Every year, the elementary students at the after-school program where I teach administer a survey to each other, designed to measure the children’s feelings on various aspects of the program. The survey is written by adults, but it’s the job of the student council to explain it to each class — it feels more kid-centered that way, and also more adorable. One of the questions the kids ask each other every year is about safety. “I feel safe here,” a fourth-grader will read aloud to a class of third-graders. “Do you really agree, kind of agree, disagree,” and so on. “Do you guys understand what that means?”
It’s a complicated question. What we discover, every year, is that there’s a lot that goes into feeling safe. And there are a lot of factors in the life of a child that can make them feel unsafe. When I’ve talked about safety with my students, they talk about bullying. They talk about fights. They talk about feeling left out. And they talk about the neighborhood. As much as the tiny world inside an elementary school is one of the most monumental things in a child’s life, those children are big enough to know that the stuff that goes on in the outside world is scarier.
What happened at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut on Friday morning is so horrifying that it’s impossible to really imagine, although the scenario is familiar enough that it evoked a powerful, visceral reaction from the entire country. The conversation we’ve been having since has consistently begun with one phrase: “As a parent…” Both Barack Obama and White House press spokesperson Jay Carney initially chose to emphasize their personal reaction as fathers, over politics. And we, as a country, will continue to bear witness to the nightmare that the parents of the children of Newtown have faced.
I do not have kids, but I have worked with elementary students since I was a high schooler. I can’t know what parents felt upon hearing about Sandy Hook, and I can only speak to my own perspective, but for me, and for millions of others who devote their lives to working with children, our sentences have begun slightly differently: “As a teacher….” (“Teacher” could also be replaced with school librarian, cafeteria worker, volunteer, and countless other staff that make up the school community.) I may not know what it’s like to have my own children to love and care for, but I do know what it’s like to have several hundred children to know and care about.
As a teacher, I view schools as sacred community spaces. Schools serve this vital function for everyone — not only parents and children, but the entire neighborhood. Few places exist, in our increasingly privatized lives, where members of the community regularly come together to meet one another, where families and neighbors and coworkers can connect in a non-commercial space. Of course, these spaces have become increasingly commercial, increasingly privatized, and increasingly hyper-securitized. Politically, discussions about schools usually focus on the “failing” ones, as if the students and teachers who populate them are inherently failures, dispassionate about education and predisposed to violence.
As a teacher, I believe that it is not “failing schools” we should be discussing, but failing infrastructures, failed allocation of resources, and successful systems of marginalization that leave certain communities structurally excluded from becoming idyllic places like Sandy Hook Elementary. Many media reports have emphasized what a wonderful reputation Newtown has for education, which makes it all the more difficult to comprehend this violence happening in such a place.
As a teacher, the horror of what happened to those children is universal — it doesn’t matter that it happened in a place where people move their families to access great schools. A kid is a kid, and violence against a single one is extraordinarily painful to imagine. I once had a nightmare where I had to protect my students against a bad guy in school; teaching, really, feels like a lifelong project in protecting children, in making sure that they are okay now and will be okay as they get older.
And as much as, in a tragedy like this, it seems most appropriate to focus only on the families rather than getting “political,” I can’t think about Sandy Hook without my brain zooming out — not to “get political” but to understand the policies and power structures that got us here. Because if we are going to talk about school shootings and violence, we have to think aboutall schools, including the ones where we have gotten used to regular violence. Millions of children live daily with metal detectors and police officers patrolling their schools, but such measures do not change a thing in the world beyond the school walls. And I know from talking to my kids that even those measures are not enough to make them feel safe.
What happened at Sandy Hook is an intersection of several different structural failures, the clearest being gun access and lack of mental health support. In an effort to make sense of the incomprehensible, the media narrative zooms in on the gunman, who becomes the lens through which we view guns and mental illness. By zooming in rather than out, we disregard the millions of individuals with mental illness or special needs who are not only nonviolent but often victims themselves, in need of support but not of demonization. We look very closely at Sandy Hook and Aurora, but as a country, we don’t discuss the summer of playground shootings in New York City’s poor neighborhoods. The violence committed by the Sandy Hook killer and the normalized gun violence of structurally marginalized neighborhoods may have different causes, but they exist in the same world and they are making kids the same age feel unsafe.
As a teacher, I try to teach my students to make connections between what they learn and what they know already. My hope, as we learn about the details of the tragedy at Sandy Hook, is that we connect individual factors to their structural causes. It is incredibly difficult to talk about, and zooming out creates as many questions as it answers. But my desperate hope, as a teacher, is that we don’t just solve this by adding more metal detectors and locking down schools. If we do, children will bear the burden for the societal violence adults have been unable and unwilling to address.
We must act to protect children inside the school building — but if that effort stops as soon as the child steps foot in the community, we have failed at providing them with the real sense of security they alldeserve.