Looking for Exits

By Jane Weinkrantz


I am certain that I am not the only teacher who cried in the car on the way to work Monday morning. The Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy haunts us all, but it haunts teachers in a different way. We are all asking ourselves,” What would I have done?” What would I have done if a man bearing the same assault rifle our troops use in Afghanistan were running loose in my school? Would I have had the courage to hide my students and lie to the shooter, telling him they were in the gym as Victoria Soto did, though it cost her her life? Would I have had the self-control to read to my students as Janet Vollmer did? Or would I have been hysterical or frozen, unable to protect anyone? Would I have had the presence of mind after the massacre was complete to tell the students to line up and walk out looking only at the wall as Vollmer did? I hope I would have been as brave. Although as teachers we take no sort of Hippocratic oath promising to keep our students safe every day, we make such a pledge every time we enter our classrooms. When I think, “I am responsible for other people’s children,” I know there is no greater trust someone can offer me.

             I’ve found myself looking at classrooms differently.  I’ll think, “That classroom has a big emergency window leading out to the lawn. If the kids went out the window and kept low, they could escape.”  In another room I’ll think, “That room has an emergency window that only opens out to the courtyard. We’d be sitting ducks in there.” I’ve been pondering how many students I could fit in the book room or the room where we keep the file cabinets.

            I’m not the only one thinking along these lines.  Although my students seemed eager to leave the tragedy behind and immerse themselves in schoolwork, one even specifying, “Can we not talk about Connecticut ?”, another student asked “Would you hide us? Where?“ ‘Where does that door lead?” someone else wanted to know, scoping the room in much the same way I had before class began. I was at a loss as to how to comfort my students and make them feel secure again. We were all groping for reasons why the unthinkable had happened and assurances that it would not and could not happen again. But, as long as there is unaddressed rage and easy availability of even the most efficient and deadly assault rifles, there isn’t much to say.

            President Obama asked the questions we’d all been thinking in his speech to the people of Newtown on Sunday night.  Are we really prepared to say that we’re powerless in the face of such carnage, that the politics are too hard? Are we prepared to say that such violence visited on our children year after year after year is somehow the price of our freedom?” The President, who has committed to legislation banning assault weapons and high capacity magazines, is not. But other politicians and media personalities seemed all to have gotten the offer-solutions-and blame-anything-but-guns memo. Conservative blogger Megan McArdle even recommended that students “bum rush” a gunman, no matter what weapon he’s carrying. She then walked that back to “only teenagers” as though they were more dispensable or more likely to triumph over a man with an assault rifle and nearly  unlimited ammunition.

            Others were quick to attribute Adam Lanza’s actions to his having been diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, a developmental disability on the autism spectrum that has no connection to violent tendencies at all. Yet, blaming his actions on his disability fulfilled certain sectors of the public’s need for a quick explanation that meant they wouldn’t have to change anything about their own lives--- as long as they didn’t know anyone or care about anyone on the autism spectrum, that is. Some more enlightened news sources were quick to point out that there is no relationship between aggression and autism and that people on the spectrum are much more likely to be victims than perpetrators.

            But, the blame didn’t stop with Asperger’s Syndrome. Senator Jay Rockefeller has introduced a bill to investigate video games--- which are to kids born in the last two decades what “Clue” and “Life” were to my generation--- although studies show no link between actual violence and video violence. If Adam Lanza played video games, it distinguished him from his peers about as much as having a bellybutton might. Our godless schools were also responsible.  Mike Huckabee said he wasn’t surprised that the children of Sandy Hook were gunned down because we have “systematically removed God” from our public schools. So, he decided to strike down a bunch of six year olds in order to get us to include him again? That makes sense.  Later on, Huckabee spread the blame more equally to include iPhones and homosexuals as well. Blaming the victim escalated beyond our wildest dreams when gun advocates, including Newt Gingrich, told us that if only the principal who was murdered while heroically trying to tackle Adam Lanza had had a gun, she could have prevented the whole disaster.  Why couldn’t the inverse be true? If Adam Lanza didn’t have a gun, this would have never happened.

Meanwhile, National Review writer Charlotte Allen—whose comments also appear in a Slate article called ”Stupidest Thing Anyone Has Ever Written About Sandy Hook”-- -was disappointed in the school’s “feminized setting” and that there weren’t more men and “huskier 12 year old boys” because things could have turned out very differently. She wrote, “ In general, a feminized setting is a setting in which helpless passivity is the norm. Male aggression can be a good thing, as in protecting the weak — but it has been forced out of the culture of elementary schools and the education schools that train their personnel. Think of what Sandy Hook might have been like if a couple of male teachers who had played high school football, or even some of the huskier 12-year-old boys, had converged on Lanza.” Actually, a male custodian, Kevin Anzellotti, ran through the school’s halls warning kids to “Get Down! Hide!” Theodore Varga, a male 4th grade teacher, said of the custodian, “So he was actually a hero.” Perhaps Varga and Anzellotti just didn’t play high school football or perhaps they are men and just men, not the super-heroes Allen imagines saving the day.

            In Tennessee , State Senator Frank Nicely proposed a plan in which some teachers will be trained and armed as a school’s “resource officers,” but no one will know their identities. This way, according to Nicely, the gunman won’t know whom to kill.  Nicely told Talkingpointsmemo.com, Say some madman comes in. The first person he would probably try to take out was the resource officer. But if he doesn’t know which teacher has training, then he wouldn’t know which one had [a gun]. These guys are obviously cowards anyway and if someone starts shooting back, they’re going to take cover, maybe go ahead and commit suicide like most of them have.”  On the other hand, perhaps a homicidal/suicidal lunatic would just kill everyone he encountered until he finally found the resource officer?  Perhaps when you are using an assault weapon on unarmed teachers and children, you are no longer concerned with being perceived as a coward. Virginia and Florida are also considering inviting guns into the classroom. Will students really feel safer knowing that they may or may not be in a class with a teacher who is armed?  Will some of them think, “Good! I’ll bring my gun, too?” (Not so long ago, schools were installing metal detectors to keep weapons out. Wouldn’t the logical conclusion to arming teachers be to dispense with metal detectors and let everyone bring their own weapon in the interest of self-defense? Will we be one big stand-your-ground nation? Why is it so difficult to see that the solution to gun violence can’t be more guns or that it is impossible to construct a logical response to those who are heavily armed and seething with fury or madness?

            Our children should be safe. Our teachers and school staff should be safe. Our administrators should be safe.  Our hearts shouldn’t break with the news of another tragic school shooting ever again.  Will our kids be secure when everyone is armed so they can shoot before they’re shot, or will they be safer when the weapons that caused so many deaths can’t be bought? Please don’t give me a gun to carry in school. Instead, make assault rifles, the means of this nightmare, a thing of the past.

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