I’m thinking about America’s teachers this evening. I was a teacher for more than 30 years, so I know what our teachers are doing tonight.
They’re planning, organizing, writing out lessons for tomorrow and the days after. They’re thinking about certain kids right now, wondering how last night went for them, or worrying about the best way to teach them that tricky math concept.
I know how hard teachers work.
Twelve years ago tonight, I was at my dining room table, working on lessons for the next day. I remember grouping my students to make a fun cooperative science lesson. Like thousands of other teachers, I was headed into the upcoming week thinking about behavior plans, IEP meetings and the holidays on the horizon.
Tonight my heart is reaching out to all of the teachers across the country.
Twelve years ago tomorrow was a normal school day for me. December 14, 2012 was sunny and not too cold in my part of the world. I arrived in my classroom like normal, greeted my kids and went through a typical school morning. We had morning meeting, we did our math lessons, we laughed and worked and counted the days until vacation.
Then my students went off to lunch, and I finished up with my regular classroom chores. I think I went to the office to copy some worksheets, then grabbed my inter-office mail. I remember that I was sitting at my desk, with a half eaten sandwich in my hand. I checked my phone and saw a text from my husband.
“Did you hear the news this morning? There was a shooting at a school. It’s awful. Are you OK?”
My heart sank, of course, but I thought that maybe one person had shot another at a high school or college. Terrible, but not that unusual. I opened my computer and checked the news.
How can I describe the feeling that swept over me as I read about the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School? How can I even begin to process the horror that came with reading about twenty tiny bodies slaughtered in cold blood and torn to bits in their kindergarten classroom? I remember being numb. I remember going to the window of my classroom, a room that was probably almost identical to the one where some of my colleagues were murdered just hours ago. I looked out onto the playground. I wanted to find “my” kids and bring them inside. I was more afraid at that moment than I can ever remember being. I wanted to get my kids back into our room, lock the door, pull down the shades and keep them safe.
My principal came, making sure that every teacher had heard the news, offering support and explaining what had happened. He convinced me that my students were OK, and to let them finish their recess.
I stood at the window, repeatedly counting their heads in the recess crowd. I was shaking when they came back inside.
I know how teachers feel when something threatens their students. I do. I knew it before that day, but I know it more deeply now.
But it was in the weeks that followed Sandy Hook and the horrific slaughter of innocents when my sorrow came to a head. That was when I came to realize that our society considers the lives of teachers to be expendable.
Yes, I know.
That sounds like hyperbole.
But I was there in the classroom after the Newtown massacre. I heard all the discussions about arming teachers. I heard people talking casually about the fact that laws limiting guns would be wrong, but leaving kids and teachers as targets would be just fine.
When I expressed the fact that as a teacher I was trained to nurture and protect, but not to kill, I was called a coward. I was told that if I wasn’t willing to take a life to protect my students, I shouldn’t have my job. I was told this more than once.
I was told that I should have a plan for attacking and resisting a shooter. I reorganized my room so I’d have a tall bookshelf to push over on someone if I had to.
It was the most demoralizing, heartbreaking period of my long teaching career.
My country and its leaders showed me in those dark days and weeks that the rights of angry men to carry weapons of war was more important than my right to teach in safety. Even worse, those so-called “gun rights” were more important than the right of every innocent child to live through a day in public school.
I guess having lived through the Newtown horror and the complete lack of any reaction from American leaders, I should not be at all surprised to see teachers working every single day in the face of the worst pandemic in a century.
Every day I read in the news that I should not visit my children over Christmas. I should absolutely not share a meal with them, or with my mother or my siblings. I am told by the best experts in the country that I should absolutely not eat indoors in a restaurant. It’s not safe, I’m told, to travel to visit family this year. Danger, danger, danger, they say. You must stay safe. No spending a day with your grandchildren!
But teachers must be in their classrooms. In spite of the crumbling conditions of thousands of school building, teachers must be in classrooms with kids. Although kids are eating in their classrooms (for safety), teachers shouldn’t stop at a restaurant for dinner. Everyone, we have been told since last March, everyone must stay at least 6 feet apart! In the grocery store we stand on circles to keep us apart. We “social distance” when stopping for gas.
But in classrooms? Three feet apart is fine, for reasons that defy logic. Teachers can’t be within 6 feet of their adult offspring, but its fine to be 3 feet from their students.
I shouldn’t be surprised to see that the United States is more than willing to sacrifice its kids and its teachers so that moms and dads can be free to work and keep the wheels of capitalism turning. I shouldn’t be surprised.
But I should be royally pissed off.
In fact, I’ve been royally pissed off since December 14, 2012.