I do not carry a walkie-talkie, but I know our administrators carry them to communicate with each other and with security. And I know, or think I know, that the walkie-talkies that the security guards use are district-wide. Maybe they are all district-wide. Generally, if there’s a problem at another school, you can hear it over the walkie-talkies.
Yet when I heard “shots fired” this afternoon, I knew. I knew it was us. I joined the crew of teachers running toward the incident. I am proud to say that I work with a number of colleagues who run towards incidents and not away from them. Two of them, including one who is in the Army Reserves, had first-aid equipment.
It was right after school. I worked on getting students who were milling about back in the building. I tried to walk slowly. I know, during difficult times, that students watch adults, and if adults are troubled, it makes students nervous.
A freshman passed us on his way back into the school and confirmed what I suspected. The “shots fired” had been aimed at our students, and they had been hit. My latest understanding is that one may go home tonight, but the other may need surgery, but should be okay.
I didn’t know what to do. I looked around. A friend of one of the two was crying, careening around as others tried to hold him back. As his friends were loaded into the ambulance, he shouted to them, “Don’t worry; it’s on.” Others tried to talk to him.
I found another student. Tears. She started talking through her tears. I could barely understand her. She just wanted to tell what she saw. I tried to get her to say something to the police; she wouldn’t.
I went back to the building, to my classroom, shut down my computer, collected my things. I don’t know what shock feels like, but I did not feel good. The afternoon custodian apologized for bothering me. I apologized to him. I left.
Ta-Nehisi Coates makes many great points in Between the World and Me. One of them is that we’ve got to stop talking about slavery as a concept. Those were individual people. They had things they loved to do and people they loved. They had favorite songs and things they could cook. They had opinions. They had stories.
I think my students get similarly abstracted. They are part of a narrative. They are inner-city (is there such a thing as outer-city?) black kids. While I cannot say their names, I can say that they are individuals. One loves to write and speak his words. He shakes my hand each morning when he comes to school – not one of those fancy shakes that are making their way around social media – just an old-fashioned one. He looks me in the eye. He cares about his mother and told me recently that he’d read more books if he had them around the house when he was bored.
The other has a million dollar style. He recently turned in a great piece of writing about Their Eyes Were Watching God. I told him to tape it to the inside of his locker, so that if ever doubted he could do it, the evidence would be there. When he read some Coates, he gave him the ultimate compliment: “This guy is raw.” When he had to dress up for game days, sometimes he wore bow ties. I kept meaning to ask him how to tie one. I will when he returns. If he returns. I mean, he will be okay. Physically. But it might not be a good idea for him to return to our building. Who knows? And if he doesn’t return, it won’t be after coming back to say good-bye. He will just simply not be back. I will only know for sure when his name disappears from our attendance roster. I hope he’ll be back. He loves to argue. Guest speakers would learn his name. They would ask me about him. He would engage with them. Challenge them.
Coincidentally, I spent much of the evening in a different emergency room. A friend and neighbor injured herself while cooking. While I waited for her, I texted my colleagues, trying to figure out who was feeling what, and how we were all going to find out our way to Monday. I pursued something small and petty that was bugging me. I tried to comfort and be comforted. I tried to advise.
I don’t know what happens Monday. I encouraged our Principal to call a morning meeting. I don’t know what I’d say or do if I were him. There will be counselors who will do their best. There will be tears. Those I can handle. It’s watching the glazed looks become more permanently etched on students’ faces that haunts me. This, their faces seem to say, is the world we live in. And you, you white guy, you teacher, you suburban-dweller, you preacher of college and career and the future, you don’t know anything about it.
And I am, not for the first time, shaken. What is The Great Gatsby to my students? I know in my head and in my heart that it can speak to them – of the tragedy of time, I think. For Gatsby, that he can’t turn it back. That for them, that they don’t think they have much. Try telling them. Not Monday. Monday, probably poetry.
I have, without ever planning it, become something of an older hand at this teaching thing. Again, I feel watched, and I will be watching. There will be counselors for the students, good-hearted, but largely ignored, I suspect. Who looks after the teachers?
This morning, we had visitors from a local university in. Every two years, they survey students; it’s kind of a health survey. The students, including those two who I’ve written about above, laughed about the names of the drugs (what is Kong Kong?) and compared notes on other questions. Someone read another out loud: How easy would it be for you to get a loaded gun in 10 minutes? More muttering, laughing. After all, though they didn’t have to put their names on the surveys, I was there. At one point, a student asked what would be done with the results and the university rep explained how it would be used as data, that she studied aspects of the mental health of teens and would be using that information.
See, the thing is that I know studies take time, but such reports help set priorities, and money often follows priorities. I told my students, including the two I’ve written about above, that their younger siblings or cousins or friends would be more likely to benefit from their responses. But our students don’t think about time that way. And maybe they’re right.
You see we need help. And we need it now. And I’ve got to figure out if I can be part of the group that gives it.