“It was no surprise to anyone who knew him to hear that he was the shooter,” said Emma Gonzalez, a senior at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
Over the past three weeks, the impassioned voices and steadfast demands of the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School have resounded across social media and through the halls of the large suburban high school where I teach visual arts. A group of senior girls, spurred to action by the horrors of the Parkland massacre and emboldened by watching videos of its protesting students, organized a walkout of their own. Though it was an uncharacteristically cold, snowy day in our part of Oregon, hundreds of students marched out of school, engaging in what was certainly, for many of them, their first act of civil disobedience. I positioned myself near the back of the crowd, listening as they shouted their demands for safer schools and an end to fear in the classroom. Standing on that icy sidewalk, I was overcome by waves of conflicting emotions. Though deeply proud of them for raising their voices and insisting on being heard, I was also forced to confront a stark and brutal reality: Neither my students nor I feel safe in our school.
I still remember the cold December morning in 2012 when I first heard about the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. A colleague walked up to my desk, tears streaming down her face. She then recounted the grisly details of those shootings: a classroom of first graders and their teachers murdered on what should have been just another routine school day.
At the time, my daughter was a preschooler. In those school pictures that began appearing in the media of gap-toothed Sandy Hook first graders, I saw her face. I began to think about her future in such a world, and it looked bleak. From that moment on, I couldn’t bear reading the stories of what had transpired within those school walls and so found myself avoiding the impassioned, anguished speeches of the brave parents and teachers of those senselessly slaughtered children. It hit too close to home. It was horror on a level I had previously thought unimaginable and in a school not that different from mine. Naively, I assumed things would have to change, that nobody could look at those tiny little people and callously advocate for the status quo. How wrong I was. And as we all know, the shootings just kept happening.
So what was it about the Parkland killings that tipped the scale? Why hadn’t this happened after Columbine or Newtown? These are among the questions we teachers have been asking one another at my school recently. Perhaps what’s driving this moment is fear of the seeming inevitability, the not-if-but-when of it all. As teachers, we are forced to wonder: When will it be our turn? When will we bar the doors, fight, run, or hide? When will despair be given a physical form in the shape of a teenager with a gun and our school turned into a shooting gallery for the deranged?