Between Bullets and Bubble Sheets
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Late last summer, the legislature in the state I teach in finalized some changes to my retirement system. Due to one of those changes (pertaining to a new five year wait for retirees to see an increase in their cost of living allowance), I have been telling people I plan on retiring after the end of this school year. While it's true that I have a financial incentive to get out, it's not really the reason I'm walking away from a job I've loved for 30 years. The truth is I am a coward. This is not an easy admission to make publicly, but I am no longer comfortable in the school district where I have made my work life – the same district where my father once taught, and the same district where I graduated high school.
Truth be told, my financial excuse to retire is just a smokescreen; when I told my superintendent that I would be retiring at the end of the year in order to avoid the deadline decreed by the retirement system changes, he did not hesitate to say that he would hire me back. So as far as the money goes, I really could have my cake and eat it too; I could take a retirement, get my cost of living increases, and pick right back up with the same job next year. The truth, then, as to why I feel the need to move on is that I don't have the guts to stick around any more.
Now given the amount of media that has been devoted to school violence in recent weeks, your first guess about why teaching school now fills me with dread and apprehension might be that I'm afraid that the madness that killed students and teachers in Connecticut might somehow show up where I work. If that was your first guess, then you probably are not a public school teacher. The school teachers I know and work with are not much afraid of crazy guys with bullets, but we are having nightmares about crazy guys with bubble sheets.
In the small rural district where I teach, many people consider guns as much a part of their everyday life as country music on their radios. Where I teach, the district always schedules a day off for the first day of deer season, and back at the beginning of my career, students thought nothing of displaying their rifles in the gun racks that hung in the windows of their pickup trucks. While students no longer display their weaponry in the parking lot, it would be ridiculous to assume they don't own it or can't get their hands on it. For at least some of my students, they consider buying and selling guns a hobby no more dangerous or delinquent than trading baseball cards. More often than not, these students started their gun collection through a gift from a relative as a birthday or Christmas present.
While I would rather live in a culture that did not offer my students such easy access to such lethal devices, I am not really concerned about it either. Right or wrong, I mentally categorize school shootings in the same psychic file drawer I put deadly lightening strikes, peanut allergies, and bee stings. I am not saying these are not matters of real concern; I am saying as a teacher, my life is already filled with too many other things to worry about. While all deaths are serious, and my heart goes out to every parent who has lost a child, of all the students I have lost to tragic circumstance, none has died at the end of a gun; they have died while riding four-wheelers, falling out of boats, or driving too fast on rural highways.