Today I had the sort of work day that few others have, but which was sort of par for the course for me. I’m only teaching part-time right now, so I only had morning classes for this day. I had to stay into the afternoon however for efforts relating to connection with my students: helping some eighth graders run a bake sale to raise a little money for a class trip later on, and getting those who will take active rolls in the school’s Christmas worship service next week (something that goes with the official connections that remain between the Lutheran Church and the Finnish state) prepped on their lines and queues. Following all that I took care of some basic paperwork and came home and treated myself to a little nap before setting to work on some writing. But as I turned on my computer to get to work I indulged in a bit of international on-line radio news, and consequently caught the Sandy Hook story just as it was breaking on NPR. It’s hard to focus on other things right now, so I’ll just take a moment to let some of the thoughts and feelings this gives rise to flow here.
First of all it is interesting to me that there has been repetition of the fact that this has been the second-worst school shooting in US history. I can see where that would be strictly speaking correct, but I am disturbed none the less that this once again sets aside the matter of the Bath School Massacre, which was technically more of a bombing than a shooting, and thus it is deprived of recognition as the greatest school killing in US history on this occasion. That puts Virginia Tech in the lead, followed by Sandy Hook today, knocking the University of Texas sniper of 1966 back to third place and the Columbine boys to fourth.
It also adds a new twist to the psychology of such things. The reports are still being untangled as I write this, and they will be for some days; but what we seem to have here is not someone who is protesting about having to pay high taxes to cover the cost of educating other people’s children, as in Bath, nor a psychologically isolated and tormented student reacting against the environment where he felt the most pain, as in Virginia, nor a dramatic reaction to bullying taken to extreme, as in Columbine and its imitations. Initial reports indicate that the shooter had a troubled family relationship with one particular teacher in this idyllic little school for 5-10-year-olds, and so he decided to attack this teacher in her place of employment so as to not only destroy her, but to attack as much as possible of what her life stood for.
This leaves us with few lessons to draw morally. There is nothing the school could have done to make things safer. The shooter was buzzed into the school as a family member of a member of staff — someone who had probably been there many times before, and not something that normally presents any significant risk. It wasn’t the sort of place where security frisking or metal detectors would have been appropriate. And tightened gun control laws wouldn’t have stopped this fellow from getting the small caliber hunting weapon he was carrying, nor limited his access to the sort of ammunition he used. The students had been drilled on “lock down” procedures, and they apparently carried out their emergency routines flawlessly, but it not plausible to say that this is likely to have saved lives in this case. If anything it gave the teachers a sense of duty and mental focus that helped them get through the crisis in better shape than they would have without such training.
So why did these 20 young children die this day? Sadly, almost ironically, because their teacher cared deeply about them, and because someone who really wanted to hurt this teacher in the process of killing her knew that. It is not likely to be fruitful to speculate on the matter here any further than that in terms of how this gunman came to be so angry at this teacher, or what could have been done to prevent either his anger or means of expressing it. In those terms perhaps this was just a tragic accident of unfortunate circumstances, like all of the car accidents that were being mentioned in passing on the traffic reports that were interspersed with coverage of this tragedy that I was following.
But in spite of all of the sorrow and uncertainty still involved in any analysis of this tragic event, I am already convinced that there is one thing that people need to take from it: It yet again shows how much teachers’ work means to them in terms of the connections they (we) pupils/students. Had the killer been a disgruntled family member of a banker or businessman he might have attempted to destroy a bank building or office or retail outlet, but that wouldn’t have had anything like the painful impact of his attacking a teacher’s working place and current pupils. More than those in the vast majority of other professions, teachers invest deeply of themselves in their work; in those they teach. This killer apparently knew that all too well, which made hatred for these innocent pupils part and parcel of his hatred for their teacher. So the only real lesson that can be drawn from this tragedy on a broader scale may be for those who are not as aware as this killer was of how personally teachers take their work to also stop and think about that for a bit; to see how much of themselves teachers invest in those that they teach, and to in turn to offer them a bit more respect than usual this Christmas season.
President Obama spoke of emotionally of doing what he was sure all parents will do after hearing of this heinous crime: hugging is own children more tightly than usual, recognizing once again how fragile life can be for all of us. He will also probably be motivated to take stronger action than he otherwise would have to reform the sheer insanity of US gun ownership laws. What he may or may not get around to doing is acknowledging how this tragedy reflects the deep connection that teachers share with those they teach. Though this time it has led to an unspeakable tragedy, far more often this connection leads to unspoken benefits to the places we live and to important parts of our lives that many take for granted.
Newtown, Connecticut is, and will continue to be, one of the most desirable middle class places in America to live because of the deep sense of community there, in no small part because of the work that the teachers like those at Sandy Hook Elementary have been doing. Perhaps in the very shattering of this ideal the value of what such teachers contribute to their communities will become less taken for granted.
In an ideal world this would also lead to greater resources being given to this important work in terms of building on the value of what great teachers contribute; focusing less on preparing kids for standardized tests and genuinely caring about helping them develop as well-rounded human beings with important dreams that their schools should help them realize. But for me as a teacher to dream that such a tragedy might lead to structural improvements in education systems is too great a stretch, even for the most romantic of dreamers.
In any case, here’s wishing peace and comfort to all those in Sandy Hook area, all of whom will be going through Christmas in a state of shock this year over losing so many of the familiar little faces they would otherwise see having snowball fights in front of their houses over the holidays. My prayers as well are with you. As they are for all those in southwestern Connecticut and other semi-rural areas of New England, and everywhere else where the illusion of safety based on mutual trust has been so badly shattered this week.
All I can add to the platitudes coming from politicians and media professionals is this: Just because the way that teachers personally care for learners has led to tragedy in this case, that doesn’t stop it from being a wonderful thing worth celebrating otherwise. Please don’t forget that, and please let teachers you know know that you remember it.