No parent sends their child to school thinking that they might get killed in the coatroom among the backpacks and winter coats, and no parent thinks that when the bell rings at 3:30 their child will not be leaving school alive. No teacher thinks that while they are taking attendance or reading aloud to their students that they might have to stand between the children they teach and a person armed with a gun trying to protect them from being killed. This is what happened on Friday in Newtown, Ct.
I am a teacher and a parent, and I have been thinking about what happened to my Connecticut colleagues and their students. My heart aches for the families that are dealing with the loss of their children, spouses and friends, and for those who survived and will return knowing that friends, students and colleagues will never walk into school again. When I saw the pictures of those beautiful 6 and 7 year olds who will forever have baby teeth and chubby cheeks, I thought first of my 5, 6, and 7 year old students with the same bright eyes and smiles, and then of my own children at that age. First grade students have an inherent sense of self, boundless energy, and are starting to make connections between themselves and the larger world. They are beginning to read, they love to play, and they are starting to consider what they might be when they are older. For these twenty children, we are left to imagine what may have been.
The facts surrounding the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School are not yet clear. Here is what we know. The shooter killed his mother and then took multiple guns, drove to an elementary school and killed 20 students and 5 more adults before turning a gun on himself. We know his name and the names of his victims. We know that Dawn Hochsprung, the school principal, and Mary Sherlach, the school psychologist, lunged at the shooter and were killed trying to stop him. We know that victims Jesica Rekos, age 6, loved horses, Noah Pozner, age 6, loved animals and video games, Jack Pinto, age 6, was a New York Giants, fan, and Ana Marquez-Greene, 6, could hit every note of “Come, Thou Almighty King.” We know, according to Dr. H. Wayne Carver, Connecticut’s chief medical examiner, that all of the child victims are believed to have been shot multiple times and that seven of the twenty children killed were shot three to eleven times in their classrooms on Friday.
I also know this: children and adults were terrified when they heard the bullets firing in their school, and yet every teacher and staff person put their own fears aside and worked to protect and calm those children Friday, December 14th, 2012 because teachers serve. We are in the business of giving. We give our time, our resources, our energy, our humor, and most importantly, our love to our students every single day that we walk into a classroom and say good morning to a child, every single hour that we spend creating lessons that will spark students’ interest and creativity, and every single night that we lay awake wondering if they are safe at home for the evening.
I know that the teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary School have practiced what we in Columbus call “Level 3 Lockdown drills.” We rush the children into the coatroom, lock ourselves into the classroom, pull the shades, and sit silently, hiding in the dark, until the drill is over. My classroom of eight multiple disability students is not always quiet during these drills, but we try. And my Instructional Assistants and I know that if an armed person was running through the school shooting we have options. We could force ourselves to fit into the classroom bathroom and barricade ourselves, or we could run with the children out of our classroom back door to the church that is behind the school. I have been through three real Level 3 Lockdowns when shootings were happening outside of the school building, sitting quietly in the dark classroom waiting for the shots outside to stop. But nothing can prepare you for an actual shooter running through the building and the very real possibility that your students, you, and your colleagues could be killed while at school.
It shouldn’t take a mass school shooting and the senseless murder of twenty 6 and 7 year olds to suddenly cause our nation to realize that we might have a problem with guns in our country. It shouldn’t take 5 teachers dying to save their students’ lives for the public to suddenly recognize and realize the profound care and service that teachers perform each and every day. That is an insult to the memory of those teachers who died on Friday and to all of us who walk into classrooms every day to work with children. I am not a hero because I teach, and I hope to never be in a situation like the teachers in Newtown, CT. I am a teacher because I like children, particularly young children, and spending time with them every day, even though it is exhausting and very hard work, is a pleasure.
My students are more likely to die from the gun violence that happens in their neighborhoods than from an armed school shooter. When the media focuses only on mass school shootings, we are neglecting to tell the larger story of the gun violence that so many of our students face when they leave school to play at the park in their neighborhoods, when they are passengers in a stopped car and bullets whiz past the window, or when they find themselves between shooters while walking down the street. Ten people, including 4 teen-agers, were killed in Chicago on Saturday, December 15th, victims of gun violence. There have been 66 homicides by gun violence this year in Columbus, many of them children under the age of 19. The children of Newtown, CT have joined those of the Chicago and Columbus streets where gun violence has taken away their childhood and their innocence.
Arming me is not the answer, nor is installing a metal detector in my school. But passing laws that banning assault weapons and that would make it harder to purchase guns would be a start toward making children safer, not just in schools, but on our streets, on their playgrounds, and in their homes. I’m not naive. I know that the United States loves its guns and that even suggesting that we limit the amount of weapons that a person can purchase will anger many. However, if the shooter on Friday had not had access to guns those 20 beautiful children and their teachers would probably be alive.
I hope that out of this tragedy an honest discussion on gun laws and violence will be had and that parents and teachers will push their elected officials to pass and implement stricter gun laws. It is too late for the children and teachers murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary School, and probably too late for hundreds of others who will die as a result of gun violence in our nation before we can implement policy changes regarding guns, but we must, as parents and teachers, unite to protect our children and ourselves. More guns cannot be the answer to the problem of gun violence in our country. Tomorrow, when I walk into my classroom, my students will be lucky enough to sing a song with the words, “I can, I can, I can make it to the top. I can, I can, grow and never stop.” It shouldn’t take luck for that song to be true for a child.
Daria DeNoia is a primary special education teacher in Columbus City Schools