The War

All my growing-up years, guns were in movies and (I imagined) in the hands of people less interesting and educated than me.  I had no idea why anyone would want or need a gun.

I moved to the city eleven years ago.  I remember hearing someone got shot in the parking lot of the drugstore where I usually shop, the parking lot right by where I often have dinner with friends.  Most of those shootings were personal, like most shootings in the city are personal.  It’s possible to get in the way, but most of the time, people in the city who shoot at you have a reason.  I find that comforting.

The difference between my city living (moved here by choice) and my students’ city living is that I estimate half of them have lost a friend of family member to gun violence.  Half.  Half of the sixteen-year-olds I teach have gone to funerals where the deceased was shot to death.  I still find that hard to believe.  I haven’t lost anyone.  Except a student.

I have friends who have guns and go hunting.  I understand the desire to participate in the old “Lion King” circle of life, hunting and killing and eating, but I don’t understand why you would actually do that when not killing works just fine.  I asked to hold my friend’s shotgun once.  It was heavy.

Two of my students were shot.  One killed, one paralyzed.  That was maybe four years ago.  Guns were real to me then.  If guns were harder to get, things might be different.

Rumor has it that my students who were absent this week got caught with a gun.  Two of my solid students– one a joker, one a quiet guy.  Smart enough kids, active in sports, rarely in trouble.  They’re in jail.  Maybe they sold drugs, maybe they robbed someone, maybe not.  I don’t know.

I am always so numb with exhaustion by this point in the school year that I feel very little.  After I learned my students were in jail, which I tried to muster up some energy to process, I heard about the Connecticut stuff. How many gun incidents could I get upset about in one day?

I read recently that the less privileged you are, the more likely you are to limit your violence to your own community.  Is lack of power so depressing that people  don’t have the energy to turn their anger outward?  It amazes me that with wealthy suburbs accessible all around, when people in the impoverished parts of the city get angry, they use their guns on each other.  Even when we’ve had riots, poor people started where they were and destroyed that.

Of course, I don’t wish they’d take their guns to my parents’ neighborhood.  But it amazes me that poverty brainwashes people that they turn their anger on themselves, time and again, with guns, with drugs.  Capitalism is good at doing that, I guess, convincing people that if you don’t have money, you are an embarrassment.

What I do wish is that the anger in poor communities could be channeled into demanding jobs and services and better schools and health care and parks and policing and grocery stores with the same sense of entitlement shown by people who grew up with money, who know no one is ever going to call them “entitled.”  “Entitled” is a word for people you look down on.

It makes sense to me that white men are more likely to be alienated.  For many years in our culture, they were barely allowed to have emotions at all.

During the last few years, public schools have cut back on mental health services, and this is an outrageously irresponsible move.  If kids don’t get mental health care at school, small problems easily erupt into bigger ones.  I think anyone who shoots another person is mentally ill, by definition, but that’s just me.

And, yes, guns should be more reasonably regulated: buying and selling records and insurance required, plus federal background checks for everyone, at every point of sale.

Americans love violence, they love shooting each other, they love guns.  Europeans took hundreds of years to lose their lust for killing each other.  They went at it large-scale for generations, until World War II finally kicked them down so hard they quit for a breather.  Although we aren’t close to that point, it isn’t the wild west around here, either.  We have grown a little.

After more gun violence, we go back to our own trenches, to teach how to tend anger.  To keep being polite.  And like people throughout history, with irrational optimism, we pray for peace.

The Balance of Power

Today I was asked to sub for a Shakespeare class.  The kids were supposed to watch “10 Things I Hate About You,” which meant I could sit and do whatever the hell I wanted while they were entertained.  That’s a good way to earn twenty bucks. 

I was happily checking my email and reading “Catcher in the Rye” so I won’t have to lie so baldly when my students are reading it next quarter when the damn movie ended.  Just ended.  Apparently they had already watched most of it  the previous day.

