Monday, April 16, 2007

Columbine revisitied

I like to think that there is a special place in Hell for people who chain the exit doors and open fire. In truth, I think that Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the brains behind South Park, had something when they portrayed Hitler having a pineapple shoved up his a** on a regular basis. Come to think of it, perhaps a pineapple isn't enough. Perhaps those who leave their baby daughters out in the snow to freeze to death, who put dying babies into book bags and shove them under twin beds, and who emotionlessly slaughter their classmates need the whole f**king pineapple tree. One tree after another. Continuously.

Day in and day out, I teach my business communications students to write without emotion. I tell them time and time again that to calm down before they pen those professional missives.

I don't think I can do that today.

How lucky I am to not know anyone at Virginia Tech. How lucky I've been over the years to know nary a soul involved in any of the school shootings.

Each day I walk into my own classroom. Each day I stand before students who have book bags that I would never dare look into, believing that ignorance is bliss. I don't want to know who's packing and who's dealing. A stupid sentiment, I'm sure. But am I really any safer knowing what they carry? Or will it only make me more paranoid? Everyday at work, we teachers know exactly what we walk into. Last week a former student was shot by police after a brief foot chase. Had he not pulled his gun, they probably wouldn't have fired. Incidentally, he's considered a "person of interest" in his stepfather's murder. Two weeks ago a seventeen-year-old girl died from an apparent overdose. The woman whose baby was found under the bed... yep, had connections here. Each term, at least one student will have to drop out due to incarceration. Students who go m.i.a. are common.

We walk into that and we teach and we try so damn hard to pull those who want to learn up to where they want to be but don't quite have the coping skills to do on their own. We pester and cajole, bribe and bargain. Let me help you. Come to class. If you at least try, I can show you where you're right and where we can work to improve. I can't help you if you don't come to school. We call absent students every day. We try to live by the school's catchphrase: "Students First. We Care."

We pound our heads against the wall sometimes.

I don't yet know the story behind today's massacre. As I write this, they've yet to identify the gunman. It makes me think, though, about what must go on in such a person's mind. Is such an act really a last resort, as pop psychology and magazines tend to explain? Somehow I doubt it. Not this time.

It makes me think about my students, many of whom I know -- for the most part -- lack basic coping/problem-solving skills.

Tomorrow we have finals. Tomorrow I will have a student or two or six walk in and say: "I don't have a pencil. What do I do?" That person will honestly not know what to do when faced with a Scan-tron exam and no pencil. Bringing a pencil or asking a classmate to borrow one will not cross that student's mind. When you grow up in an environment that does not prepare you for the pressure that comes with an authority figure asking you where your pencil is, how will you deal with the student who attacks you, who perhaps accuses you of dating her man or sleeping with his woman?

We had a forum of student safety some time ago. I was mercifully absent that day. It wasn't, you see, a meeting on improving our physical safety on campus. It was to discuss creating a "safe" environment in the classroom -- one where the students would feel like they could raise their hands to answer questions and risk being wrong.

Oh the goodness of that migraine. I'm not sure that I could have handled that meeting. The next day a fellow teacher told me that a request for call buttons was denied because they "didn't want the students to think that [we] didn't trust them."

It is the consensus of several of us that we won't be a target. We'll just be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Our students won't be the ones who chain the doors and plan; they'll be the ones who pull the gun out of a book bag and start to fire at whomever "wronged" them and God help the bystanders.

So why do I stay? Why don't I go work on some nice, safe little campus somewhere? Maybe because such a thing doesn't exist anymore. Maybe because I know that I'm as safe as my brother, who is an administrator in a very well-off school district. Wealthy kids snap just as easily as poor. My mother actually admitted that she feared for both of us, not just me. We know, from experience, that even "nice, safe schools" have students who might say the wrong thing and turn everyone's world upside-down.

But why stay? Why stay in education at all? To martyr myself someday on the alter of idealism? I suppose that's where it's heading. I suppose that this blog has turned into another ponderance on why I bother to teach grammar during the week when, on weekends, I can explore a myriad of ideas -- ranging from the role of women in the creation of early weaponry to the role of the church in current political ideologies. I can ask "why" and "what if we're wrong" and not worry about someone's mind liquefying because I went too high on Bloom's Taxonomy. I can take risks and ask students to examine their belief systems.

I answered that question before. I stay because, right now, I have a point and make a difference. When I stop having a point, making a difference, then I'll hand in my resignation. I love my students, the vast majority of which are no different from me. My coworkers make each day even more enjoyable. We laugh and talk, have happy hours, punk each other now and then, and find comfort in knowing that we're all in the same boat at work. While I'd love another job, one with more intellectual challenges, I'm content to take my time and find the "perfect" one. I'm still lucky, I don't have to rush and take the first one I come across.

For now, while I look for that perfect job, I'll watch Cartoon Network with Gavie and eat popcorn and laugh at Lazlo and Blue and all of those other lovely little blips of ink -- and, while he giggles at their antics, I'll try to figure out how to teach him how to cope.

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