Ways of seeing: School-fortresses not a solution
On a spring morning during my sophomore year of high school, our P.E. class headed to the field for a game of softball. As we divided into teams, the ground began to roll in visible waves. Somebody screamed. Grabbing the backstop fence, we instantly realized it was an earthquake.
We knew about earthquakes. This was Seattle, so we had dutifully crawled under our desks since kindergarten whenever an earthquake drill was declared, but the last significant earthquake took place the year we were born. Inside the school, students were indeed crouching under their desks as light fixtures and ceiling tiles rained down.
Out on the playing field, the sensation was weird, but that wasn’t what scared me. The fear came from stories of the Alaskan earthquake just a couple of years earlier. My neighbor, a ship captain, had described his huge ship being thrust onto the land and streets opening up, swallowing cars and people. That was what I was imagining: the ground where we stood splitting open before us. So yes, we clung to that chain-link fence.
We did not fall into an abyss that day. Instead, we all got to go home early and have two days off while city engineers assessed the building’s integrity. On the whole, it was intact because there were strong building codes and regular inspections.
Those earthquake drills had proved their usefulness for students inside the building, and of course they were not the only sorts of drills we knew. There were routine fire drills and, when I first began school, air raid drills continued as a vestige of World War II alertness. At some point, maybe around second grade, they morphed into nuclear bomb drills. For those, we went into the hallways, lining up on the floor with our arms crossed over our heads. I am not sure when I first became aware of the futility of that exercise. Perhaps it was after seeing the movie “On the Beach”, but I think it was even earlier. I paid attention to things as a kid, and definitely knew what occurred when a nuclear bomb detonated.
Imagine yourself as a child now, maybe six years old or even 16. Imagine being in your classroom and practicing hiding in a corner, or the teacher taking you outside and showing you where you could run. Not run for fun or for a relay race. Run because there is someone with a gun in your school killing other children like you. It might seem a little scary if such a thing were purely an exercise or a vestige of something you had heard of from long ago. What, however, if you had recently seen images of slaughter actually happening in other schools?
I know how I felt in the earthquake, watching to see if the earth would split open while knowing full well that was highly unlikely. I know how it felt to grow up with the threat of a mushroom cloud overshadowing my everyday life. That is nothing like the specter of someone invading your space — your safe space — with an assault rifle.
I worked as an elementary school counselor for 34 years. I know how difficult it is to carry out the necessary drills in a way that conveys their seriousness without also communicating the trauma. And I can’t help but think of a child whose handicap makes the act of running an impossibility. What do you tell that child to do? Some schools are providing each classroom with a bucket of rocks for the children to throw at a shooter.
I understand hunting and the need to own guns to pursue that activity. I do not understand someone’s ability to ignore a child’s terror — or anyone’s terror — so that they can have a weapon solely designed for killing people, obtain a gun without background checks, or own a gun regardless of their behavior.
Imagining power or terror in a video game or a movie is a choice that may give some people pleasure but let us hope that no child ever finds pleasure in strategizing how to escape an active shooter in their classroom. The unfortunate reality is that their chances are about what mine would have been in a nuclear strike. Maybe my school should have given us rocks to throw at an incoming missile.
We have had decades of propaganda selling us on the benefits of gun ownership without restrictions. State officials are now assessing schools’ security against gun-wielding murderers. Police departments are training individual officers with the best ways to approach an active school shooter.
Strong, fireproof buildings keep us safe without being restrictive. Turning schools into secure fortresses is like giving up our freedoms. Robert Frost wrote, “Before I built a wall I’d ask to know/What I was walling in or walling out.” Let’s not wall in our children, who need to run and play explore and discover. I have a better vision: no assault weapons allowed. Which is the greater freedom?
Laurie Cox is a retired school counselor and long-time Ripton selectboard member. Besides occasional writing, she sings with Maiden Vermont, pursues art, takes long hikes with her dog(s) and seasonally gardens. She also is about to become more actively involved in things political, environmental, and just.
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