Saturday, December 15, 2012

A School Bus in Winter

Yesterday I made it a point to turn off the outside world so I could read my students’ final papers, review their attendance and homework, and study their progress in class all this past semester.  Then I stuck needles into the papers and used the witchcraft known as “a master’s degree in writing plus twenty years’ experience” to conjure my freshmen’s final grades out of thin air.  

Feeling celebratory and social—it was the last day of the semester, a Friday, my sister’s birthday!—I made some fresh coffee and turned back to Facebook and CNN.  You already know what I saw.  

Maybe because it’s winter and the kids were so young, and probably because I don’t have children of my own, the loss from yesterday in Connecticut reminded me of another tragedy: a school bus full of children slipping down an embankment onto a frozen lake and going through the ice.

The bus scenario is from a movie I watched a long time ago, The Sweet Hereafter.  I had rented it in the Indie section of Blockbuster, where I usually went for my important movies.  I watched it sitting home by myself, transfixed by the way this story played out, 20 children dead. 

Movies aren’t real; I know that.  However (and I choose this contradiction not to detract from our current tragedy in Connecticut but to quickly move us towards a future where there aren’t any more like it), the way my mind works, I see 20 students die, I want to prevent whatever caused that from ever happening again. Because—as I said to my niece this morning in a rush to convey my main point: “The only thing that pisses me off more than my students attacking me is other people attacking my students.”

My own community college classroom here in Arizona can be a frightening place sometimes, unfortunately, and I hate to admit that, but it’s true.  If I tell a real story, will I get in trouble?  Aren’t we already in trouble?  Why am I afraid to tell the truth?  Several semesters ago, I was having trouble with a student whose writing skills were very poor and whose opinion of me as an authority figure was even poorer.  He crossed his arms across his chest and looked at me with disgust every day we met.  He was four times my size.

One day, he angrily left my classroom with another paper that had earned another failing grade, and he came back with his father.  There they stood, in my classroom while I worked with a student, standing between me and the only exit, between me and the door that has a security lock on it primarily because the administration doesn’t want the computer equipment in the room to be stolen.

I can’t honestly say that I was afraid that day, because I don’t scare easy, not in the classroom anyway.  However (and for these men, I choose the contradiction with full force and no hesitation, definitely no shred of the type of civilized apology that might or could be associated with a contradiction, because in this case, I do mean to be contrary), they could have easily been armed.  This is Arizona.

This is America.

I’ve been a student since 1973, when I started kindergarten, to just a few months ago, when I sat in a municipal building one night for traffic school.  In the years between, there was high school, college, and four years of graduate school.  I’ve been teaching at the college level since 1990 when I started as a graduate student in the M.F.A. program at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks.  I have been a teacher in the State of Arizona for 21 years.  I was introduced to the idea of guns in schools a long time ago, as a student myself in Fairbanks.  One of my classmates had started submitting odd gun-related stories for our teacher and the rest of us to read. One night he did this again, then he got up and went to stand in the corner with his back to us.  The teacher let him stay there.  Later that night, that kid came to sit next to me at the bus stop, and I remember feeling sorry for him.  Then he was gone from school.

The next year I transferred to Arizona State University, a much larger campus, where it took one of my own students having a grand mal seizure in a classroom on the second floor of a very large building with no offices or phones of any kind around to make me realize that there should be some way to communicate from a classroom to the outside world.  That was 1991.  Yesterday after the shooting in Connecticut, one of my high school teacher friends told me that when she and another teacher were testing out the “Push In Case Of Emergency” button in one classroom, it went unanswered until finally one of the secretaries at the front desk of the school picked up, threatening detention.  This is 2012.  

Yesterday,  December 14th.   

Now I sit here with clenched teeth, wondering how many more times we will see a school shooting in the news before drastic and widespread measures are taken to prevent another one.  I wonder why I keep sitting by, school shooting after shooting, doing nothing.  Am I waiting for this terrible thing to come to my school?  I don’t want to wait that long.  I know some of the answers now, solutions that to me seem obvious and feasible:

1. Put metal detectors up by all the entrances, and security staff in place for enforcement.
2. Install bullet-proof windows and doors throughout.
3. Provide teachers with instant access to emergency services at all times.
4. Find a better security advisor than me.

I plan to inquire about this at my school.  I suggest that you do too, if you have a school.  Even if you don’t, you might know someone who went to school once, or you might have gone to one yourself.

You are among the fortunate who lived to tell about it.

What can Arizona do to honor the beautiful lives taken in Connecticut?  What can we do to let families know that their losses will not be in vain?  We can stop wasting time trying to dismantle anybody’s second amendment rights.  Focus more on what should be of top priority for any state in this nation anyway: the physical safety of children, teachers and all school staff members when they are on campus.  Any campus, for anything, at any time.  Major improvements to safety need to be made before improvements are made to whatever happens on the campus itself, like education or medical services.  You can’t give either to people who are already dead.

Let us not get desensitized to large groups of children being murdered by people who walk into their schools with guns.  Let’s memorize the name “Newtown”, and not think about Connecticut as the latest school shooting or the second worst school massacre ever.  If teachers can teach without a textbook and everything is free on the Internet, and especially if there is no privacy anymore, let’s start harnessing the full extent of those possibilities and start spending the money we save on barricading our schools in an attractive, environmentally friendly, life-preserving way.

I’ve waited too long to voice my opinion publicly about this issue.  I have held back, thinking my voice too small to make a positive difference but loud enough to cause trouble…for me.  For the past few semesters—which really means for the past few years—I have felt more like the paperboy of my life, whistling by my own front yard, tossing collection after collection of news into the driveway, good or bad I never find out because I never have time to read it.  I've actually been avoiding it, but it's time to do something different and better now.  Since I know about schools and I work with students—and I am among many people who I don’t want to see get hurt—it is my responsibility to take action.  I would not be a good student of my own if I did anything less.

Recently, I canceled the newspaper at my house, literally just last month, a life-long tradition over.  Even more significantly: I quit my gym.  I have been running on a treadmill for too long.  I need yoga or something.  I also ran out of bottled water before my scheduled delivery time next week, so now I’m drinking city water filtered once, not stirred, straight from my refrigerator’s dispenser.  That is not a recipe you want to write down if you live in Phoenix, but it’ll do for now because it buys me time to write and pray for Newtown, which is the very least I can do.

Write and pray for Newtown.


  1. Kate...this is some deep thinking on your part.Bad things tend to make us do that. We think nothing like that could happen HERE but it happens everywhere and anywhere, doesn't it ? I'm with you on the preventatives. I always say that no matter how bad things get, I can still count my blessings. I hope that feeling never goes away !

  2. Security is certainly one piece of the puzzle that needs to be figured out.

    Beautiful, evocative statue.