On Thursday, in response to the tragedy at Umpqua Community College, President Obama gave a speech in which he claimed that Americans have become “numb” to the violence of mass shootings.
I am a parent to two young children who also teaches at a community college three hundred miles north of Roseburg, and for the last several years—ever since reports of public shootings have cycled through the news with stunning regularity—I haven’t been numb, I’ve been afraid. At the beginning of each school quarter, I find myself scanning my classroom, wondering if any of my students are dangerous. I find myself watching the door when I work late in my office, wondering how I might react if a disgruntled student hunted me down. I find that I often move through my workday in a low-level state of alert. Though I never intended to choose a career that might put my life in danger, I worry daily that my sons could lose a parent.
And of course, I worry about my children’s safety, too. Every morning when I use a magnetic card to open the door to my 2-year-old’s daycare center or every time I sign myself into my older son’s first-grade classroom, I can’t help but remember the scenarios that have made such security measures necessary.
The Columbine massacre taught us that our teenage children were in danger in their high schools. The Virginia Tech massacre reminded us that institutions of higher learning could become sites of terror. The Newtown massacre taught us that even the smallest of our children cannot be held safe.
There is something about public education that leaves us all vulnerable. When we fill rooms with students and line them up in chairs, when we expect them to share themselves more or less freely, to be a community but also to compete, we must acknowledge that at any point someone—a student or outsider—can turn on these not-quite strangers. Someone can enter the room with a gun and take advantage of the trust that any classroom relies on, instantly changing it from a site of learning to a site of terror.
On Thursday evening, I read about the events at Umpqua Community College and looked at photos. I noted how the students looked a lot like my own students, young women in jeans and ponytails, young men in shorts and baseball hats, a few older students. No one had come to school that day expecting the worst. When I woke up the next morning, these pictures still in my head, I noticed that my mind kept trying to put distance between me and them, to come up with reasons this wouldn’t happen in my own community. My school has a reporting system for suspicious behavior, I told myself; my community is quiet and peaceful. By the time I had fully awoken and poured myself a cup of coffee, I realized how preposterous this was. This kind of incident could happen anywhere; it could happen here. Moments later the outside world would confirm this conclusion. When I checked my e-mail I found there a neighborhood alert: a gun had been found and confiscated from a student at a nearby high school.
We live in a time where, as parents, we exert unprecedented control over our children’s surroundings. We put helmets on our kids before they ride a tricycle in the driveway. We limit their screen time, their sugar, their exposure to plastics. But how do we live with the risks we can’t mitigate? We live in an era where a day at school or a trip to the movie theater may end in disaster.
And so, when we learn about yet another shooting, it’s not numbness we feel, but rather a sickening sense of desperation, a mounting fear of these forces beyond our individual control. As the President said towards the end of this speech “This is not something I can do by myself.”
For many of us, the issue is not that there are no solutions. The issue is that we feel powerless to implement them. What can we do? We can sign the petitions, we can write letters, we can vote, but at the end of the day so many of us feel helpless and alone.
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