, and I do not feel alone
and I do not feel afraid. It’s when I’m not there
that the fear kicks in: in the middle of the night,
in meditation, at meals, on a walk, and in particular,
reading the internet news, which seems invented
for the sole purpose of cultivating fear.
My only complaint yesterday morning was that
I was exhausted from sleep deprivation,
but I was having fun with my students talking
about Hamlet, and then it began to snow. The district
decided, as a safety precaution, to close down the schoolhouse
two hours early. And as much as I wanted to see
my fourth period 10th graders after an extended absence,
I was happy that I could go home a little early to rest,
and heartened too by the news from Florida:
these kids have had enough of our shit and are fighting
the good fight for the future of our nation and for the
safety of our young people: one and the same fight.
I have more faith in them than I have ever had
in the Republican Party, in any Party, to send us on
the right path, away from harm, away from fear,
toward something like real freedom, a thing that
nobody else seems to recognize any more on either
side of the aisle. Our children are reminding us
about what this word means. They have to be
our heroes now.

They are rising to the occasion.

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Diary of an English Teacher in His Penultimate Year: February 15, 2018

Photo on 2-15-18 at 7.49 PM

Today I wrapped up three full days of sitting with my senior IB English students, listening to their oral commentaries on a poem by Seamus Heaney and holding discussions with them about Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own and Toni Morrison’s Beloved. I sat with almost 25 students, just me and the kid, one at a time, for 20 full minutes a piece. Each time I do this activity, as exhausting as it can be and sometimes frustrating, I am struck nearly dumb with gratitude for the opportunity. It is rare that, as teachers, we have the luxury of time, not to mention the resources that make it possible to hire a substitute so classes can continue in our absence, to sit down with a single student and listen deeply to their learning. It is, likely, the most authentic kind of assessment I’ve ever administered, and one that honors student voices while simultaneously holding them to a rigorous standard. It is intense, intimate, and hopefully an inviting experience. Some students are nervous and do strange things. They talk super fast. Or they stammer a lot. Or certain things they know suddenly slip their minds: What was the name of that character, you know, the main one? Did this detail come before or after that other one? Why, despite the fact that I know this is a work of non-fiction, do I insist on calling it a novel over and over again? Or why did I call this thing a paragraph when I know it to be a stanza? Why did I just call Seamus Heaney Shameless Hainley? How do sentences work again? And then other students speak with an eloquence you’ve never been able to hear in the context of the classroom: That quiet student who likens Virginia Woolf’s speech to a chemistry experiment. A couple of students who are so excited about the material that they seem almost giddy talking about their favorite scenes and favorite ideas: who knew that Woolf’s description of the androgynous mind could have such a profound impact on an 18 year old woman’s consciousness? One student was so meticulous and thoughtful about each sentence she uttered, every one of her thoughts seemed weighty and perfectly formed. And this time through, without exception, every student spoke for 20 minutes. And I listened as deeply as I could and asked open and honest questions to the best of my ability. It was exhausting and glorious.

Two weekends earlier, at the close of one semester and at the opening of the next, I was in San Antonio, Texas for five days with Parker J. Palmer and The Center for Courage and Renewal, learning further about The Courage Way, on a path to becoming a facilitator of professional formation work. Much of that practice is also about deep listening, to self and to others, hearing and listening ourselves into speech, always respectful of silence as a guest and fellow traveler. This seems a little woo woo, doesn’t it. Well, it’s not for everybody, and I remember Parker talking about wanting it, perhaps, to sound more woo woo than it actually is–because anyone with a complete aversion to woo woo would probably not end up receptive to the work, incapable of listening deeply, untrustworthy of the inner teacher, suspicious of the silences in which our greatest wisdom often resides.

Part of my job over the course of this training program is to discover ways of making this kind of work manifest in my professional life and in my community. Over the last few days I felt it working already as I sat with my students, listening to them speak, allowing them to hear themselves, inviting silences from time to time, allowing the inner teacher in each young person to come out to play. The only drawback: it was primarily an academic exercise, and ultimately, it was my job as their teacher and as a teacher in the International Baccalaureate program, to evaluate their performance. Not really the optimum circumstances for true formation work. And always, in the back of my mind, and in light of yesterday’s horrific and all-too-familiar news of yet another mass shooting inside of a school, I knew that many of their hearts were breaking, as was mine. And yet we didn’t speak a word about that. We proceeded with the task at hand. We talked seriously about literature. It wouldn’t have been the time or place to check in with each of them about how they were doing with the news, what their thoughts were on the subject, how they were coping, how they wanted to change the world. I wish there could have been space for that. I wish there could be a space where some caring adult could sit down with every single kid and allow them to speak. We might learn something.

