In the spring of 1999 I was working at an adjudicated youth rehabilitation facility in Boulder, Montana. The details are long lost into the vacuum of my forgotten memory but on the afternoon April 20th, a beautiful spring day in Montana I first learned of Columbine High School. The 13 killed that day would soon be surpassed at Virginia Tech, and Newtown and the many other places now synonymous with young lives brutally extinguished by the unstable with far too easy access to firearms.
At Columbine the police waited hours to respond till the gunmen were located and the SWAT team was ready to sweep the school, the standard procedure for SWAT scenario up to that point, victims bled to death waiting. As a result law enforcement adopted a policy that all available officers would respond immediately to kill the gun, without waiting for backup.
At Virginia Tech, students and teachers who barricaded classrooms or hid from the gunman survived. Classrooms where the gunman was able to gain access saw the majority of those killed. As a result policy was changed again to instruct teachers to barricade classrooms, hide students and wait for the police to come and eliminate the threat, which usually was under 10 minutes.
At the Newtown Elementary School students who hid from the gunman and were found died. Teachers and students who ran from the gunman lived. Policy was changed to instruct students to run if they could, barricade and hide if they couldn’t, and fight if they had to. Two years ago, all teachers in the school district I teach in were required to spend a day long training in which the “Run, Lock, Fight” responses were explained, practiced and simulated.
This week, the New Yorker magazine published an article about the changing nature of mass casualty first response in medicine. Tournaquits, once seen as barbaric measures that cost victims limbs are now seen as the best response to gunshots to limbs. Wounds to the body proper are now treated with dressings coated in chemicals that promote blood clotting (my trainer referred to them as “Israeli battle dressings”). Teachers are taught to be able to lock their doors within seconds or to keep them locked at all times. Many teachers have cans of wasp spray strategically placed around their classroom to spray at intruders and disable them.
I must admit that I rarely enter a room or building without noticing the exits and thinking quickly and quietly what I would do, where I would hide, if there was a sudden explosion of violence from a gunman. The chances this is going to happen to me are still small, but maybe I’ll be ready.
Also, as a gun owner myself. I should say that I would gladly wait weeks, months and years till I could purchase a new firearm or a used firearm while my mental health, criminal record, weapon storage situation, and firearm training was evaluated. I have never needed a gun immediately and think these common sense evaluations would save thousands of lives a year.
Welcome to teaching in twenty first century America.
From 2002 to 2004 I taught at Paul VI Catholic High School in Fairfax City, Virginia. Though I only lived a few miles from the school the commute was ridiculously long. I was a first year teacher, exhausted and anxious, that long half hour on the way too and from school would allow my idle mind to race into all the catastrophic nightmares I could conjure. Often I would think back to my time in Montana. In Montana you could always substitute your personal worries to worrying about the weather, wild land forest fires, large mammal attack, drowning, or being caught in a shootout with some outlaw biker gang or white aryan nation battalion.
Oh, Montana, thank you for giving me a life worth living.
I will never have this night again. Never again will this moment be here. Never again should we trust our time with those who would waste it.
Winter froze everything in February and March, including my mind. I’ve been wracked with procrastination and indecision everywhere and in everything. Yet, the mantra “this too shall pass” is a reflection of nature that surrounds us. Snow drifts melt, flood waters recede, iceand spring is breaking into northwest Montana.
My own procrastination has been replaced by action. Don’t underestimate the power of taking that one step, of starting. May we never lose the courage to move forward, even in the smallest step. Action, any action is the most powerful tonic.
Summer will be here soon. Emerge from your dark homes, gather in the dawn for a run, meet at the trailhead, linger on the patio in the last rays of the day. Make plans now, buy the tickets, make the reservation. Invest in memories, it slows time down in the most enjoyable way possible.
According to a 2010 psychological study about the connection between anticipation and happiness that was published in the journal Applied Research in Quality of Life, just planning or anticipating your trip can make you happier than actually taking it. The authors of the study, researchers from the Netherlands, interviewed 1,530 people, including 974 vacationers, and found that the vacationers felt most happy before their trips.
Long for experience, not things. What good are things if you have not leaned, with your back against the wall of a great city, watching the flood tide of humanity rush pass you, feeling energy from the brilliant, the brave and the demons who have walked the same streets for centuries. What good will things give you if you have not woken, awake and wide-eyed in terror, in the middle of a long night, knowing your own actions your own vices threaten to destroy you. What good are things if you have not sat up all night with a friend, rehashing the high highs and low lows, and then you see the pale light of the new day on the eastern horizon. When your only dream is a nightmare and your mind only computes minor chords, at least you know you are alive. Long for experience, not things.
I’ve been teaching high school since the fall of 2002. I suppose teaching is the only career I’m going to have. I’m a mediocre teacher. Strictly junior varsity. On good days, I think I can explain things in a way most seventeen and eighteen-year-olds understand. I lecture too much, grade too little, don’t plan enough, tell too many stories.
I used to be so certain about teaching. I thought I was changing the world. But the world goes on without me and my students. Forces much larger are at play. I get depressed when I read the utter stupidity displayed in my local paper’s letters to the editor. I dread the day I realize some former student is the author of some ignorant screed.
Some former students have been wildly successful or moved into lives that are admirable, and impressive. Students have graduated from challenging schools, moved a world away, started families, taken over ranches, and made me proud that I know them. I’m not naive enough to think I have anything to do with their success. Certainly, teachers can help, but we are such a small process in the equation that includes parents and inner drive.
Last year a student attacked me and my teaching in an anonymous letter I found left on my desk. It devastated me. It’s been hard to forget when every time a student sighs, rolls their eyes or snickers under their breath, I remember that letter. It’s made me question everything I do, and don’t do. I thought this year would be the year that I dedicated myself to the passionate energy and brilliance I had when I began. I had an image of all the best practices I would adopt, all the lives I would inspire. The truth is on a good day I’m lucky to walk out of school feeling like I’ve made any difference.
Down the hall is the classroom of a junior AP literature teacher. He coaches policy debate and he often tells me what their debate topic is and I spit out some ideas supporting and attacking the prompt. Sometimes it is on a topic I know a lot about. Periodically he asks me to visit with his debaters and give them my take on a topic. I enjoy it, it’s usually an interesting topic that can be turned over lots of different ways. It’s fun to watch the kids wrestle with these hard issues.
Two days ago he told me that I was being awarded a “Friend of Forensics” award for my work with his team. Tonight they gave me the award. I struggle with praise, but it was nice to hear his kind words. It’s been hard to look other teachers in the eye this year, maybe this will make it easier.
As I sat listening to the debate team award ceremony I looked around and so many of the students I teach. Many of these students are students who compete with for my Model UN team, many are involved in my We The People Constitutional Debate team. Both of these groups performed extremely well for me this year. Maybe I am doing better, maybe I am changing lives. Maybe these kids are naturally talented. Maybe they are lucky. Maybe I’m lucky.
It’s hard to say. As the Stoics teach we know not when it’s all over. We should live our lives knowing that we might not get another shot. Maybe it’s all going to come together.
against the wall, the firing squad ready.Charles Bukowski
then he got a reprieve.
suppose they had shot Dostoevsky?
before he wrote all that?
I suppose it wouldn’t have
there are billions of people who have
never read him and never
but as a young man I know that he
got me through the factories,
past the whores,
lifted me high through the night
and put me down
in a better
even while in the bar
drinking with the other
I was glad they gave Dostoevsky a
it gave me one,
allowed me to look directly at those
in my world,
death pointing its finger,
I held fast,
an immaculate drunk
sharing the stinking dark with