OXFORD, Miss. — Before classes start Aug. 22 at the university where I teach English, I’ll locate my new classroom, slip inside and conduct a ritual inspection. It has a practical purpose: ensuring that the chalk board has chalk, the AV has cords, and the desks and chairs are in neat rows.
I have a psychological purpose, too. Convincing college students of the transformative power of literature is hard work. I’m pumping myself up, picturing the room humming with discussion, booming with laughter.
And, in recent years, there’s a tactical purpose. I determine whether the door has a glass plate, and if so, how I’ll cover it. Does the door lock? From the inside? Do the windows open? Wide enough to shoulder through? How far is the drop? I survey the desks, imagine barricading the door, then huddling my students into the “hard corner,” a term I should not need to know. It’s the corner on the same wall as the door, but farthest from the door. The corner where I’ll drape my body over as many of their 20 bodies as I can, like a sea anemone draping an iceberg.
I’m mentally preparing to protect my students from an active shooter. This fact splits my sternum with an ice pick of despair. But please don’t offer me a gun.
In the last several years, more and more politicians have encouraged teachers to arm themselves with guns in classrooms. In 2018, then-President Donald Trump embraced this National Rifle Association position, adding that armed teachers would deserve “a little bit of a bonus.” He reiterated this stance this past May at the N.R.A. convention in Houston, just days after a shooter killed 19 elementary school students and two teachers in Uvalde, Texas. The state’s attorney general, Ken Paxton, told Fox News on the day of the shooting, “We can potentially arm and prepare and train teachers and other administrators to respond quickly, because the reality is that we don’t have the resources to have law enforcement in every school.”
At first, the likelihood of a teacher-militia seemed far-fetched, but educators are so exhausted and bereft that we’re starting to consider almost anything. I’m probably not the only teacher, after viewing images of Uvalde, to Google through tears, “How can I keep my classroom safe?” Now, I’m being targeted by digital advertisements urging me to “harden” it.
This rhetoric of “hardening” is an expression of America’s continued enthrallment to a John Wayne-style masculinity, the same attitude that undergirds the N.R.A.’s favorite maxim, “The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” Fear renders us vulnerable to this rhetoric. The program FASTER Saves Lives, (an acronym for “Faculty & Administrator Safety Training and Emergency Response”) is run by a pro-gun group called the Buckeye Firearms Foundation, and it offers free training “so schools are no longer ‘victim zones.’”
A recent New York Times article followed a class of school employees through the FASTER training boot camp in Ohio. Graduates of the three-day camp will be able to carry a gun in Ohio schools if they have their school board’s approval, thanks to the new state law that has reduced the number of training hours from more than 700 down to no more than 24. In higher education, proponents of campus carry depict gun-toting professors like Timothy Hsiao as heroes. Mr. Hsaio writes inThe Federalist, “In the event of a mass shooting, I’m the first line of defense.”
The first line of defense? If we educators find ourselves nose-to-nose with a mentally ill child wielding an AR-15, it might look as if we’re the first line, but that’s only because all the other lines have lain down. Those making and interpreting the laws have lain down. (Someone explain to my first-year college students why they can buy a shotgun but not a shot of booze, because I sure can’t.) And those who are supposed to be upholding the laws have lain down. Guns are being sold illegally. And guns are being sold legally to buyers with backgrounds of violence or hate crime misdemeanors. Guns are being sold without background checks, a problem that worsened during the pandemic.
Our schools have become places where children go to learn, and learn to fear. And it makes them sick. Literally. I have three children of my own and have seen this firsthand. College students like my oldest child were in high school during the school shooting in Parkland, Fla., and the fear that their schools could be next added to their other sources of stress. These students’ entire coming-of-age has been a long fight-or-flight cortisol bath. According to Lisa Genova in “Remember: The Science of Memory and the Art of Forgetting,” chronic stress “inhibits neurogenesis in the hippocampus,” damaging the brain’s ability to create new memories. I’m not alone among my colleagues in finding today’s students more emotionally fragile, more easily distracted, more burdened and more burned-out. They’re slower to absorb the same texts that I first taught 20 years ago, less skilled at applying the grand lessons of literature to life.
Last year, one of my students turned 21, and her friends tied two giant Mylar balloons, a “2” and a “1,” to her chair to celebrate. Later, deep in our discussion of John Donne, we heard what sounded like a gun shot. Everyone jumped. A few screamed. One student — I can see him still — hit the floor. When we realized, all of us, that our active shooter was none other than an exploding Mylar “2,” there was a painful pause. Then we laughed a shaky laugh, and I slowly resumed the discussion. I wish I hadn’t. I wish I’d given them the rest of class to share how difficult it is to learn when one is always listening for a bullet.
Numerous polls indicate that the majority of educators still don’t want to be armed. And there’s no conclusive evidence that arming teachers increases school safety, though there’s evidence that it increases incidents of teachers accidentally discharging their guns.
It’s a desperate, misplaced valor that leads teachers to the FASTER training boot camp, and that prompted one teacher quoted in The Times’s story to claim that he signed up because “I love my kids. I’m going to do everything I can to keep them safe.”
I love my students, too. I love them enough to recognize that increasing their exposure to guns costs them intellectually and psychically.
Teachers have hard jobs. Let’s focus our energy on opening minds, not barricading doors. For that to happen, we need gun laws fixed, then enforced. So, hey, lawmakers and lobbyists: Instead of urging those on the last line of defense to take up arms, how about you all on the first lines actually stand up and do your jobs? Then we’d know what good guys look like, at last.
Beth Ann Fennelly, poet laureate of Mississippi from 2016-2021, teaches at the University of Mississippi. Her most recent book is “Heating & Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs.”
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