Barely one month after the Las Vegas shootings, and here we were again today, talking as a class about another mass shooting: 26 people dead at a Texas church.
Last month, when 58 people were shot to death at the Las Vegas music festival, I thought about my oldest daughter. She started her freshman year in college this fall. You know those lists they do every year, about the mindset of college freshmen? This year’s noted that her class, the class of 2021, has always known Bill Clinton as the aging husband of Hillary Clinton, has always been able to order shoes online from Zappos, has always known ketchup could come in the color green.
It didn’t note something I remember starkly.
My daughter was exactly one week old when I held her soft and tiny body in my arms and watched on the news as teen-aged students ran, hands over their heads, out of Columbine High School. Inside, two seniors had just fatally shot a dozen classmates and their teacher.
That means this year’s class of college freshmen has never known a time without mass shootings inside schools.
When they were in kindergarten, a Minnesota teenager shot and killed seven students at his high school. In second grade, a man barricaded himself inside an Amish schoolhouse where he tied up young girls and began shooting, killing five. Three days after my daughter’s eighth birthday, a gunman chained and locked the doors of a classroom building at Virginia Tech before fatally shooting down 32 students and teachers. She had not yet graduated elementary school when 20 first-graders and six teachers were shot and killed in Newtown.
So today, as I looked out at my class of fourth, fifth and sixth-graders, who were asking me questions like whether anyone inside that church escaped unwounded, I tried for a moment to imagine what their world looks like. They’re all between 9 and 12 years old. That means the oldest of them were, yes, in first grade when first-graders were huddled behind doors with their teachers in Newtown, then gunned down in their classroom.
Today, I heard that Columbine is no longer among the top 10 deadliest mass shootings in the United States.
What does this mean for how we talk to our students? I don’t know.
But I do know, as we have these difficult conversations in our classrooms, that it’s important for us to recognize something. Our elementary school students have never known a time when students their age weren’t shot and killed in classrooms very much like theirs. They’ve never known a time when people weren’t gunned down in movie theaters, in nightclubs, at music festivals and in church. This is their world.
Our job, impossible as it might seem, is to answer their questions, honestly and fearlessly. I know it’s not much. But hopefully, it’s one step toward helping them make sense of it, of this, their world.