America, Don't Give Me a Gun: Love, a Teacher

Photo: Cali4beach / Creative Commons   [Image description: A classroom with many  desks facing a whiteboard.]

Photo: Cali4beach / Creative Commons

[Image description: A classroom with many  desks facing a whiteboard.]

It's Thursday afternoon, February 23rd - one week and one day after the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida. I’m over 2,500 miles west, in Santa Ana, California, working at my small continuation high school. Though the distance between our schools is significant, this tragedy strikes our sensibilities with blunt force, because we know the comparisons are too stark, the videos of the attack too viral, for us to turn away or dismiss this as an anomaly.

It is fifth period, my last class of the day, about five minutes before the bell. Several students sit or stand around my desk. Vince, with his black mushroom top haircut flopping over his eyes, sits in a chair against the window in front of me, his Chromebook open on his lap. He's there most days; not his assigned seat, but it's where he's comfortable. Sam stands. He's quiet and thoughtful, but ready for a conversation about something more interesting than comma placement. Samantha is tall, with long, straight, blondish hair. She loves to be in the fray, and is quick to share her opinion. Robert, with the fresh buzz cut that he covers with a beanie, is there too, even though I have him second period. 

The evidence that our students face daily trauma in their lives is overwhelming. I believe that creating space for honest discourse about this tragedy not only has both academic value and real world applications, but may also have the power to heal wounds. Authentic conversations help to develop the language necessary to name emotions and bring my typically shy students into the national debate about arming teachers, thereby allowing them to seek their own solutions to any one of the issues at play.

I ask the group: “Should teachers have a gun in the classroom?”

There is a chorus of “No.”

Vince: “I don’t trust a teacher with a gun.”  He clarifies, “If that gun is in the closet, I’m going to try to get it because I feel safer if I have it than if you have it.”

Robert: “It’ll be like the Hunger Games up in here.”

Samantha: “No, obviously not.”

Sam: “It changes everything. You wouldn’t be the teacher anymore. You’d be something else.”

Robert: “The thing is, if a killer knows teachers have the guns, they are going to target the teacher first.”

Samantha: “We need to make the classroom secure, not arm the teacher.”

Who holds a key to imagination and inquiry in the morning, a gun in the afternoon, and a death sentence in the evening?

 This is the riddle America will face if we create laws that exacerbate violence and reject more thoughtful, non-violent solutions.

This is what I learned from that conversation with my students: an armed teacher in the classroom re-contextualizes that space. It destroys the relationship between teacher and student and attempts to conflate two very different occupations – teacher and officer of the state. To arm teachers in the classroom is a foolish notion at best and a death sentence at worst. Those who find this a reasonable solution to the problem of gun violence and mass shootings in schools should perhaps actually talk to students and teachers who would be at the receiving end of this violence.

My students know violence. Santa Ana is located in Orange County, next to the river of the same name, and is about 10 miles from the California coast. Orange County has a total of 13,000 documented gang members, many of whom are located in Santa Ana and the neighboring city, Anaheim. In January 2016 alone, Santa Ana averaged one shooting per day. Given the reality of the community in which my students live, it seems reckless not to address parallels between the violence of the Florida shooting and the violence that surrounds the students in their own community.

On this topic, I first ask, “Will there ever be a mass shooting in Santa Ana?

Vince: “No, there's no white people here.”

Samantha: “It could happen anywhere, but it probably wouldn’t happen here.”

Robert: “No, in Santa Ana, they take out their aggression in the streets. There's no reason to shoot up a bunch of random people. What happened in Florida - that’s some terrorism shit.”

As the observers, my students name the scale of violence in Florida as “terrorism.” They answer my questions quickly and with confidence. They recognize the pattern that mass shooters have primarily been white and male. When I interview students privately about differences in gang violence and the violence of mass shootings, the responses are more detailed, and the tone more personal.

Seventeen-year-old Victor, a senior with a two-year-old daughter, scoots his chair close to me. He tells me that gang violence is different than a mass shooting, because for gangs there are rules of engagement. He tells me that gang members can have beef with rival gangs that sometimes goes back generations. He says they only strike if the time, place and person are exactly right - under no circumstance do they target women or children. I ask how gangs get guns. Victor throws his hands up and says, “It’s so easy! They’re even hidden in public places to be retrieved in a pinch. They come from outside and are part of the gang cartels.”  For Victor, the word terrorism does not define gangs in Santa Ana.

Another student, Brian, talks to me during second period the following day. He speaks so softly and is barely audible. He tells me that he was all about the gang life because his father was affiliated, and that was what he knew, and he loved his father. His father eventually changed his ways, leading Brian to do the same. He is glad he did - he couldn’t see his life ending up the way many in his family have turned out.

We can learn from Brian’s story. We live in a country in love with violence – or, if not in love with it, complicit in its pervasiveness. Brian left the familiar, the violent legacy of gang life, and sought a new path. We cannot embrace more lethal weapons to counter terror in our schools or any public space. We must examine our cultural obsession with violence and find solutions that seek to preserve life. Asking teachers to become America’s sacrificial lambs in schools will create a classroom environment that erodes the sanctity of that space, one that should be fertile ground for educating and finding ways to cultivate a kinder, gentler world.

I treasure the safe place of my classroom. The classroom is often the safest space a student will be in on any given day, and I value the discourse that happens there. My responsibility is to maintain the classroom as a safe space so I can hear what Vince and Roberto and Samantha and Brian and Sam think, and what they believe the future looks like, and how they play a part in shaping it.

As we talk about solutions to the problem of a possible intruder, not one of my students’ suggestions involve arming teachers. They want teachers to have a button in the classroom to alert first responders directly in case of an active shooting situation. They suggest a device the teacher presses that automatically locks doors across campus in the case of a lockdown notification, so that even if teachers and students are not aware of a developing situation, one action from a central command post could secure many classrooms at once. They tell me about iPhone’s emergency call screen that appears after several pushes in quick succession, and suggest every student and teacher be made aware of this feature. Samantha becomes insistent:

“Mrs. Kriesel, you have to be first. You have to look at an intruder on campus like it’s a fight. You have to be quick. Once you know they’re there, you attack them before they can attack you.”

Solutions to problems, including those of a nation, come from imagination and inquiry of its citizens. Through their open and authentic discussion, my students move toward solutions to make America a better country. Their engagement on this critical topic showed me they want to wake up in the morning to a safe place .

They want to survive, and so do I.

Darlene Kriesel  is a Southern California based writer and educator. She holds an MFA in creative writing from University of California at Riverside/Palm Desert. She writes on education, social justice, and the family dynamic.