Something in the air

The atmosphere weighed on me when I got out of bed this morning. 

I tried to clear my head again and again, but no amount of coffee, fresh air, or work could get rid of that feeling. Like something bad was going to happen, or maybe I had a bad memory picking at the already-tattered edges of my mind. I was especially fidgety while waiting in the front lobby of our school, looking about the front doors and waiting for a student to arrive. Something felt wrong.

Others said the same thing. There was something … off. 

A little before lunchtime I realized what it was. At least for me. 

Nine years ago today at around 9:30 a.m., a 20-year old man shot out the glass paneling at the locked front entrance of Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT. He proceeded to enter the school and shoot and kill 20 kids aged 6 and 7, as well as six Sandy Hook staffers. Earlier that morning, the man had killed his mother with a rifle. He used her car to drive to the school and, with his mother’s rifle, committed what remains the deadliest elementary school shooting in the United States and the fourth-deadliest mass shooting overall. About 10 minutes after the school shooting began, the man took his own life with a third gun.

That same day, a little over five hours away, I was in a middle school English classroom, still getting used to a career change after several years in journalism. I was a long-term substitute teacher, and I had no idea if working in schools would become an even-longer-term thing. (It did.) The long holiday break was just a few days away, and I was learning that the energy kids have at school at Christmastime hits different when you’re an adult.

It was lunchtime, and not a moment too soon. As I sat down to eat, I checked the news. There it was in all its awfulness.

When the World Trade Center was attacked on Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001, I got this terrible chill in my chest, and I couldn’t stop shaking. It felt as though my spirit was trying to beat its way out of my body. I had that sensation again on Tuesday, March 24, 2020, when Vermont Gov. Phil Scott issued his “Stay Safe, Stay Home” order. The only other time I had that feeling was on Friday, Dec. 14, 2012.

First I thought of my own kids, sitting in their classrooms as the news spread. Would they find out at school or make it home where we’d be able to share and process the news with them? Would they be afraid to go back to school next week? There’d been other school shootings, but this was on a different scale.

Then there were the students my colleagues and I needed to finish out the day with. What would we do about that? We ended up trying to get them through the last three hours of school so they could go home to their families and hear the news from them. There, they could react individually and/or with siblings, but not as a mass of kids hearing awful news and reacting to it in 28 different ways at the same time.

Finally, what about this job I’d just started a few weeks before? I really enjoyed working in a school, interacting with students, learning from other teachers. But did I want to take the chance? 

I decided to stick with it. Fear can be a healthy thing, but it can also lead you away from good things if given too much sway over your decisions. Plus, I figured, if anything was going to finally get some action in Washington, DC., it would be Sandy Hook.

I was wrong on that count.

In the nine years since Sandy Hook, over 2,000 mass shootings have taken place in America. There have been more than 400 shootings on school property. And guns have injured or killed almost 18,000 children under age 18. Two weeks ago, four students were killed and seven other people were injured in a school shooting in Oxford, MI. 

And nothing substantial has been produced by our elected officials to expand background checks, prevent criminals from purchasing guns at gun shows, or stop illegal firearms from being brought across state lines.

The argument against such things is that people are going to do it anyway. Of course, people speed on highways, but we still have speed limits. The laws are there to reduce the frequency of occurrences; no law is a guarantee that the restricted activity won’t happen. Mass shootings will continue to happen, sadly, but with better monitoring, the number will be lower. So will the number of lives lost, not to mention the number of survivors who go on to live lives shattered by such events. 

I grew up around guns. I know many gun owners. One of my sons has developed an interest in target shooting, and I have zero problem with that. But the right to bear arms, like any other right, comes with the great burden of responsibility.

One of the most valuable times of my life was the hunters safety course I took when I was 13. I only hunted for a couple of years, but that class taught me the power a gun possesses and how that power can be used and abused by the person controlling it. One of the final tests we had to do in that class was demonstrate proper gun-handling techniques. One of the students was handed a rifle, and they cradled it and rocked it back and forth, laughing and saying, “Look. I have a baby.” The instructors did not respond to this positively, and that student went on to fail the course.

A Morning Consult/Politico survey from late last winter showed that 84% of voters – this includes 77% of Republicans – support required background checks for all gun buyers. The support is there. What isn’t is the courage or conviction of those who have the power to make the change. 

I hope that changes soon. I don’t know how many more Sandy Hooks or Oxfords we can take. And by we, I mean students, educators, parents, and concerned community members. Something’s gotta give, and in a time when last nerves are already wearing paper thin for a wide variety of reasons, it won’t take much.

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