Sunday, October 9, 2011

Gun Shy

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Maybe writing about guns on campus is not an appropriate topic for a lovely Sunday morning. Guns on campus: hold on, everybody’s at church today. Everybody’s going out for breakfast in their best duds. Why bring guns up and ruin everything?

Because once a gun has been brought up and fired, usually everything is ruined.

I remember my first time in a classroom worrying about a fellow student with a gun. It was at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks in 1990, and we had a weird kid in the creative writing program. He would get up in the middle of class and go stand in the corner—with no prompting, no warning. The teacher wouldn’t even acknowledge him. He would just stand in the corner wearing his overcoat, his head down, while we discussed student writing. I forgot about that guy; only years later when I saw The Blair Witch Project was I reminded of him.

I didn’t know to be afraid of this student in 1990 because guns and schools hadn’t mixed readily yet. I was taken aback when he was removed from campus and sent home because he did indeed have a gun in his room.

That’s where the fear started for me—when I was just a student—but now that I’m an adult, and a professor, and surrounded by convicts and troubled souls and desperate students at my community college, I am afraid once again. It’s so easy for the legislature to toy with allowing guns on campus, but I wonder if they’d change their mind in the face of a hostile student, a student upset about poor grades…an angry student left alone with a teacher in a classroom somewhere at night.

It is not so common that teachers shoot students. It is more common for students to shoot us.

People ask me if I like my job. I have to say yes—for the most part. But I’m all for metal detector stations that we all have to pass through before coming onto campus. If we are state employees, then we should get all the considerations and benefits of a state building: no guns. Certain confrontations end up making me feel like I should retire as soon as possible, before the campus becomes a full-on military zone.

We all wonder when our last day will be. As an instructor at a community college that accepts nearly everyone from all walks of life, takes their money but fails about half, I’ve sometimes wondered if any particular teaching day will be my last. There was the day in 2001 in my creative writing class—right after Columbine—when one of my students claimed to be “the third shooter”. My blood ran cold. I wanted to believe he was writing fiction, but he had labeled it nonfiction.

I did not sign up for stuff like this, did not sign up to be a police officer. After counseling services for my students--and intervention teams and SWAT teams and the FBI became involved--I felt a little better. This kid just had an active imagination, right?

Actually, I felt a little worse.

It's been ten years and I’m still gun shy. A student hasn’t pointed a gun at me and shot yet, but I’m waiting. So far it’s just been hard words, insulting gestures, and the crossing of all lines. I live in Arizona where the governor is waiting for good reasons for students to carry guns on campus. That fact is frightening in and of itself.

Most of the time when I teach, I’m upbeat, cavalier, sassy…anything to rally the troops and maintain their attention. But when it comes to dealing with individual students who bring their fathers into my classroom in hopes of intimidating me, or an ill-prepared student walking into my office hour to tell me I’m a rotten teacher because I write (in my leisure) about condoms breaking and resulting miscarriages…I don’t want those kids to have guns.

I don’t want a teaching day to be my last day.


  1. Isn't it awful that this even has to be a remote concern? I hate that!

    Columbine was a strong motivator for me as I was considering whether or not to homeschool.

  2. I think about this sort of thing, every now and then, on the bus. There seem to be fewer and fewer boundaries that people are unwilling to cross...