Jennifer Rich is an assistant professor in the College of Education at Rowan University in Glassboro, N.J.
When I began teaching, I taught second grade. Pokémon cards were popular then, and children often brought them to school to trade at recess. One day, a boy kept playing with his cards during class time. After two warnings, I told him that I was going to hold his Pokémon cards until the end of the day. His response? “I don’t care. I have a gun, and I’ll shoot you.” He calmly pulled a gun out of his desk and pointed it at me.
I have tried to imagine what might happen in this scenario under President Trump’s “arm the teachers” proposal. I can spin out two scenarios. In the first, I’d be one of the 20 percent of teachers who would be trained and armed. I would pull out my previously concealed weapon and aim at a child. In the tension of the moment, I would, perhaps, shoot him.
Alternatively, another adult in my school would be armed. I would send up an alert, and a grown-up with a gun would enter my classroom within moments. He or she would see a young Hispanic child pointing a gun at a white, female teacher, with a room full of terrified, cowering children. The student holding the gun would, perhaps, be shot.
Let’s say, in either of these scenarios, this young boy escapes with his life. In both, I would have lost the trust of my students. I would become another source of fear.
What happened, instead, is something that could only have happened 18 years ago. It was the post- Columbine era, certainly, but it was a world before school shootings felt . . . commonplace.
I walked up to the student, a boy I liked who often wore an impish grin along with his pressed school uniform, whose hair was always gelled carefully, who had a sweet sense of humor, and put one hand on his face to distract him, and said, “Oh, you don’t want to do that, sweetie.” With my other hand, I reached out and took the gun by the barrel, and pulled it away from him. I called the office. Help came. I found out three things later: The gun belonged to his dad. It was not loaded. He’d learned his behavior by watching his dad threaten his mom.
Now, I teach the teachers — that is, college undergraduates planning a career in education. Each semester, it seems, there has been a school shooting, and I tell them this story. I also tell them that I have had to talk to elementary school classes, as well as my own young children, about school shootings. I give them guidelines for those discussions. They take notes. I have become very good at having this conversation with my college students; it is my least favorite skill.
My students are hopeful and brave and funny and smart and caring, eager to be the best teachers they can be. These young men and women will have students coming to them hungry, homeless and abused. They will have students who have parents divorcing, who are adjusting to new siblings, and who experience blessings and disasters, illnesses and bullying. These young teachers will also, of course, have to help 25 students each year learn to read, to add, and to understand how flowers grow and what it means to be a part of a community. Some children in their classes will have mental-health needs, some physical needs, some will need extra attention for no diagnosable reason. Each child is part of a family, and that family might need extra support, as well.
I encourage my students to debate, to learn, to engage whatever strategies work so that each child in their care knows that he or she is valued, and that he or she is safe. I will never, ever advocate that my students arm themselves.
Teachers are not soldiers or police officers. Schools are not battlegrounds.
The tools I give my students will not solve all their problems, but they are a start. I encourage them to use their gut, to teach with empathy and heart. I remind them that it is more important to be kind than to be right, and a little bit of extra time goes a long way.
There is so much that teachers need to keep a school safe. We need time to focus on students, to listen to them and to help them listen thoughtfully to one another. We need books to engage student imaginations, to teach them about the better worlds that they can create. We need paper, pencils and crayons. We need music, theater and history, as well as science, math and technology. We need the tools to talk about the fear our children feel when they learn of another school shooting.
There is one thing we do not need, both because we are horribly ill-equipped to handle the awesome responsibility of taking a life, and because it would shatter the culture of trust within a classroom, and that is a gun.
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