FIRST PERSON - When I return to work on January 7, students and I will debate the viability of gun control. It is always my goal to apply the study of argument to issues of the highest stakes and the gunning down of first grade students and their teachers and other staff in Newtown, Connecticut has put that issue at the forefront.
As it happens, just prior to those awful elementary shootings, my students were researching and writing about the influence of 9/11 on how our country negotiates the tension between liberty and security. Now they are witnessing a similar -- though probably less influential -- negotiation firsthand.
There is some interesting rhetoric on both sides of the gun control issue. Logical fallacies to go along with appeals of all kinds, rhetorical strategies, lots of claims and counter-claims, some well-documented, others without evidence.
The day of the shooting, just as we were getting the awful news from back east, a man crashed through a locked door of our building, screaming incoherently.
He was unarmed and some unarmed students were able to subdue him.
There are several murders each week in the immediate vicinity of our school -- most of them by bullet -- and so students are acutely aware of the destructive power of guns. But many students have also seen fathers and uncles and brothers brandish a firearm in order to protect them from local gang members and other bullies and criminals. One of my students lost his father to a five-year prison term because of one such incident.
In past years, gun-control discussions, debates, and essays have divided the class in a familiar way.
Many students see guns as a menace. They see the criminal element in their communities as a menace and guns as co-conspirators of that menace. Some will quote parents and grand-parents who recall when the community had fewer guns and was safer, despite having an even larger criminal element and point out that fisticuffs and knife battles rarely, if ever, victimized bystanders, and that children, including infants in their cribs, have been killed in the line of fire between street gangs in recent years.
But other students advocate the right of self-protection and assert that guns will always be in the hands of dangerous people. These students believe that there is something inalienable about the right to defend one's self and have the tools to do so. They do not trust the police to protect them.
They do not believe that people who live in the suburbs can understand their daily struggle for survival in South Central Los Angeles.
I have seen students disciplined and even expelled for possessing weapons intended to offer some degree of self-defense on the streets they must travel to and from school. I understand the need to have and enforce such rules but find them offensive in their complete disregard for the daily plight of these children. How arrogant of us -- adults who travel through these communities in the relative safety of our cars, mostly during daylight hours -- to begrudge a child a fighting chance on those mean streets.
If we don't want those weapons in our schools then we should load those children into our cars and shuttle them to and from school every day. Yes, their parents ought to do that -- and many do -- but we ought not shrug our shoulders at the children whose parents lack the will or resources to provide that basic level of safety.
It is difficult to have a debate about gun control without giving rise to so many other issues -- poverty, mental illness, sexual violence, especially against women, and street crime against everyone and our inability to prevent it.
I have one colleague who rides public transportation to work. One afternoon he and his fellow passengers saw a brawl involving four young men on a station platform and when one of the combatants pushed another into the train, almost immediately every other passenger took out a weapon of some kind: knives, pepper spray, a small baton, a taser. No one pulled a gun -- but imagine if all those people had all brandished a firearm.
On the other hand, if one of the men in the fight had turned a gun on those passengers, they might have wished they'd had one.
I've never felt a desire to teach while concealing or displaying a firearm, though I could have used one the day that Damond Phillips banged on the door of my classroom. This was a windowless bungalow classroom with no phone and it was the early 1990s before I or any of my students had a wireless communication device. I had been trained to always open the door opposite the one knocked on. I saw Damond and the panic in his eyes -- and spared him a joke about why he had not been to my class in more than two weeks. He ran in, out of breath, and sat down.
There was another loud knock at the door. Damond said, "Don't answer that." He wouldn't say why, but other students figured it out. Damond had gotten in an argument with a girl the day before and pushed her off the bench at a bus stop. Her uncle, just out of prison, must have come looking for Damond.
If I'd had a gun I could have opened the door and the felon uncle and I could have had a standoff or a shoot-out (he was armed, we later found out).
Instead, the students and I waited, in silence, for a few minutes, then tried to go back to the lesson.
Twenty minutes later the principal opened the classroom door with her key and told us we were safe -- which meant a return to the usual level of danger. A month later four people, including a pregnant woman, were murdered a few hundred feet from our school and we spent four hours locked inside our classrooms while police searched the area for the killers.
