Tuesday was turning out to be a fabulous day for me. I was on the K-8 campus and got to watch two 8th grade graduation ceremonies, and hear four fantastic student speeches. Because of graduation, I was able to say hello, catch-up, and even hug parents who I have not seen in-person (besides through a car window) in two years. I was lucky to be able to then watch a 3rd/4th grade class’s adapted version of A Midsummer Nights’ Dream. Parents were there and the play was awesome! Bravo! I was riding on high and did not even mind doing some end-of-year school paperwork. It was one of those days when you’re so busy jumping from one fun thing to the next that you never stop to check your phone, turn on the radio, or browse the web for a few minutes. Then, I left to pick up my 5-year-old daughter from school. I gave her a big hug, talked about her day, and shared a snack.
It was not until later when I got home that I grabbed my phone and learned what we ultimately know now - that an 18-year-old killed 19 fourth grade children and two teachers at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas. He also injured an additional 17 people.
You may be asking yourself, why am I sending this note now and not in the immediate aftermath of the shooting? Good question. Some of it has to do with timing, as we were all enjoying the last days of school together. But the more honest answer is that I did not want to write this letter.
From my memory, I have written schoolwide messages in the aftermath of shootings in Paris, Orlando, Las Vegas, and Parkland. It is a grisly roll call. The truth is, I may have written more. Mass shootings have become so frequent that I am embarrassed that I don’t remember each one anymore. It’s become a grotesque blending. I thought to myself, how many times can I repurpose the same letter? The familiar rinse and repeat, response-as-routine we see on TV to this American phenomenon of school violence only adds to the nausea. Was I really going to add to that by slightly editing a letter I wrote seven years ago? Because what else is there to say at this point?
(If you are looking for advice on how to help your children - young and old - process the news of this latest school shooting, you can read the guidance I offered a few years ago. I think it is still true.)
In fact, I did sit down on Wednesday and tried to write something new, but what I ended up with was not fit to print. It was too angry. Too hopeless. Too rambling. Writing this message to you now is still a conundrum: there are hundreds of things to say, and also nothing. Words are inadequate for the pain, fear, frustration, anger, injustice, and incomprehensible nature of 21 people dead at school; and yet, not to write, whether out of exhaustion or avoidance of the powder keg that is gun rights issues in our country, would not have been an act of neutrality, it would have been of indifference. And, we are not indifferent. As educators, we have dedicated our professional lives to helping students grow and ultimately thrive as their best intellectual, social, emotional, ethical, and physical selves. We do this for children as an end unto
themselves but also for the benefit of their contributions to society. Gun violence has become an existential threat to that, and so, it is our business because it strikes at our purpose.
I think a lot about the times our children are living in. I hear people on the news talk about how the shooting in Uvalde was unimaginable. Many of us are of a generation defined by the Columbine shooting. It shattered a sense of security most of us were never even conscious of taking for granted because the evil that day was truly unimaginable. We can not say that anymore. Columbine was 23 years ago and our children are growing up in a world where they do not know a different reality than highly publicized school shootings, even in the semi-distant past.
I remember four years ago when Assets middle school students approached us, wanting to participate in the national school walkout event, which marked the one-month anniversary of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. It was scheduled for 17-minutes, one for each victim killed in the attack. I remember watching our students march around Lynch Field, read a poem, and write notes of aloha on a banner. The administration agreed to their request because we know as children get older, they want to take some form of action in uncertain times. I again watched many of those same 8th grade kids who organized the event, filled with both grief and hope for better days, march across the stage last Saturday as graduating 12th grade seniors. And then three days later, 21 people were murdered in a school in Texas. What happens to a dream deferred? I am constantly awed by how young people grow up retaining their optimism, refusing cynicism, when they continue to view adult dysfunction around them.
Some parents have understandably reached out and asked about any possible changes at Assets. The administration will be reviewing procedures and opportunities to further secure the facility. Some of these explorations have already begun. As educators, I think we return to what we do best, what we are trained to do, which is to prepare the next generation of citizens to imagine our world as a more democratic, sustainable, fair, just, and healthy place.
In our role as private citizens though, there is a lot I hope we do. We can all agree, whatever our political beliefs, that school should be an unquestioned safe place and that our children should not have to worry about gun violence. The “how” of achieving this is politics and falls outside the scope of this note. Certainly, mental health support, firearm access and storage, background checks, school security, social media monitoring, law enforcement training, violence protection programs, and many other topics are variables in this crisis. They may not be equally weighted by each of us, but we owe it to our children to do whatever we can within our spheres of influence to make it better.
I hope while we all focus on the immediate actions, we can take to make schools and society safer, we give equal attention to the root causes “upstream.” If we resign ourselves to the only option left being to “harden” schools - with metal detectors, security guards, and “good guys” with weapons on campus - we have not only failed our children but we as adults have failed our parents and former teachers who I believe hoped they had instilled in us the leadership, courage, and imagination to provide a better reality than that for our most precious gifts.
In closing, I offer a poem below about school that I often read to students or staff on the first day of school. May it be a secular blessing for a better tomorrow.
I wish you and your family a fun, restful, exciting, and safe summer.
House of Joy
By Lucille Clifton
May this be a House of Joy.
May we be open here to dreams,
and to each other.
May all who enter in these magic walls
feel love and feel respect
for learning and each other.
May we be always friends to life.
May we walk in that friendship.
May learning live in this house.
May it never leave.