Month: December 2015

On lockdowns and teaching about school shootings

In Judaism, when you hear a fire engine’s siren, you cannot pray, “Please, not my house.” When you pull to the side of the road to let an ambulance pass, you cannot pray, “Please not my child.” Someone’s house is burning, and someone’s child is injured, maybe dying or already dead, and the siren has already told you that; in praying that the tragedy is not yours, you are asking that it is someone else’s. That is no kind of prayer.

I’m not Jewish, but, still, when the sirens wailed on my campus this past Thursday, I refused to think “Please not my.” No “please not my colleagues,” because everyone’s colleagues were in danger. No “please not my students” because everyone’s students were in danger. Not even “please not my child,” because everyone’s children were in danger. And when I say I refused to think, I mean that I said to myself, “You will not think that thought.” The shooter was here, on the east side of campus—where the childcare center is, where my son, I knew, should be at nap time with the other three and four-year olds. I hoped he had not given his teacher too much guff about going to sleep and was dreaming about Christmas Legos. And I immediately recalled a list of daycare shootings—vengeful boyfriends or ex-husbands who shoot up a classroom of children. A three year old dead in Detroit in 2004 (the year my oldest was born, when I started cataloging such horrors), a teacher killed in Florida in 2008, a mother critically wounded by her husband in Indianapolis last February and another killed in Memphis in September. The 1997 Plano, Texas case, in which an angry husband took nearly 80 people hostage in the childcare center where his estranged wife was a teacher. I thought about the teachers at my son’s school, but it is impossible to know, of course, who has an abusive and armed ex-.

These were my thoughts as I got up from the table at the coffee shop on the edge of campus and headed up the stairs, away from my husband who I’d joined for lunch. Should a gunman be on campus, I didn’t want my children orphaned, even if they were left fatherless or motherless.  I did not explain this to my husband, who was slightly offended that I went to hide alone in an upstairs closet. He studies film and feminism and is generally lost in thought or books. The most horrible thoughts do not occur to him. My work is in hate, extremism, violence, and mass shootings. If they are religiously motivated, I’m there. I study violent and terrible death statistics like Billy Beane studies sabermetrics.

But that work wasn’t on my mind in that moment. I was thinking what every other professor was thinking, which was not, despite the fact that the news media manages to always find someone who says it, I never thought it could happen here. It is instead, Well, it’s finally happened here. I imagine I am not alone, in fact, of making some predictions, thinking of people on campus who, if you were honest, you could imagine losing it and opening fire. If you are in higher education, the thinking is not if but when—and you know that, like a 50 year flood or a car accident, even if you feel like you aren’t “due for one,” one is always possible. I came back to my office on Thursday evening, alone in our long-awaited, newly opened Humanities and Social Sciences building, and saw the evidence of fleeing students—sandwiches half eaten on a table, a soda bottle overturned, its sticky contents emptied on the floor. And there was no relief that, this time, the gunman didn’t fire. There was only the thought, But tomorrow could be another one.

When I called my mother from lockdown on Thursday—because we work on campus, our youngest goes to childcare on campus, and our house is in campus, she knew that no matter where we were, we were potentially in danger—she was crying, which surprised me. In the moment, tears did not even occur to me. Instead, even then, I was tired. That evening, after gathering up all my children from their schools, I felt like my bones were made of ashes, and I went to sleep for a few hours before returning to work when the children were in bed.

This is the reality of higher education, unmentioned by the PR folks, is that this happens all the time.

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I started writing this blog post on September 13, the day Ethan Schmidt, a fellow KU alum, was murdered in his office at Delta State University, just three and a half hours from here. But I was in the midst of preparing a unit on school shootings for my own students, and I couldn’t finish it. Many of my own students were too familiar with school shootings; Jonesboro, where Arkansas State is located, was the site of the 1998 Westside Middle School shooting, in which the youngest-ever mass school shooters opened fire on teachers and classmates as they exited the school in response to a fire alarm the boys had pulled. Four children and a teacher were massacred, and five others were injured. My students knew this history; a few nontrads had personal memories of the event. I wasn’t sure if reading about school shootings was going to be good for them—or for me. I knew, though, that I couldn’t write about Ethan Schmidt’s murder then.

I tried again a few weeks later. I wanted to write about the upcoming anniversary of the Nickel Mines school shooting, which killed five Amish girls ages 7 to 12 and injured five others, one severely. Those murders, which occurred on October 2, 2006, were hard for me, both personally and in terms of my scholarship on hate groups, but I’d decided, almost ten years later, to teach a book on the shootings as a way to push forward. I’d hoped that, in the context of a relationship with my students, living in the place of the Westside shooting, I could finally bring myself to read scholarship about the Nickel Mines shooting, which had happened in my community.  If this book was hard for me, at least my students might have some sense of why.

Then, on October 1, a shooter burst into a classroom at Umpqua Community College in Rosedale, Oregon, and killed eight people, injured more than a half dozen others, and then killed himself.  I stopped writing this again.

Then, Thursday’s event happened—a gunman on campus, threatening suicide in a truck loaded with explosive materials—and I thought (eventually), I need to write this before the next one. This was my second lockdown in response to concerns about an active shooter. My first, years ago, found me locked with my husband and children—there were just two of them back then—and some friends inside the Natural History Museum at the University of Kansas. The initial terror was awful, followed by a few hours of playtime in Bugtown in the basement and feeding the children peanuts from a vending machine while the UPD searched campus.

Here is the thing about education that should not be true: We have signed up for a dangerous job. No one, thankfully, was hurt in either of the two lockdowns I’ve gone through. But I have friends who have been hurt, traumatized, or killed, in four other school shootings. Victims. Teachers. Students. Police officers. EMTs. Counselors. Emergency room doctors. Coroners. Funeral directors. Chaplains.  A murderer.  I’m not counting the colleagues who haven’t shared their stories of trauma and fear as they lived through shootings in at Virginia Tech or UT Austin or Northern Illinois or elsewhere.  But it safe to say, I think, that in any building, any professor has witnessed or cares for a colleague who has witnessed this kind of horror.

I was able to teach about the Nickel Mines shooting this year, even as we watched the story of Umpqua unfold, even as I thought of Ethan Schmidt, his widow, and his fatherless children. My students rose to the occasion, as I suspected they would (Indeed, I would not have taught it otherwise). But it’s not on the syllabus for next semester. I remain too tired.

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