The study of English Language Arts lends itself better perhaps than any other discipline to this, but somehow, in every discipline, I think, we must learn to better balance the academic work we do in schools with the soul work we know is necessary for fostering in our students a move toward deeper integrity, agency and trust. Inner work needs to be on the syllabus and in the curriculum. I think our lives may very well depend upon it: our lives, the lives of our students and children, the life of our nation.

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Melt The Guns

For those of you who have been following my project of listening to my music collection from A to Z and writing reflections on each album: no, I am not jumping ahead from D to X.  Instead, inspired by a friend of mine posting this tune in Facebook on the day we learned of yet another  school shooting, this one in my own backyard, so to speak, I felt compelled to post it here–not just the audio, but these lyrics, penned by Andy Partridge of the great XTC (an English pop band) in 1982.  Nineteen-eighty-fucking-two.  It only takes a quick google search to learn that school shootings in the United States did not originate in the late 20th century and into the 21st. We have a long history of them going back all the way to the 18th century. However, I think it’s safe to say that none of these shootings were of the magnitude and the devastation of the ones that we’re now seeing in our time. In 1982 Andy Partridge could not have imagined the depths to which his brethren across the big pond would sink in their efforts to hold on to their personal arsenals despite one devastating loss after another devastating loss. And yet, here’s this tune, so spot-on, so embarrassingly true.

Please read along while you listen.  Neither the audio or the lyric are reproduced here by permission. I’m hoping, that if he ever finds out, Andy Partridge will forgive me.

Melt The Guns

Programmes of violence
As entertainment,
Brings the disease into your room.
We know the germ
Which is man-made in metal
Is really a key to your own tomb.

Prevention is better than cure,
Bad apples affecting the pure,
You’ll gather your senses I’m sure
Then agree to

Melt the guns,
Melt the guns,
Melt the guns,
And never more to fire them.

Melt the guns,
Melt the guns,
Melt the guns,
And never more desire them.

Children will want them,
Mothers supply them,
As long as your killers are heroes.
And all the media
Will fiddle while rome burns,
Acting like modern-time neros.

Prevention is better than cure,
Bad apples affecting the pure,
You’ll gather your senses I’m sure
Then agree to,

Melt the guns,
Melt the guns,
Melt the guns,
And never more to fire them.

Melt the guns,
Melt the guns,
Melt the guns,
And never more desire them.

I’m speaking to the justice league of america.
The u s of a,
Hey you,
Yes you in particular!
When it comes to the judgement day and you’re standing at the gates with your weaponry,
You dare go down on one knee,
Clasp your hands in prayer and start quoting me,
‘cos we say…
Our father we’ve managed to contain the epidemic in one place, now,
Let’s hope they shoot themselves instead of others,
Help to civilize the race now.
We’ve trapped the cause of the plague,
In the land of the free and the home of the brave.
If you listen quietly you can hear them shooting from grave to grave.
You ought to,

Melt the guns,
Melt the guns,
Melt the guns,
And never more to fire them.

Melt the guns,
Melt the guns,
Melt the guns,
And never more desire them.

“Melt The Guns” is track #7 on the album English Settlement by XTC. It was written by Partridge, Andy.

Lyrically, this song is not perfect–not very many rock tunes are.  There are places in this lyric that confuse me and bits of it that don’t seem quite right, philosophically. But what I most admire about this indictment is the attention it calls to the way in which guns have been embraced by American culture to the degree that our society lacks all imagination for any other vision. It is a madness so pervasive that we do absolutely nothing after grade schoolers are gunned down in Newtown. I also appreciate the song’s bridge where Partridge points the finger directly at the United States! And in this fascinating move (if I understand it correctly) Andy points the finger right back at the U.K.   –as if somehow England left us not only with our independence, but with our guns and our second amendment–an abused and misused and misunderstood little piece of the constitution if ever there was one.

