Everyone Is A First Responder

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.  

Combat Medicine trauma wraps are designed to fill wounds and are coated in chemicals that promote blotting, several are located in my office desk.

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.

The door is always locked, at the first sign of trouble, a student or I can rip it off and secure the classroom,

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.  

Montana

Lion Mountain Trailhead, Whitefish, Montana

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.

This too shall pass

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.

The Gorge, George, Washington

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.

Maybe

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.

Lending Out Books

You’re always giving, my therapist said.
You have to learn how to take.  Whenever
you meet a woman, the first thing you do
is lend her your books.  You think she’ll
have to see you again in order to return them.
But what happens is, she doesn’t have the time
to read them, & she’s afraid if she sees you again
you’ll expect her to talk about them, & will
want to lend her even more.  So she
cancels the date.  You end up losing
a lot of books.  You should borrow hers.

Hal Sirowitz
Glacier National Park, Montana

How do you look back on a whole lifetime of books and not think about the many friends you let down? You borrowed and didn’t return, you gave and they vanished. Should there be a tabulation of friendship casualties, killed in action, missing in action, wounded?

Break Time

Above Hole In The Wall, Glacier National Park, Montana

In the past seven days, Whitefish has been covered with two feet of snow. As I’m sipping my coffee and starting the day the temperature stands at -6. I see another long boring treadmill run in my future. On days like this, let your mind turn to planning, and dreaming of the future. Allow your thoughts, the same consciousness that is the engine of thoughts filled negativity and darkness, to breath the promise of something different, something better.

Summer is coming, with every day the sun hesitates before setting. Soon our concerns will not be about how warm to dress but if the smoke from wildfires has made it unsafe to be outside. All things pass. Dream for summer adventures, stir dreams for future insight, dream for better days. Unfold those maps, let your fingers trace the countries of future memories.

Advance permits for backcountry backpacking in Glacier National Park can be submitted starting March 15.