I once taught a class holding a baseball bat. I didn't do it for any particular reason. I had taken it away from one of our school's baseball players because he wouldn't stop tapping people's shins with it. So I walked around the room wielding this bat. I never threatened to hit anyone with it and I don't think my students would have taken any such threat seriously anyway, but it changed the entire dynamic of the class. It created a subtle but powerful chasm between us. Students became a little more obedient and a little less invested in the class. It felt as if they'd stopped learning in order to pretend that they were. Finally, I locked the baseball bat in a closet.
I had a colleague who had taught, briefly, at juvenile hall. He told me he'd had no classroom management problems. Having an armed guard in the classroom had dissuaded his students from any of the usual resistance.
He and another teacher at our school used to joke about splitting from our union and forming their own "armed syndicate of teachers." They drew a mock poster of a teacher at a chalkboard with a holstered gun at his side. On the nights we'd have to stay late for parent conferences, they would go to a nearby firing range right after school and return with their shot-up paper targets and tack them to bulletin boards behind their desks while they discussed students with their parents.
It was bad taste but the parents either ignored it or somehow appreciated the suggestion of their no-nonsense attitudes or the dark humor of it. No one ever complained -- probably because they were good teachers who worked hard for their students.
I appreciated the dark humor of it -- much less in retrospect, especially after what happened at Sandy Hook Elementary School. I never joined their fictitious armed syndicate of teachers, not even after my basketball team and I were shot at during an outdoor practice on a basketball court near the edge of the school.
The assailant was a former student who had a beef with one the players. No one was hit and when I yelled the shooter's name -- "Hey, Donny! What the **** are you doing?" -- he rode off. I doubt Donny had ever had much firearms training. I'm glad for that. I'm also glad he hadn't gotten hold of an automatic weapon.
Later in that basketball season, we had to forfeit a home basketball game because our athletic director saw a pistol being handed off from one spectator to another in the top row of the stands.
My team and I were incensed because it went as a loss on our record even though the offenders were from the other school and, in fact, one was the other team's bus driver! Surreptitious gang signs being flashed from one team bench to the other had instigated the near incident and our athletic director rightly cared more about safety than about wins and losses. After that incident he decided we would no longer allow spectators at our games. A reasonable response, given the circumstances.
So a week later I found myself guarding the door of the gym trying to explain to members of the local gang why they couldn't enter the gym they considered theirs by virtue of the turf they had fought and died for. They threatened to shoot me and "wet up" everyone else in the gym. Fortunately, one of the threatening young men recognized me as a teacher he had liked during a two-week stint at our school when he was trying to make a favorable impression on his probation officer. I had taken a genuine interest in Yusef and gotten him excited about learning before he had dropped back out of school.
I hadn't taught any of Yusef's classes with a baseball bat or any other potential weapon within my grasp -- just an arsenal of instructional strategies and a sometimes sharp wit.
That is what I will bring back with me next Monday when my students and I tackle this issue. Invariably, one of them will ask me whether I believe teachers should -- as some politicians are now suggesting -- be allowed or required to carry guns while they teach.
I'll try, as I always do, to avoid a direct answer and let them arrive at their own opinions without being guided by mine.
What I think I will say is this: there is a logical argument to arming teachers. Banks have armed personnel protecting our money and some of us still believe children more valuable than cash. I will also say that the qualities that make a good teacher are not always found in the same people who possess the qualities that make a good bodyguard and that arming teachers is a sad surrender to the violence we seem incapable of stemming.
I will also have to point out that even in our school's gang-infested neighborhood, the chances that I might need a gun to protect my students from being gunned down in class is extremely small. With all the mayhem I've seen as a teacher in the last twenty years there is not one time I wish I'd had a gun.
I'll probably also make a bad joke about the dangers of having guns at a faculty meeting.
And then I'll tell them that the only way any of us can hope to arrive at a sane and just solution to any problem is to consider every possible perspective.
Get past our own fear and anger.
Consider the rights of those least represented.
And understand that there will probably never be a perfect solution to any human problem.
(Larry Strauss is a veteran high school English teacher, basketball coach and novelist in Los Angeles. This piece was posted most recently at huffingtonpost.com)
Vol 11 Issue 2
Pub: Jan 4, 2013