“I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do.”
(Atticus Finch, to his son Jem, in To Kill A Mockingbird, by Harper Lee)
I grew up in a house with guns. I never saw them as anything but tools. Tools I had no interest in. Yes, my father was a hunter. But I had watched Bambi at an impressionable age. I kept my distance. He kept his weapons locked and unloaded. He kept them for a purpose, albeit one I never fully agreed with.
A student once brought what looked like a gun into my school, into my classroom. As he moved from class to class, he let his peers feast their eyes on his “weapon”. Smart, capable adolescents saw something and said nothing. It was mystifying. It was enraging. Even though the gun was fake, the threat was real. No learning at all happened that day.
My father never wanted me to be a teacher. Certainly not a teacher in Newark. First, the career teachers he knew were facing difficult retirement scenarios. They were burnt out, but unable to stop working. He wanted me to have a different degree of financial security. Second, I was his child. Parents are primed to protect their offspring. The word “Newark” alone shut down the logical part of his brain and made him anxious. It was my decision to make, but I was fully aware of his opinions on the matter.
Safety is a basic need, primal like thirst and hunger. When our safety is in question, the parts of our brain required for critical thinking and processing abstract ideas simply shut down as our neurons shift into a more primitive gear. Education requires critical thinking. It requires us to be fed, hydrated, rested, and secure. The way I see it, weapons within the school building, even weapons that are ostensibly there to increase the safety of students, make learning an impossibility.
Atticus knew children, especially his children. He knew Jem was at the age where his father’s ability to take out a moving target with one shot would be what defined him as a person, as a man. Yes, marksmanship was a survival skill, one he excelled at, but it came with a price too heavy for him to bear. Even if the moving target is a squirrel, a bird, a deer, it is still living, and would continue living, if he had never fired. This is a grave responsibility with a kind of permanence that has always flooded my heart with pure terror.
Perhaps I am just a pacifist. The only physical fights I’ve ever been in were against my brother, the kind of fury filled romps that only siblings proximate in age and size get into as children. It is hard for me to think of a situation now in which I would throw the first punch. It’s much easier to imagine myself absorbing a blow because I simply lack the instinct to duck. It’s far too easy to imagine myself shielding another because what choice is there, really? It feels to me as inevitable as gravity. This, too, terrifies me.
Much has been written on a teacher’s responsibility. To impact our students, we must be our authentic selves and get to know each student as an individual. We must know our content like the back of our hand so that there is no question, no misconception, that we can’t deftly navigate on the fly to maximize understanding. We must doggedly chase the bouncing ball that is our curriculum, revising the scope and sequence each year to align a little better with what we now believe are the best practices to ensure college and career readiness. We must protect our students, scrutinizing bruises that seem to show up too often, surreptitiously passing out extra snacks to ensure no belly is empty, forming partnerships with parents and families to gather context and join forces. We must do all we can for our kids and still make peace with the fact that it will never, ever feel like enough. It’s an exhausting privilege that ensures the work will never be tedious or rote. It requires you show up each day humble and hungry. It’s crippling and empowering, soul-crushing and life-affirming.
I can think of only one thing that would get me to give it up. Guns, in the classroom. Not the fake plastic kind that some kid sneaks into the waistband of his khakis hoping to look tougher than he is. Not the possibility of a real one, brought in by a student – or member of the community- a possibility we’ve seen pan out now time and time again. I’m talking about guns put there deliberately, intentionally, because some fools in our government thinks they make our schools safer, disregarding all the research that shows time and time again that the presence of a gun makes gun violence, intentional or accidental, so much more likely to occur. I would not want to work with colleagues who were eager to bear arms. I would not be able to expect my students to learn in a classroom that requires an armed instructor. I would no longer be able to be a teacher.
You see, an armed instructor sends the message that weapons are sanctioned. That the world is menacing and requires a kind of vigilance that is incompatible with enrichment and education. Students should want to be their teachers because they see them as hard-working, kind, and truly courageous – willing to take an unpopular stand, determined to keep marching on the path of righteousness regardless of the number of obstacles in the way. I simply could not exist in a world where a child could want to be a teacher so they could carry a gun like some vigilante. We need teachers to continue to be the heroes that prove “the pen is mightier than the sword”, that words can change the world. We need to demonstrate that real courage requires no weapons, in fact it is being prepared to face a man with a gun armed with nothing but your conviction that we must create a better, safer world for the children that have no choice but to trust in our flawed leadership. A better, safer world with fewer guns. Period.