I looked at my watch and there were 20 minutes left in class.  I’m not trying to set up a 20 motif here, this is actually the amount of time.  Way too much time to say, ah, just hang out a minute, and class is almost over.  At least, for me, in my compulsive workhorse mode.  The minute those kids saw I was their sub, they moaned, “Oh no!” and the seniors said, “I thought I’d never have to see you again!” in the half-agonized, secretly pleased way of adolescents.

So I stood up and got them to spit back the plot of “10 Things,” and then explained about how “The Taming of the Shrew” was sexist, and what a shrew is, and why taming a woman is offensive.  All this in between, and sort of half over, their side conversations and yelling at each other and staring into space apathy.  I could win about 1o seconds of auditory real estate in this room.  If one of my words was “race” or “sex,” I had a better shot.

I got them to vote on whether the play should still be performed.  It came out 50/50.  I got the smartest kid in class to tell everyone that race is addressed in Shakespeare, in “Othello,” and he mentioned that they refer to Othello as a moor, and and as “uncircumcised.”  Apparently that made an impression on him. 

But they never really shut up completely, and as I moved the discussion to race, and another kid declared that Abraham Lincoln had slaves, someone else said, “Why are we talking about slaves?  What does that have to do with Shakespeare?”  And for the hundredth time, I asked, “How did Lincoln have slaves?  He lived in a free state.”  “He just did.  Those other white people didn’t care.”

Right before the bell rang, I stood up in front of the door.  Most of them were used to this trick.  I said, “I’m just going to add one thing.  But not until everyone’s quiet.”  This took a minute.  I wrapped up with something about considering the culture of the author, and how we should accept them or deal with offensive parts of their work, and how they would look at this more in their college English classes, while they thought about what they were about to have for lunch, and then I let the floodgates open. 

“You the only one I ever heard talk about slavery and Shakespeare,” one of the sophomores said.

As I walked upstairs, I was annoyed and worn out.  A kid on the stairs had her cell phone out.  I held my hand out to confiscate it.  She refused to give it to me. 

I encouraged her to do this the easy way and not get into deeper trouble, and she said, “I’ll do what I want,” all snotty.  This kid was on track to be valedictorian of her class, and I’ve been worried about her getting careless and rude. 

So I asked her to step into the chemistry lab.  “This isn’t like you.  This isn’t who you are,” I began. 

“You don’t know who I am,” she said.

Well, fair enough.  “I know you have made lots of smart choices in the past, and I’ve noticed that your choices lately are not smart.”  This seemed worth a try.

She looked at me, infuriated, and I thought, Well, whatever.

Then she gave me her phone and stormed off.

Post-Inaugural

My students were less moved by today’s speech than by the election (as was I).  It was a big moment, but nothing compared to that night. 

They remain deeply concerned about Obama’s safety, suggesting that he is in danger from “all the white people who don’t like blacks.”  I ask them for evidence, and apparently one crazy woman falsely accused Obama supporters of attacking her.  That’s all they got.  I emphasize that all presidents get death threats, and that I haven’t heard anything about Obama being an unusually popular target.  It’s a common thing for these guys to worry about physical safety in situations I expect to be reliably safe.  Every time we go on a college visit, they ask about security right away.  Someone always asks if guns are allowed in the dorms.  Another thing I say again and again is, “College campuses are really safe.  The reason these college shootings get so much attention is that they are RARE.” 

We had some nice discussion provoked by the kid who says, “Why you like Obama?  Just cause he’s black?”  And by another kid who says, “Every president is great at first, but then people start to get mad at them.” 

All of them are choosing a quality that they share with Obama and signing their name underneath it.  Then they write and draw a little about this quality, so we can display them around the room.  The qualities are: raised by a single parent, in need of scholarships, inspired by Shakespeare, faith in the United States, able to overcome obstacles, religious, diverse background.  I do solemnly swear to promise to look at these names, and these qualities, next time I want to kill one of them.