“Ms. Mayes? If a gunman came in here, would you protect us? Would you stand between us and the gunman?”
It was about two months into my third long-term substitute teaching position at my high school alma mater. I returned when my high school mentor was diagnosed with cancer. When he came back in remission, I stayed to continue to build and shape the community that had given me a sense of self in my formative years.
This group of students was still new to me, but I adored them. Sure, they had their moments when they would rather be sucked into a phone screen than discuss the ramifications of gerrymandering, the intricacies of supply and demand, or the Gilded Age.
But teenagers deserve more credit than we ever give them.
They are kind, intelligent, insightful and bold. I was supposed to be their teacher, but I learned so much about myself and the world from them. When they are of age to vote, they will ignite this world with compassion. We do not deserve them, especially when we continuously fail to protect them.
That day, I was running my first active shooter drill.
When I sat in these same desks and walked down these same halls six years earlier, the only scenarios we rehearsed were for tornadoes, fires, and asking a special someone to prom.
But this is the new normal. My students were restless. It was a planned drill ― not always a given, as some drills are enacted without warning. But the notice did little to calm nerves and suppress the reality that we must rehearse for the possibility of our own deaths.
I reviewed my lesson plan, glared at the finicky overhead projector, took a sip of coffee, and waited. No one knew when the principal’s voice would come over the intercom, triggering the drill.
The drill came and went, and melted into the new normalcy of a modern school day, with full knowledge that our paper-thin classroom walls were no match for automatic weapons fire.
But this is not normal. This should not be normal.
We ask our teachers to do so much — to be educators, caregivers, counselors, nurses, peacekeepers, custodians, disciplinarians. And now we ask them to be human shields.
When I stumbled into teaching, it had not crossed my mind that I would have to grapple with my own mortality and weigh the worth of my life against those of my students, despite growing up in this era. I was in third grade when Columbine stunned the world of education. I was in 11th grade when the Virginia Tech shooting happened.
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“Yes. Yes, of course I would,” I told the teenager who had asked if I would protect my students.
I made the decision to sacrifice myself to save my students should an active shooter enter my classroom. Part of teaching is believing in the future and believing in a better future. My students must survive to make that future a possibility.
But it is not a decision I should have to make.
With each new mass shooting, the arguments against common-sense gun restrictions appear like clockwork:
“If we armed the teachers, this wouldn’t happen.”
I am an educator. A mentor. A helper. A guide. A light. I will not be relegated to a role of perpetuating this American culture of violence. I will not be complicit in the weaponization of myself and my fellow teachers.
“This is the price we pay for our Second Amendment freedoms.”
Why have many in this country decided that owning weapons outweighs the safety and lives of our children and teachers? How many dead students and dead teachers is your “freedom” worth to you? How high are you willing to set the price to defend an amendment that has been outpaced by technology? How is worrying about being shot at school or a movie theater or a grocery store freedom? Your paranoia and misguided belief that “courage is a man with a gun in his hand” has corrupted the original intent of an antiquated amendment.
We accept reasonable limitations to our other rights. Why is this such a struggle with the right to bear arms?
“Guns don’t kill people; people kill people.”
It is beyond time to limit access to tools used to kill more efficiently. Why are you so terrified of your neighbor that you need an assault rifle? Or feel the need to conceal and carry when you do your weekly grocery shopping? This is a reflection of you — of your need for false power, of your suspicions, of your cowardice — not a reflection of the society you purportedly fear. An AR-15 or other military-grade weapon serves no purpose other than that of destruction.
“This is an act of a mentally ill person.”
Stop equating mental illness as a requisite for murder. Start supporting mental health care. Start normalizing discussion about mental health. Start considering the mental health of those affected by gun violence.
“Now is not the time for politics. Now is the time to send thoughts and prayers.”
Thoughts and prayers comfort those left behind. They also assuage the consciences of those who plan to do nothing, who will continue to support the status quo because it is comfortable, familiar, and politically expedient.
These days I occasionally teach political science as an adjunct at a college. Every classroom I enter triggers the same process: Check the door. Take note of how it locks. Plan how to cover the windows. Find potential barricades. Make a plan. Rehearse.
This process is more difficult at a college because the classroom is not mine. It is used by several faculty members throughout the day. Desks arrangements may be reconfigured. The blinds may be opened or closed. Keys may be misplaced. A first aid kit may have vanished to another room.
Each time the classroom could be different, which necessitates quickly generating a new plan. I have lost sleep running different scenarios in my mind to be prepared for the next day.
Creating a plan in case of an active shooter is second nature now. It is part of the process. Along with preparing my lecture notes and stashing my best dry erase markers, I think of ways to save the lives of my students.
This should not be normal.
Instead of asking teachers to take on the impossible, to accept the reality that they could die doing their job, ask yourself: Who would have to be gunned down in your life for you to act?
Yes. I will sacrifice my life for the lives of my students. But do not let this become my reality the next time I teach. Do not let my life and the lives of my students fade into statistics.