Photograph taken in Ohio, 2010, Rebecca Case
Valentine’s Day came and somewhere among the flowers and chocolates and expressions of love, another school shooting happened. This time in Florida. Soon after, a young survivor, named Emma, had something to say. As I listened to her I felt that I was hearing the anguish and frustration many children all across the country must have felt for a long time. I found her voice powerful. And sad. She was speaking for many in her generation. And I couldn’t help but notice the adults standing near her as she spoke. I imagined that they were mentors, teachers, counselors, staff and community members who wanted to support the voices of the children.
How many times have students felt what Emma was saying? With every report of a shooting, with every “active shooter” drill, with every discussion about gun safety and responsibility. Emma and her peers were determined to be heard. They were also determined to be helpers and ask that steps be taken to help them and all children feel safer at school.
I am a parent who has been asking questions, looking back, and wondering what we have put our children through. I remembered how awful it felt to drop my own children off at school the day after the shooting at Sandy Hook. Sandy Hook was states away but it did not matter. We all felt the shock and the sadness. We grieved for the parents who had lost. At our school the morning after Sand Hook the counselors welcomed phone calls, the staff was willing to talk to anyone to make them feel safe. The discussion went on for a few days, and then it just stopped. Then there was the next shooting that was reported in the news. The conversations began again. The talking, the calming down, and here we were scooting our little ones off towards their lockers and telling them it’s okay. Class begins soon and they should feel safe to focus on school now.
The emotions and experience Emma was talking about were becoming part of our children’s educational experience. They were becoming a part of our children’s psyche, right in front of us. The news reports, the drills, the letters sent to parents, and the repetition of all of it. I saw Emma. I heard Emma. She told me all about it. Her anger, her passion, and her grief. I needed to hear every heartbreaking word she had to say.
As I write this, just this week our school sent out a notification that during the morning there had been a suspected shooter near one of our local schools. THE STUDENTS ARE SAFE, they told us. And thankfully, they were. As a parent, those words have the power to change a day.
We go to school and learn that writing is about bridges. It’s a powerful way to connect. It’s a powerful way to meet each other where we have not met before. Writing about a school shooting was not my original plan. Yet after the tragic event on Valentine’s Day how could I not keep going back to these kids who want and need support for their voices? I scratched part of my original essay because I wanted to write about this, about what Emma had to say, and I wanted to write about it as a parent who remembers valuable teachers, and also saw valuable teachers and mentors standing up with Emma. I wanted a bridge; for the students, for parents, for all of us. I needed a connection, a hope that we can meet each other with positive solutions about this like we have never met before.
I have thought a lot about Emma’s peers, and the adults who were standing with her. And how important I feel that is for all of us to see. Emma told me that in her history class she and her peers had had many debates about safety already this year. She told me that she and her peers were challenged. That she and her peers were questioned. She also told me that she and her peers were ready for this debate about safety in their schools. And right there with her were mentors and caring adults, in this time of grief, sorrow, and the outrage there these students were articulating like we had never heard before.
Have you ever had someone stand beside you? Better yet, validate what you are saying? Have you ever had someone tell you that what you are feeling is normal to feel? And that it would be normal for anyone to feel like that? This is what good teachers and mentors do, and they may not realize it, but they help courage grow.
Sometimes they help us leave what we once relied on, even though what he relied on hurts. Whether it’s another person or the way things have been done for a long time. Obligation can keep us going in circles. It has become what we know and somehow those circles seem safe, those circles that go nowhere. Teachers and mentors who facilitate positive change in a student’s life don’t have to do this, yet they do it because they care. That is a kindness. And maybe most of us can agree that after all of the ugliness the world throws our way, that the world cannot turn without the anchors of kindness.
When I remember one of my teachers who showed me kindness, I remember that she took the class the look at the courtyard, in the center of the school, on a cold January day and told us to “write thoughts.” Anything, she said. Just write. I wrote that I saw sequins in the ice that glittered. I found wintry queens and long gowns, and silence.
My peers and I sat on the gray floor with our composition books open and looked upon the snowy courtyard. Pens moved and feelings ran onto the paper. It felt like fear turning, tears drying, dreams weaving, and I forgot everything painful in this world because there was this magical thing called story, and it had icy windows and a dormant tree with snow-covered branches. Art creates answers.
I am told by talented people that we should place important things on paper, right along with all of the other things we could possible place there. Close your eyes. Reach in that space that is open and tell what we see. What we hear. What we feel. My teacher who walked us to the courtyard, and who still helps people today, helped us push boundaries. We studied Hitchcock and how those birds flew right at us. We studied Twain and his dusty trails demanded we throw pretention away and breathe humanity in. Dickens showed up manners right along with all the soot of the world and told us that actions were more important than possessions. We talked about all of it. We wrote about all of it. We considered how the writers lived more of their story than they might ever admit to us on paper. Writers told us their secrets.
Emma was doing the same thing. She was telling us how she and her peers had lived, and what emotions they had felt for a long time. It was time for her to speak out. Before the time I finished writing this, the students at Douglas High in Florida, have gone back to school. They have put flowers on empty desks. I am just a parent, who looks at these young students and remembers the struggles of teenage times. I also realize that I did not have the additional reality of frequent gun violence to deal with and all the fear that it carries. I saw her standing with fellow students, teachers, counselors, and mentors. All of these adults supported the students with that brave anchor of kindness.
The photo that you see at the top of the page is of my child, when he was younger. He is playing in the same place I played in as a child. He is learning what trees and the rhythm of natural things teach. To me, this is the best of many things. I looked through a lot of photos as I wrote this and I couldn’t think of a better way to express the feeling of security and freedom that I like to think we all hope to feel. Just like my own teacher walked us to that courtyard and I saw a tree with snow-covered branches, quiet and dormant in winter. These bridges might seem like an irrelevant thing, or the value of looking at a tree, but I do believe these bridges place healing in our hearts and minds. The teacher who walked us to the courtyard knew this. I believe that. And the teachers who stood with Emma as she was speaking brave and difficult words knew the value of bridges and trees. I want to believe that they also know that art creates answers. And that listening follows. To all of the adults who stood with the students, and to my own teacher, thank you.