The morning after 19 children and two teachers were killed in a shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas Tuesday, I didn’t walk into school thinking about what I still needed to do to prepare for that day’s lesson. I didn’t run through my daily checklist of which assignments I needed to grade.
Approaching my classroom, I wish I’d slept the night before. I wondered how it’s possible that this has happened — again.
By “this,” I mean gun violence. School shootings, yes, but also mass shootings. Police shootings. Baltimore shootings.
I’ve almost finished my eleventh year teaching high school English in Baltimore City Public Schools. During my career, I’ve deliberately avoided counting how many times bullets have ruined lives. Instead, following every shooting, I muster energy to try to support my students, who I call my lovelies, in the days after.
There are the shootings that have become synonymous with where they happened: Newtown, Ferguson, Las Vegas. There are the deaths of my lovelies’ friends and family, people whose names I often never know.
There are my lovelies themselves. Gerald. Maurice. Trevor. Nayely. Ethan.
Each time, I adapt to what my lovelies seem to need. I hold them close or I give them space. I ask questions or I wait until they’re ready. It’s never sufficient, but nothing is.
When we’re hiding in the corner of my classroom, wondering if we’re about to be shot ourselves, I project serenity. During every code red lockdown, because of threats to the building or drills, I immunize myself from my own emotions to try to help my lovelies feel safe — or as safe as we can be while an active shooter might be outside the door.
The summertime shootings, when we can’t be in class together, are among the hardest. I know my support doesn’t spare them any pain, but it lets them know someone cares. And hearing about churchgoers in Charleston, Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Korryn Gaines, makes me desperate to see, hear, hug my lovelies, even when they are not there.
After Tuesday’s tragedy, my lovelies didn’t seem to want to discuss it. This week, as I did with the Buffalo supermaket shooting two weeks ago, I let them initiate. We’ve been through enough hard things this year for them to know I will stop the lesson to make time for what matters most. For this recent shooting, only one lovely brought it up: “Ms. Graham, did you hear about ... ?” Part of me regrets not prompting my lovelies to process. Another part knows that they just need a break.
We all do. It’s impossible to be an educator in America and not worry about school shootings. As horrific as they are, our nation has allowed them to persist. They’re so common that a former roommate of mine, also a high school English teacher, has survived two.
Where there is widespread gun violence, school shootings feel like even more of a violation. The threat of being shot lurks in so many places in my lovelies’ lives. On corners, in churches, at traffic stops. For some, the combination of poverty, racism and police brutality makes gun violence feel like a guarantee. Of course their ZIP code and race shouldn’t shorten their lifespan, but that’s how America began.
The absolute least we can do is keep their schools safe.
On the first day of school in 2012, there was a shooting at my alma mater, Perry Hall High School. Thirteen years earlier, as a sophomore, that’s where I heard about Columbine. Now, as a second-year teacher, my personal connection to a school shooting troubled me. This was the first time I could actually imagine what might have taken place.
This was also the first time I resented public outcry against a school shooting. I’d had enough of people overlooking other gun violence. It felt like no one would care about the hazards of my lovelies’ lives unless bullets ripped through our school hallways.
Almost a decade later, after more death than I could’ve ever envisioned, nothing has changed. I’m sick over how many communities mourn school shootings. I’m apprehensive about when and where the next one will be. I’m furious at our nation’s refusal to ensure children can receive their education safely.
Every school shooting has also been a reminder: Not enough of us are invested in keeping kids like my lovelies safe, no matter where they are.
Kerry Graham is is part of The Baltimore Banner’s Creatives in Residence program.
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