I have very little to add to this conversation.  It’s all been said so well and so eloquently by countless others.  It’s more personal because I work in a school and because I have a child in school–along with millions of others who must also be tired of this new terror and sick to death that our politicians do nothing about it. It seems to me that any politician who takes money from a gun lobby should be ineligible for office. Vote these fuckers out, please.

I’m way anti-gun.  I’m in favor of strict gun-control. I will never have a gun in my household. I have mixed feelings even about my son’s nerf gun arsenal. No, actually, the feelings aren’t mixed.  I feel bad. But I understand that it’s not just about guns; it’s about a lot of other things too. I’ve read so many articles over the last couple of days about this subject (I should probably stop), that I have difficulty remembering all the sources, but this piece by Mark Manson stands out, not only because he calls attention to much of what we don’t understand about the issue and its causes and effects, but because his conclusion comes down to a level where every individual has some agency and control–and that is about the way we care for one another, the way we are in our communities, the way we love and the way we listen. Empathy. He’s right.  I think about the way I could help. I think about the way I could take better care of my students. And then I remember that I have 178 of them. I have classes of 36 kids in the same room at the same time. One of my principal charges as an educator, a core-value of mine, to KNOW my students, is next to impossible in these conditions. It is the nature of the beast that the students I most need to help are suffering in silence and I will never know it.

Andy Partridge of XTC was correct, too, decades before it would be up in our faces like it is today, but he only described part of the problem, albeit a huge part of the problem.

Do we want to live in a less violent society? Do we want teachers and students to work and learn without constant fear? Do we want to feel and actually be safe in public places, in movie theaters, concert halls, malls, fares and markets? Do we want automatic weapons and assault rifles out of the hands of any civilian, no matter how upstanding, no matter how law-abiding, because we understand that these kinds of weapons have only one real purpose? If we can keep our cities and planes safe from terrorists abroad for 15 years running, can we not do something to keep our citizens safe from the terrorism of gun violence at home? We must act as if these things are not only possible, but absolutely non-negotiable. The eternal optimist: I think it can be done.

I’m out of things to say for now. Here’s some material to consider:

Say No to ‘The New Normal’ — Five Things You Can Do About Gun Violence

http://www.newyorker.com/news/daily-comment/the-simple-truth-about-gun-control

Need “ammunition” for an argument against the pro-gun crazies? Look here.

http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/news/4-pro-gun-arguments-were-sick-of-hearing-20151001

And then there’s this from The Onion, which strikes me as not even a piece of satire, but an honest statement about our insane belief that we are helpless against terror: http://www.theonion.com/article/no-way-prevent-says-only-nation-where-regularly-ha-51444

And we’ll leave it at this:

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Of Social Networks: Is Real Dialogue Possible?

First off, I offer my apologies, to anyone who’s actually following this blog, for my lengthy absence from the sphere. It was August the last time I penned anything for this venue, and that’s been weighing on me pretty heavily during this most difficult first few months of the school year—over 200 high school students on my caseload, new curriculum again, new standards again, and very little in the way of additional support. So, I come home feeling hit by a bus and pour myself a glass, listen to music, play with my boy as much as I can, work on fiction maybe a couple hours once a week, and sleep.

I decide today to break the dry spell, in the wake of the last week’s horrors, to ask a question regarding the social network we call facebook and the degree to which it is a viable avenue for social discourse of any consequence.

Let me give some brief context. I’ve got friends who aren’t really friends (an interesting commentary on the way this particular social network has really morphed the meaning of that word). You know, we all probably have them—ghosts from our past who friend-request us, people who, decades after our initial acquaintance, likely old high school haunts, we would not even recognize if we saw them on the street. We vaguely recognize their names, find out they were ex-students, or we were classmates or neighbors or something, and we say, of course, why the hell not? Let’s be “friends.” And over the course of this precarious “friendship”, we end up learning a little bit about these people, most disconcertingly perhaps, that they do not share our politics. Now, that, on the surface, is no big deal. I have real friends, ones I see in the flesh every day, whose politics are very different from mine—and yet, we get on just swimmingly.

