[pullquote position="right"]Guns and violence have been a part of my teaching experience from the beginning.[/pullquote]
During my first year of teaching, I was a substitute teacher working with an emergency license. I had no training. I had no experience. But after my first day, I was hooked. One day, I was a journalist who needed a little extra income, and the next day I discovered I had the heart of a teacher.
I was asked to take over a high school classroom near Palm Springs, California—a “last-chance class.” All of the students had been expelled, but the high school decided to give them one last chance.
Within a month they had blown up at their teacher and thrown her desk out of the window. As a result, she took a leave of absence and the district was hoping I could calm the students down. My own brother had been in similar classes due to his mental health and, as a child, I often walked that fine line of helping to keep my brother out of trouble, so I agreed.
My class was full of gang members and some very tough young people. I was an Oregon farm boy and a tough older brother. Plus, years on a farm leaves you strong and pretty fearless. But I was also another White guy, bossing them around with very little exposure to their culture and way of life.
On the first day, the class ringleader pushed me in the chest. When I didn’t budge, he looked surprised. He puffed up his chest and put his face in mine. I won’t repeat what he said—it wasn’t nice—but I just stood there with no reaction. “You called me a nigger,” he said. It was a test. I knew it was a test.
“You are in my bubble,” I said and motioned my personal space.
It wasn’t what he expected and he started laughing. “Go sit down and let me do some teaching,” I said, and he stared at me for a little while longer before saying, “I like you.”
He sat down, and as the leader of the class, the rest of the students followed suit. What followed was two really solid weeks of student buy-in. We had no referrals—no issues at all, really—and then the Friday rolled around.
Something was off. I could sense it from the moment the kids came in from lunch. They were tense and shifty. They were sharing something bad and keeping it from me. I had no control over them because something had them all scared and ready to fight.
One student decided to tell me what was going on. Word had gotten out there was going to be a drive-by shooting after school. It was gang-related, and from the panic on my students’ faces, it was real. I called the office and the school’s guard showed up. But the moment she walked into my room, the students went crazy. They were screaming at her, throwing paper and, as a group, the boys advanced on her and she fled. This was 1994. There was no training for this. I was on my own.
I looked around the room at these kids of whom I had grown so fond. Tough kids who had let me peek behind their rough exteriors. When I said I had found the heart of a teacher inside me, this was the moment when I fully understood what that meant. These were my kids. They were not going to listen to me. If they left the room there was a chance one, or two or more of them wouldn’t be coming back in. There was only one thing between these kids and danger.
[pullquote]And so I did what teachers do. I put myself between the children and the dangerous situation.[/pullquote]
I stood in the doorway and told them to sit down on the floor. The bell was about to ring and they mobbed me, pushing and shoving to get out the door. I took a few hits, but there is one thing at which I am exceptional—digging my heels in like an immovable object.
“The only way you can get out of here is through me, and I am not moving.”
I held my ground with the classroom leader’s face one inch away from mine. I can’t imagine the look that was on my face. But whatever it was, it moved him. He broke off and sat down against the wall like I had been asking. The class followed him. When the bell rang, we all jumped.
There were no gunshots.
I looked out the door and there were police around the parking lot.
It was over before it really began.
One by one, the kids filed out. Some didn’t want to look at me, especially the ones who had been pushing and hitting. They had seen something different that day. A teacher who stood in harm’s way to keep them safe.
I never had another behavior problem in that class. The kids were angels and, in fact, they were so good, their teacher agreed to come back.
I cried when I said my goodbyes to those kids, and I am thinking of them today. I’ve been in the classroom for 20 years now. Two decades. And when I think of how much things have changed, I can’t help but think back to my first weeks of teaching. I think of the day I stood in that doorway, despite the danger, to keep my kids safe.
And it breaks my heart.
I know how frightened I was at that moment. There was only me to keep those kids safe. And I think of other teachers who have had to stand their ground.
Anne Marie Murphy, who was found dead, draped over her student’s body.
And I think of the teachers at Columbine, on the eve of the 20th century, who were barricading their students in their rooms or dying on the floor. And in the two decades since, I think of those Parkland teachers, and the Sante Fe High School teachers, and those of Virginia Tech and Red Lake teachers.
This is how teachers have started the 21st century. Too often, those teachers are dead on the classroom floor. Too often, there are desks or lockers dripping with students’ blood. [pullquote position="right"]Even one teacher, one student, shot in a classroom is too many.[/pullquote]
Since the dawn of this new century, approximately 277 shootings have occurred at school, and laws passed to protect our students are almost non-existent. We have lawmakers taking huge sums of money from the arms industry, who then looked the other way when hundreds of children were shot at school. They offered some “thoughts and prayers” and scolded those calling for action, saying that talking about gun control after a bunch of kids were just killed was insensitive.
And now, as we wrap up the first two decades of this century, 438 people have been shot or killed in over 200 school shootings. According to the Center for Homeland Defense and Security, 224 people have lost their lives since 2010 in 492 incidents. And in that time, we have not passed gun control laws. But our elected officials continue to line up for handouts from the NRA and others from the pro-gun lobby.
[pullquote]Through it all, we teachers do what we have always done—we try to keep our students safe.[/pullquote] I toss and turn at night thinking about which cupboards will hold a child, which tables will keep out a bullet—and I mourn those teachers who bravely stood between a gun and their students.
This is how I remember the first decades of the 21st century. The century where we let the Federal Assault Weapons Ban expire, putting automatic weapons back in the hands of school shooters.
[pullquote]When a society no longer agrees that protecting the children is the most important thing we can all agree on, then that society will pay the heaviest price.[/pullquote] We are paying for it with the blood of our children, our students and our teachers.
Happy 2020. May we go for at least one month in this new year without a school shooting. There were 11 school shootings in January of 2019. My hope is dim.
Brett Bigham is the 2014 Oregon State Teacher of the Year and a member of the National Network of State Teachers of the Year. He is the only Oregon special education teacher to be named Teacher of the Year and to win the NEA National Award for Teaching Excellence. He is the creator of Ability Guidebooks, a series of support books for people with autism that give step-by-step directions how to visit cultural landmarks and social events. The books are currently available in 10 countries and four languages. He is president of ORSTOY, the Oregon chapter of the National Network of State Teachers of the Year and serves on the boards of Oregon Safe Schools and Clubfunder.Org.
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