Irish teacher in California: ‘I never thought it would involve taking a bullet’

Teachers are strong people but it is not their responsibility to shoot students with guns

US President Donald Trump voiced support for the idea of teachers having access to guns during an emotional White House meeting with students who survived the shooting. Video: The White House


I come armed with pragmatism. When I decided to become a high school teacher after moving almost five years ago from Ireland to California, I did so to support my writing habit. I was not young and idealistic. I was an immigrant middle-aged parent, and as an artist it was a job I could bear. I thought I could spend even more time reading, thinking about, and discussing books, stories, plays and poems while getting that magical monthly pay cheque and vital health insurance for my family. I never thought the job would involve taking a bullet for someone else’s child.

When I was moving to the US people in Ireland were shocked. They said, “Your kids will be shot in the schools”. I scoffed, but was taken aback when my kids were routinely trained in a standard active shooter drill known as Code Red. The cops walked around their school trying to get into doors testing the efficacy of their barricades. One cop walked in on my daughter and her freshman classmates and said “You guys aren’t hidden properly you’d all be toas…. Eh you could be targets.” She said he looked embarrassed at what he almost said. He probably realised they weren’t Marines after all, just children in the classroom on a school day, made to lie in the dark on the floor in silence while armed police prowled outside. My children had never thought of themselves as targets. Before moving to the US they had never pictured themselves murdered in their schools.

I come armed with educational training. I went back to college, got my teaching credential and began to teach literature and journalism at a high school in California. There was so much I loved about the US educational system. The group work, Socratic seminars, the research projects, the training in analytical higher order thinking with no grinding rote memorisation. The students at the high school were like most Californian teenagers: enthusiastic, diverse, bright, idealistic, social justice oriented, funny, open to new ideas and used to expressing themselves and participating in discussions.

I come armed with books. I was a literature teacher who has been a writer in the publishing world for 20 years. I was ready to find those restless kids who were not willing to become easily marketed-to, click bait, automatons; kids to whom books were not just an inefficient analog device, but beacons that would give them the depth, insight and solace that I gleaned from books in my torturous high school years.

But then in the first month at the high school, I had to be trained in the same kind of active shooter drill that had upset my own kids. The police came to talk to the staff, and there was a grim silence when the sombre cop said it’s not a matter of “if” but “when”. No one had signed up for this.

I dreaded those days of the drill. When the alarm sounded I felt it in the pit of my stomach. Even the normalisation of it disturbed me, the way the kids were inured to it and snapped to action. Eagerly, they build towering barricades with desks while I ineptly tied belts on the door hinges. I covered the windows. They overturned the desks. They crouched behind as if in trenches. I had to stand by the door with the fire extinguisher in hand. We waited in dark silence.

It seems ridiculous to scold a class of 34 teenagers lying on the floor with the lights out and the windows sealed for making any noise or looking at their phones. The cops came through. Banged on the door, tested our barricades. I told them this is not normal. No other kids are doing this around the world for this reason. This is not a fire drill, an earthquake drill. No act of God. No enemy is attacking us from outside. The US adeptly keeps its eternal wars raging far from its own shores. We all know what this is. This is just bad laws. Laws that are a product of corruption. The very high cost it takes to be elected in this country requires private funding. The National Rifle Association not only funds those who protect their agenda but also punishes those who don’t. That’s called bullying.

Meanwhile, anyone rational can understand that high-velocity, lethal assault weaponry as those that are typically used in mass shootings, and high-capacity magazines, should not be available to consumers under any circumstance. We saw those high school kids walk out this week demanding this. We saw their parents plead with politicians for sanity and change.

My American engineer individualist friends disagree, they all love their gun collections; they put their own pleasure in the fine mechanics, technology and efficiency and thrill of shooting practice over the communal good, reasoning that their responsible gun ownership shouldn’t be affected by a few wild cards. They don’t see it as their problem. They love their guns.

But they’re not teachers. I haven’t met a teacher yet who loves guns. But it’s teachers who Donald Trump and the National Rifle Association wants to arm.

No doubt Trump would love to shoot the elephant in the room but he’s so busy not seeing it when he says the best solution is to bring more guns into schools by arming the teachers. He reasons “I want my schools protected just like I want my banks protected”, yet he made one of his donors, the billionaire Betsey DeVos, education secretary whose mission it has always been to dismantle public education. Subsequently he further deregulated the banks to the benefit of the already rich.

