I have a confession.
I don’t know when it happened, but I’ve become immune to natural disasters. Whether it’s a tornado in the Midwest, flooding along the Mississippi, a hurricane in the Gulf, or even a wildfire in my home state of California, none of these things affect me as they should. I’ll stop for a moment as images of charred neighborhoods make me wonder what I’d salvage from our own home if a fire were sweeping towards us, and I’ll try to imagine the emotional and financial devastation that storms can bring. But if I’m being honest, I turn the page quickly. It’s become uncomfortably easy to swipe from serious news to mindless entertainment.
But when I recently heard a political commentator compare mass shootings to natural disasters, something clicked. These shootings are actually no more random than tornados, swirling onto the radar with disturbing regularity when the conditions are right. Cool wind currents meeting the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico, hateful political rhetoric finding the ear of a radicalized white man with a closet full of guns. Innocent lives are lost in either case.
And so when I looked at my phone during fifth period on Tuesday, something inside of me broke. “Breaking News: A gunman killed 14 children and a teacher at a Texas elementary school, the governor said. The gunman was also killed.” Within hours the number had grown to nineteen students, all second, third, and fourth graders, and three adults.
These unnatural disasters leave scars on my heart, whether its massage parlors in Atlanta, a night club in Orlando, a grocery store in Buffalo, a movie theater in Aurora, a concert in Las Vegas, a synagogue in Pittsburgh or Poway, or churches in Charleston or Laguna Woods.
But the schools.
We don’t have the adjectives to describe what happened in Columbine or Newtown or Parkland, so the words fail again when we try to discuss the tragedy in Uvalde, Texas, on May 24th.
When I got that push notification telling me about the shooting in Texas, my response was likely the same as thousands of other teachers. I looked up from my phone and into my students’ eyes and imagined things I refuse to write here. I wondered about the open doors on either end of my classroom; I wondered about the ten-foot windows that stretch across one wall. I wasn’t scared, but as I looked at the sonnet I was about to share with my students, I knew I’d be able to do so only because the twisted lottery of assault rifles and mental illness had selected another school. This tornado had touched down in Texas.
Four years ago, only a few days after the shooting in Parkland, Florida, I stood in the same room and led a class through a shelter-in-place drill. Middle schoolers rarely take any disaster drill seriously. A fire drill is a chance to frolic in the sun, a lock down is an excuse to poke each other as you sit under your desks. But that post-Parkland drill was different, as everyone in the room had the Stoneman Douglass students on their minds. My daughter happened to be one of my students that year, and she sat among the others, their eyes wide, as focused on this drill as any they’d ever experienced.
My job was to prepare them, but also to reassure them. “We all know what happened in Florida last week, but that’s not what we’re preparing for today. This is a drill to practice a routine that will help us in far more likely situations — a gas leak in the neighborhood, a coyote galloping across campus,” I explained. “But you need to know” — and this is where I made the mistake of making eye contact with my daughter — “that if anything else happens that’s more serious than that, I’ll protect every one of you as if you were my own child.”
So why are we talking about another mass shooting at another elementary school? Why do we encourage the fetishization of high-powered weapons designed specifically to kill human beings? Why are these weapons so easy to acquire? The answer is far more complicated than an inability to arrive at a solution. For example, depending upon which polls you choose to believe, anywhere from eighty to ninety percent of Americans are in favor of full background checks, and yet this is still a country in which there are more guns than people. So why do fifty of one hundred United States Senators refuse to consider any type of gun reform?
We could talk about the National Rifle Association and its financial tentacles that reach deep into the pockets of some of the most influential politicians in the Republican party, but that isn’t something we can control. The NRA is one of the constants in this equation; we have to focus on the variables we can change.
The problem is that Republicans are good storytellers. Once upon a time children were told stories of wolves and witches to keep them from wandering alone into the woods, and the GOP has targeted a villain of their own in an attempt to steer us away from the obvious truths of mass shootings.
Don’t worry about the guns, they tell us, fear the demons who pull the triggers. It’s an easy bait and switch because everyone agrees that a rational mind will never understand what would lead another human being to walk into a school and assassinate second, third, and fourth graders. They focus on a single shooter in a single incident and, in a textbook example of transference, their own guilt becomes anger.
The assailant is described as evil, psychotic, or depraved, and since the listener can’t deny any of this, the story suddenly makes sense. It’s easier to hate a criminal than to examine the complexities of a system designed to ensure the quick and easy availability of weapons and ammunition. The storytellers look deeply into their followers’ eyes, tuck them in beneath the warm blanket of the 2nd Amendment, and assure them that they and their guns will always be safe.
They began spinning their fictions even before the parents of the nineteen dead Uvalde children had been officially notified. When President Biden forcefully called for legislation to prevent another atrocity — and we all know there will be another atrocity — conservative commentator Tucker Carlson immediately decried this plea as “grotesque partisanship.” Fellow Fox News commentator Will Cain said that he wasn’t surprised by Biden’s speech because he had seen President Obama “standing on the graves of dead children” while making a similar plea after twenty elementary schoolers and six adults were killed by another shooter in Newtown, Connecticut.
Senator Ted Cruz, who represents the twenty-one Uvalde families who will never be whole again, stepped on stage and played his part well. He first accused Democratic leaders of exploiting the deaths, then snarled at a reporter who asked why these events only occur in America, and finally identified what he felt was the true danger from that morning — an unlocked back door. People don’t kill, after all. Doors do.
When the Miami Heat basketball team followed a moment of silence before their NBA playoff game with an announcement encouraging fans to contact their representatives to push for gun control legislation, Senator Marco Rubio, who represents the families who lost children at Stoneman Douglas High School in 2018, responded with a critical tweet questioning the NBA’s business relations in China.
But here’s the uncomfortable truth. All of us are complicit in this theater of the absurd. It’s tempting to blame Cruz, Rubio, and the other forty-eight Republican senators who refuse any discussion about background checks or the banning of assault rifles (just consider the name of the rifles at the center of these debates), but all they do is represent those who have voted them into office.
We’ve chosen to live in a nation where we can deny the negative aspects of our history but accept the school shootings that certainly wait in our future. Where politicians will happily ban books but quiver at the idea of banning AR-15s. Where we will fight valiantly for embryos but see the murders of school children as necessary sacrifices in the name of individual liberty and the strict preservation of the 2nd Amendment. We’ve accepted that sometimes when parents pick up their children from school, officials will have to compare DNA samples rather than signatures on an emergency card.
Sadly, neither this week’s emotional pleas nor next week’s political maneuverings will have any impact on my classroom. Even as I write this, I know that the roulette wheel is spinning, and a ball is bouncing. The only thing that keeps me safe, the only thing that keeps my students safe, is just that the wheel is so large. There are more than a hundred thousand schools in America, so the odds that the ball will land on my students and me are astronomically small. But we can be sure that it will land somewhere.
Until then, my classroom routine will remain the same. We’ll read poetry, we’ll write essays, we’ll discuss literature, and we’ll await the next unnatural disaster.
But I have decided to make one change. For the first time in almost fifty years, I will no longer begin my day by reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. Why, after all, should I pledge allegiance to a republic that shows no allegiance to me?