All across America and beyond, hundreds of thousands of young people demonstrated, walked, marched and spoke out for prompt action by legislators to change gun laws and apply new restrictions to prevent disturbed perpetrators from carrying out mass acts of violence, especially in schools.
Their goal remains, as articulated online in the event’s mission statement, to “demand that a comprehensive and effective bill be immediately brought before Congress to address these gun issues.”
But before the demonstrations this March weekend, just after the violent rampage at a high school in Parkland, Florida in February, students and parents affected by school shootings met at the White House with President Trump and authorities in law enforcement and mental health services for an emotional listening session.
“Every one of these shootings have been by young men who are disconnected,” said one man who represented a community mental health group. “We have to learn, and work on, how to connect students with each other, with their parents and teachers.”
This teacher has a good, very powerful idea, a set of ideas, expressed in an open letter to students planning the first walkout. It’s personal, painful and poignant.
I know you. I am a retired teacher of 24 years. I have taught you as 7th graders all the way through 12th grade. This is not a tweet or a text. It’s called a letter; lengthy and substantial. Do you really want to make a difference? Are you sincere about making your schools safe? Don’t walk out, read this instead. Walking out of school is easy compared to what this letter will challenge you to do.
Now that time has passed and the walkout happened, followed by last weekend’s nationwide, globally joined demonstration, that activism seems to so many to be the answer. It’s a strong, highly visible show of unity and determination to cause change. But the students who claim to be the change they intend can do that, right now, in ways they may not have considered.
If they’re really determined – and no doubt they are – they should consider this teacher’s sincere call to action of another sort.
First of all, put down your stupid phone. Look around you at your classmates. Do you see the kid over in the corner, alone? He could likely be our next shooter. He needs a friend. He needs you. Go and talk to him, befriend him. Chances are, he won’t be easy to like, but it’s mainly because no one has tried to like him. Ask him about him. Get to know him. He’s just like you in that respect; he wants someone to recognize him as a fellow human being but few people have ever given him the chance. You can.
Tough love? He’s only getting started. This is a challenge and if it’s startling, he wants it to grab the attention it needs.
Next, see that kid eating lunch all alone? He could likely be our next shooter. Invite him to eat lunch with you. Introduce him into your fold of friends. You’ll most likely catch a lot of flack from the friends you eat with because they don’t want him upsetting the balance of their social order. After all, who you hang out with is critical to your status, is it not? If status is important to you, don’t you think it’s important to him also? The only difference being that he has no status because generally, shooters have no friends. Are you serious about wanting to make your school safe? Invite him to your lunch table and challenge your friends to do something meaningful with thirty minutes of their lives each day.
What will adolescents and teens do with that advice? They should seriously consider it, talk about it, do it one person at a time if only one person is able to break through their comfort zone where comfort was already tenuous as it is for teens, and then shattered after the attack.
But the teacher presses on.
Lastly, are you completely frustrated by that kid who always disrupts your class and is consistently sent to the principal’s office? He could likely be our next shooter. Do you know why he causes so much trouble? He initiates disruption because that’s the only thing he does that gets him attention, and even bad attention is better than the no attention he receives from you and your classmates. You secretly wish he would get kicked out of school or sent to the alternative disciplinary school so that he wouldn’t disrupt your classes anymore, that somehow, he would just disappear. Guess what? He already feels invisible in a school of thousands of classmates, you included. So, before he acts out in your next class, why don’t you tell him you’d be willing to help him with the assignment that was just given? Or why don’t you ask him to join your study group? If you really want to blow his mind, ask him for help on the assignment. He’s never been asked that. Ever.
Maybe the raw reality of the Parkland mass shooting and potential for more will open eyes to see and minds to think of solutions to the deeper, underlying causes of angry young men acting out on the urge to do violence to themselves and others.
That’s the teacher’s message in this open letter. It’s a deep seated problem and as wide and deep as society and social ills.
If you’ve read this far, you probably really do care about the safety of your school. Don’t trust that walking out of school will bring an answer. Gun control or more laws is not, and will not, be the answer. You are the answer.
Your greeting, your smile, your gentle human touch is the only thing that can change the world of a desperate classmate who may be contemplating something as horrendous as a school shooting.
Look past yourself and look past your phone and look into the eyes of a student who no one else sees. Meet the gaze of a fellow human being desperate to make contact with anyone, even just one person. You. If you really feel the need to walk, walk toward that person. Your new friendship can relieve the heartache of one person and in doing so, possibly prevent the unjustifiable heartache of hundreds of lives in the future.
I know you. I trust you. You are the answer.
That is a profound reality. One student may not make all the difference in changing another student’s mental health issues, but one student wasn’t at the White House listening session alone, nor was there only one student at the Washington DC March for Our Lives to change the nation’s gun control laws.
It takes a community.
And teachers, my fellow guardians of our youth, I know you too. I know the desire of wanting to make a difference in a young person’s life. I know the thrill of stepping in front of a classroom of students but simultaneously intimidated by the trust bestowed upon you. I also know the crushing, sometimes unbearable responsibility that your shoulders are asked to carry.
But that’s why you got into teaching, because you have big shoulders. And a big heart. You’re overworked (I would add underpaid, but you didn’t get into teaching for the pay, so it needn’t be said), underappreciated and exhausted.
May I add one more item to that list? You’re also a miracle waiting to happen in the life of your worst student. He could likely be our next shooter. The next time (and there’s always a next time) he’s ready to wreak havoc in your classroom, I challenge you to pull him aside and ask him if he’s ok, if there is something bothering him and is there anything you can do to help? Your genuine concern for him may be just the miracle he’s looking for. The miracle we’re all looking for. I know you. I trust you. You are the answer.
[From] A former teacher who is as heartbroken as you and trusting you not to walk out on the real answer…
Sheila Liaugminas writes from Chicago. She is a journalist, author and host of A Closer Look on Relevant Radio.