My classroom has no windows. This means if a shooter invades, we have nowhere to go. It is in the chemistry building at the University of California at Berkeley, a relic of the Brutalist era when architects believed buildings that look like supermax prisons might somehow be conducive to learning. I often prop the door open to let in some air, so a shooter could just walk right in. The campus police advise us to lock our doors from the inside, but our classroom doors do not lock.
When I arrived at the campus the day after the surviving students from Parkland, Fla., traveled to Washington, D.C., to talk to a president who held empathy cue cards, my colleague told me she is desperate to change her classroom. Like mine, it has no windows. There is no escape.
My classroom has no windows. This means if a shooter invades, we have nowhere to go.
Our pedagogical training in graduate school covered the usual topics. How to plan a syllabus, select books, design assignments, handle student grumbles about grades. We did not worry about school shootings or being armed ourselves; we worried about budget cuts. Today, in my 20th year teaching writing to college students, my evaluations will tell you I am good at my job, and I am repeatedly told that care for my students comes through in my work. My mother was a teacher. My grandmother was a teacher. My niece will graduate from college this year and begin a teaching credential program. Teaching is as natural to me as breathing air.
In the 17 years I’ve been on the faculty at U.C. Berkeley, a high-intensity, competitive campus full of some of the world’s most talented students, I have never once thought I was going to die at their hands. Instead of erupting in rage, our students routinely turn their concerns inward. Stress, anxiety and depression are rife in our student population, and agonized emails of worries about their health and safety regularly circulate on our faculty listserv.
Teachers do not talk about being afraid of our students. We talk about being afraid for our students.
We do not talk about being afraid of our students. We talk about being afraid for our students. Afraid of ICE raiding the dorms, afraid of white supremacists marching through campus, afraid of the way people talk about our students on social media, smearing them into caricatures and stereotypes. In the past two years, campus life has become so stressful that even the most stalwart faculty members are reporting chronic headaches, insomnia and digestive trouble. We do not want our students to hurt themselves. We do not want our students to die.
What should characterize the student-teacher relationship in such circumstances is a sense of trust. I trust my students will not deliberately hurt me, and they trust I will take responsibility for them. The N.R.A. regularly argues that the ownership of guns is a matter of freedom. But if freedom means arming teachers, as President Trump has suggested, we have become free to violate the relationship of trust we build with our students because we would also be free to kill them.
More guns in more hands only mean more bodies: young bodies, vulnerable bodies, our bodies and theirs.
Training teachers in the same way we train police officers would do nothing to ensure student safety, as the many shootings of unarmed black people have shown us over the past few years. Philando Castile was an employee of a school district with a concealed carry permit who had taken gun safety classes; nonetheless, he, too, was shot by police. If anything, more guns in more hands only mean more bodies: young bodies, vulnerable bodies, our bodies and theirs. Teachers are not soldiers; we should not have to ask ourselves if we would die for our students—though most of us would tell you, yes, we would. Neither should we have to ask ourselves if we would kill one of our students. But if we are somehow forced to arm ourselves, that is ultimately what we are being asked to be willing to do.
The possibility of arming ourselves also runs completely counter to the message of the Gospels. The odds that those who draw a gun will die by the gun are high. What if we instead turned our faith into works? Cardinal Seán O’Malley recently tweeted that “our thoughts and prayers must be joined with action.” Teacher unions are already rallying around gun control as an issue; we can push them and our elected leaders to do more.
Our nation needs to do more for its students: more mental health care would be the most logical place to begin. More resources for counseling, more attention to mental health issues in teacher training. We need to talk more about the toxic masculinity that puts boys into what Chimamanda Adichie has called a “hard, small cage,” the only perceptible escape from which, for many, seems to be violence. We need to train teachers to listen and be aware of what students are thinking and feeling, not to train teachers to terminate student lives.
We need, in other words, to learn from our students. We are learning from the students of Stoneman Douglas High as they discover their agency and lead the way. Long may they continue to teach us.