A few years ago, I taught a class with two police officers standing outside the door to the classroom. I had received a series of strange and disturbing emails from a student who we discovered had a history of gun-related legal trouble. Although they were not directly threatening, the emails referenced his gun collection multiple times, and the University and I thought it was best to error on the side of caution.
I didn’t really think the student would show. If I had really believed that, I would have cancelled class. I feel an obligation to protect my students under normal circumstances so I would never put them in danger if I had thought there was a high likelihood of his coming for me. That said, few people ever thinks it will happen to them until it does.
Class that day was nauseating and probably pointless. The students obviously noticed the two officers as they walked into class and were obviously uncomfortable with whatever was going on. Every noise that came from the direction of the door was nerve-wracking. A student came in late that day so the door opened somewhat abruptly a few minutes into class. Several of us startled. Teaching is usually the best part of my day. It’s a time when I can tune out everything I have going on and focus only on the students in front of me. That day, though, was surreal, and sad, and scary, and painful.
When class was over, I went back to my office (still aware of the fact that I wasn’t really any safer now that class was over) and all I could think about was what a ridiculous world we had created. How is it that we live in a world where students who want to learn and teachers who want to teach have to do so behind armed guards? How have we let this happen? How have we done nothing to fix it?
That night, I explained the situation to my wife. I knew it would scare her even more than it scared me. She listened while my son sat at the table, eating his dinner. At just over a year, he was young enough that we could talk about such things around him without his noticing and he got to remain blissfully ignorant of the very real dangers that surround us. When I explained what was being done to keep everyone safe, she simply said, “It’s not enough.”
I remember how her voice was shaking. I remember how scared she was. I remember how she kept glancing at our son as we talked about it. I remember thinking how insane it all was. I’m not a police officer, or a fire-fighter, or a soldier, or anyone else whose job comes with inherent risks and who has been trained to deal with those risks. I’m a teacher.
She was right, of course. It wasn’t enough.
Don’t get me wrong, the University did everything they could and I am thankful for the police officers who stood outside my classroom and the administrators who supported me and my students. She’s right, though, that it’s not enough. We have created a country where people are shot daily- where we live in constant threat of harm- where there have been 45 school shootings in the last nine months. How is it that the response from America is a collective “meh” and “that’s the cost of freedom”? How is it that we continue to debate whether or not we’re doing something wrong? The evidence is right in front of us in the form of hundreds of dead and injured men, women, and children, and millions of people who go to work or school scared every day. What is the matter with us? What the hell are we doing?
The sad reality, though, is that I’ve lost hope that it will ever be different. Even the most simple and meaningless suggestions for curbing gun violence are met with vitriol. Every legislator who gives a speech on it is hailed as un-American before the speech is even finished, and the social web is littered with nonsense before the victims are even named. There will probably be another shooting today or tomorrow and the cycle will repeat, and at some point in my life, I’ll probably have to teach another class with police protection.