News of the Uvalade school shooting continues to spread, but in many ways, it already seems like it’s going out of public awareness. It’s summer. With kids out of school, and school vacancies feeling threatened by the threat of gun violence, people are letting themselves be forgotten. As always.
But for those teachers and students who spend 180 days (or more) a year in school, the trauma of gun violence does not fade with the subsequent news cycle. We carry it with us every day. And more and more, it seems that one more weight is slowly crushing the mental health of everyone involved.
Conversations I could not have imagined before are now commonplace.
We just finished our first active shooter drill of the year. As in previous years, students want to say what we will do. What do we do if it actually happens? I say this every year since my first active shooter drill experience. We will lock our doors and stay out of sight. We will listen carefully to see if there is a “safe” moment when we can run for it. And if unforeseen events happen and someone enters this classroom with a gun, I will attack them. And as I pull their hair, scratch their eyes, and bite them with all my might… I hope my students will run. Escape safely from the building.
Our children are making such decisions and even adults should not be asked to do so.
Honestly, the last part usually gets some laughter. Five feet tall, the thought of their sweet cardigan-and-maxi-skirt-wearing English teacher going all the sweet badger over the school shooter is quite an image. And I’m glad they can still laugh at this. But I can assure them that I am serious. “It’s my job,” I tell them. “I volunteered to save you all with my life in need… although I really hope it never comes.” We talk about fighting. About throwing desks and chairs at the intruder. Often, a few young people in the class objected to my plan. “I’m not right to let you take a bullet for me, Mrs. Mathis. No offense, but I’m a man. It’s my job to protect you. “
Children are now accustomed to thinking of their own deaths at the hands of school shooters.
Just stop and think about that. A 14-year-old boy has undergone the procedure And accepted That in his worldview, being part of a human being means that he may have to jump in front of a person with a gun to protect his teacher from being shot. Even when I type it my brain struggles to accept this reality. I tell them the truth. That I have touched deeply on their heroism and honor, but no one will stand before me if I accuse the assailant. They can fight me. But I will be the main target. I am an adult. Their teacher. And I hope they run away safely as soon as possible. Several of them chatted. But we all accept this reality and go back to our lessons.
Every time I have this conversation I am amazed at the desire of my students to protect each other (and me). And every time, I wonder what kind of long-term impact this kind of reality will have on them as they get older.
Managing threat levels is now part of the “new normal”.
Another school year. Our Vice Principal comes on top of the PA system. “Safe in place. Safe in place. Safe in place.” I’m not too worried. This is not the language for an active shooter situation. We all have to stay in our classroom until further notice. No student will be able to go out to use the restroom or water fountain. When the bell rings, we don’t move on to the next class period. This is usually because something is going on in the hall (a drug-sniffing dog, a student has an outburst, etc.) and they want it to be clear to the students. I am continuing the lesson.
Teachers are learning how to hide our own fears for our students.
Suddenly, the PA system cracked again. This time the voice of our vice principal is sounding differently. Serious. Anxious. “We will immediately move to a lockdown system. Locked up. Locked up. Locked. “It’s an active shooter announcement. And it’s not a drill. I quickly walk behind my classroom, conscious to maintain a calm, controlled look. I’m removing the magnet from my door, make sure it’s locked. Quick, I’m The test is for a student who may need to be dragged into my room, and I realize with a cold shock, for the shooter. Concerned neo-hippies and their global warming, i’ll tell ya. Relax, ”I say, shrugging my shoulders and listening to the sound of gunfire.
I don’t want to die today. I did not sign up for this.
When I smile and tell students that they can use their phones as long as they are silent (finally, a friend of theirs in another part of the building hears the shot and then we find out where the shooter is), I realize I have to keep my promise to my students today. Will be I may have to make sacrifices to save them. I could die today. So can my students. And as much as I’m sure I’ll die for any one of them, another thought will run through my head. I don’t want to die today. I did not sign up for this.
From the thought that we might die preparing for tomorrow’s vocabulary quiz.
Twenty minutes later the vice principal’s voice called again. False signals. Everything is fine. Students will be able to go to their next class. Somewhat shocked, I hugged a few students who were still upset. I tell them to breathe. That’s all right. I write a pass for a girl in tears to go to the guide. I am ready to teach my next class.
Later in the day, an email arrives informing us that a suspect is walking around the primary school next door. Someone reported that it looked like they might have a gun, but they were wrong. There was no danger. There is no danger. Except for a whole school trauma full of children and their teachers they wondered if they would die today.
We can’t go on like this.
Like many teachers and students in this country, I have not experienced actual gun violence as a teacher in my 18 years of classroom. I was lucky. But that doesn’t mean I’ve been affected by every incident of gun violence in schools across the country. We are all infected. Every drill, every news story, and every new, traumatic shooting adds another layer to the trauma that our nation apparently takes for granted.
For teachers, this may manifest itself in increased feelings of burnout and secondary traumatic stress. Or the record number of teachers who are thinking about leaving the profession, never thought they would leave. It is also visible in the number of academics who are loudly demanding change from our government. The walk-out talks, the selection of serious leaders on gun control, and the full funding of mental health services are all being discussed more enthusiastically than ever before.
For now, our students have admitted that they are not safe in school. They plan how they will survive or, in many cases, how they will dedicate themselves to their friends or teachers. What will be the long-term effects of the traumatic effects of gun violence? And what will the future hold for young people who will bring this sustainable trauma to youth?