But let’s say for example, after last week’s mass murder of children, and in my own neck of the woods a mall shooting, when you’re exploring these issues around security, school safety, gun control, media responsibility, and mental health, trying your level best, liberal as you might be, to make sense, to figure out some stuff, to come to terms, while taking care as best you can of your loved ones—you’re checking out your news feed on facebook and this is what you see. It’s one of those quote graphics, words of “wisdom” against a pretty and sometimes appropriately themed backdrop. And this one concludes with this: “The problem is not guns. It is a Godless society.”

So, now that you’re squarely in my shoes, I’ll speak in the first person. Immediately, I’m enraged. My heart pounds, my blood boils. I cannot help but respond. And the exchange that ensues, sometimes reasonable, but mostly not, mostly frustrating, mostly talk at cross-purposes, some name calling, a lot of misunderstanding and dismissiveness, consumes practically my whole day. I try to stop. I can’t. I walk away and say that I’m done. A half an hour later I’m checking my notifications to see what new idiocy appears there. Part of me says, dude, you can defriend the guy; this is swallowing up too much of your psychic energies. Defriend. Problem solved. The other part of me says, no, I must not remain silent. I must not allow people to explain away an extremely complex and urgent social problem with a supernatural, pre-modern, anti-intellectual, fairy story. If they’re facebook friends of mine and they say things publicly I disagree with on some deep, important issue, I have an obligation to speak up.

So I keep at it. The last post in the thread, mine, appears at 1:30 in the morning. I’m in the process of letting it go now, perhaps, only because the friend in question and a couple of other voices that chimed in on his behalf have been silent. If they were to keep at it, who knows how long I would have pursued the argument—and finally, for what effect, to what end? And I’m sure these other folks felt the same way about what they perceived as my bleeding heart stupidity. Why was I doing this? Did I think I would change their minds? Doubtful. Did I derive any pleasure from the contest? On the contrary: it stressed me out. Was anything accomplished? Thus far, only that I had the last word. I don’t find that terribly satisfying. So, rather than saying anything specific about the issue we were arguing about (the simplification of complex social problems around gun violence to the SINFULNESS of our nation), I just want to pose these questions and offer some possible answers:

What are the benefits of facebook participation? I enjoy hearing from people I care about from time to time, dropping in on their lives for a moment to find out what’s going on. I enjoy readings or images and audio posted by these people I care about. I enjoy articles posted by on-line publications, artists, writers, musicians I subscribe to or “like.” And I enjoy the benefits in the opposite direction: letting friends know what I’m up to or thinking about, telling people about my writings, my blog, or my musical endeavors. For the most part, I enjoy political or philosophical posts made by real friends of mine; and because we have certain sympathies in common, these posts rarely make me uncomfortable and often confirm what I already think. And this may or may not be a benefit of facebook: that most often, people are preaching (or posting) to the choir. No change occurs, just people patting each other on the back. That’s the sort of cozy community aspect of facebook, which, while it may not be all that earth shattering, passes the time somewhat pleasantly. Ultimately it’s just another kind of television.

Can facebook be a place to conduct meaningful social discourse? Generally speaking, I hate to see people airing their dirty laundry or their personal squabbles on facebook. That’s unseemly to me, embarrassing. By contrast, also generally speaking, I get more interested when people argue politics and big ideas, but find, like I found with my own experiences with this, that it’s impossible for people to really reach each other this way, in part, because there’s so much less accountability when you’re typing something from a distant place on the web-o-sphere and not speaking face to face, there’s a tendency toward nastiness and attack, and as a result, nothing changes. There’s a part of me that wants facebook to be a way to decompress and “be with” friends. That part of me advises against becoming friends with people I don’t know well, or people whose world view will make me angry and upset; it’s hard enough navigating the interpersonal relationships with the people I encounter every day in the flesh. But then, there’s another part of me; (there are often, I must confess, on any number of issues and occasions, more than one part of me). This part of me says SPEAK UP. Be like Gandalf in the Fellowship film, faced with the big fire monster; when ignorance rears its head, say, “You cannot pass!” And stand your ground. If I do this, as a practice, I’ve got to approach it in way that results in less hand wringing, less blood boiling, less anxiety. That’s hard for me. To those fears, those emotions that threaten to twist up my insides, and to those who believe God is punishing us by killing our kids, I must again borrow Gandalf’s words: “Fly, you fools,” and continue to argue for sanity.

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