That he values his banks more than his schools is patently clear, but it’s easy to dump on Trump. His lack of empathy was evident this week as he met the desperate families whose children were slaughtered in their own school in Florida.

Trump is only a cog in the machine, but he stumbled on something when he referred to the NRA as great patriots on Twitter: “What many people don’t understand, or don’t want to understand, is that Wayne, Chris and the folks who work so hard at the @NRA are Great People and Great American Patriots. They love our Country and will do the right thing. MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN!”

The roots of this problem go deep and tangle into a violent creation story, a nation born of genocide and enriched by slavery; the land expansion through violent war with Mexico; and the conquering of the West by gunpoint. The ethnic cleansing of all the First Nations people and the eradication of the great buffalo herds were achieved by the gun. There is an atavistic memory that it was the gun that gave them the land. But we are at a point where an untrained disgruntled kid can spiral into infamy by coming into his former school and killing 17 people in 6 minutes with a readily available assault rifle.

When Trump responded in the White House to this recent high school shooting he said. “I want certain highly adept people, people who understand weaponry, guns” to have a permit to carry concealed firearms in schools. But has he ever met a teacher? He mentioned “Teachers who were qualified to handle a weapon” and guessed that could be about 10 per cent and 40 per cent. He even said they would get “a little bit of a bonus”, and generously offered federal money to train them as billionaire Betsey De Vos nodded in approval. This was a response to the grieving families and teachers, to a sickened scared country of worried parents and stressed out educators. It was grotesque.

I asked my neighbor Valerie Sabbag, an elementary school teacher in Palo Alto, what she thought of arming teachers like her and me and she said, “I’d retire first. It would put kids in more danger than it would help. Do you know how often military trains with AR weapons?”

Valerie Sabbag is the kind of teacher who gives up her Friday night for free and coaxes the local NASA guys to bring their telescopes to the school grounds so kids and their parents can throw a star party. She’s not interested in a “little bit of a bonus” from Trump. As an elementary teacher I never hear her curse but she told me, “I need to teach that is my job. Get the f**king guns out of this country. NOW. And we’ll all be fine. Sorry. I will never hold a gun in my hands and I will never send my children to a school where the teachers have guns in their classroom.”

Hundreds of high school and middle school students from the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia staged walkouts and gathered in front of the White House in support of gun control in the wake of the Florida shooting on Wednesday. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images
Hundreds of high school and middle school students from the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia staged walkouts and gathered in front of the White House in support of gun control in the wake of the Florida shooting on Wednesday. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

Her friend Derek Gui, a former Marine, explained to me, “Combat arms is a perishable skill. Why do these people who always seem to forget how often groups like SEALs train? The stress conditions, the number of rounds shot to keep that muscle memory honed. Firing at a human target that’s firing back at you is a high stress event. What happens is in these situations, one’s heart rate goes to about 160, blood is constricted from places like your fingers, you get tunnel vision, you start to shake, and may want to move your bowels or urinate. The reason why SEALs elite Marines, SWAT etc can perform under these situations is that they train constantly under high stress conditions. But, hey, the English teacher will be right on target, she won’t panic, or misfire her gun… or shoot herself or one of the kids by mistake. Anybody who thinks teachers would be an effective armed defense are morons.”

I have spent much of my life around artists and scientists and entrepreneurs, but teachers are a different breed. They are caring, empathic, co-operative yet rather anti authoritarian beings, who like to close their classroom door in order to open doors in the minds of their students. Teachers bring a unique vision to whatever subject they teach. They are not hierarchical, or materialistic, they don’t strive for constant acknowledgment and feedback, their audience is not sought or selective rather it is many times unwilling and reluctant. They are not weak people but it is not their responsibility to shoot students who are shooting other students.

Rather, it is the legislator’s responsibility to enact gun laws in this country that take assault rifles off the market. I still have that selfish, obsessed artist in me, the one that’s necessary to do the work. But I’m also happy to balance it out with the newly found high school teacher in me. We come armed with so much, we come armed with pragmatism, and experience, we come armed with the latest in educational training, we come armed with love, and humour, and sometimes even patience. Most importantly we come armed with books that will change lives as they flood your students’ heads with light and healing beauty and mysterious truths. But we will never ever come to our students armed with guns.

Emer Martin is a Dubliner. Her novels include Breakfast in Babylon, More Bread Or I’ll Appear, Baby Zero and a children’s astronomy book Why is the Moon Following Me? Her new book The Cruelty Men is coming out in June 2018 with Liliput Press. She tweets @emermartin

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