Education

A History of Violence: How Our Culture of Fear is Compromising America's Schools

In the wake of yet another school shooting, a 45-year veteran of the classroom explores the impact of fear in the schoolhouse.

Photo Credit: Suzanne Tucker via Shutterstock.com

I went to junior high and high school in Hiram, Ohio, only about twenty miles away from Chardon, whose students experienced this week the latest of what seems to be an endless series of murders in places that are supposed to be our secular sanctuaries.  Deadly violence in a schoolhouse seems a most brutal desecration.

What ensues also fits a pattern: an eruption of grief, followed by a brief, evanescent unity in our community, our nation.  And then comes the finger-pointing.  Pointing  a finger--analogous, of course, to pointing a pistol.

Of Chardon, we've already heard about bullying, about a fracture of some sort in the home, about the proliferation of firearms, about the ocean of violence that washes over our country--television, movies, music, computer games.  About our poisonous, polarized political climate.  Our wars.  Our ...

I don't want to write about any of this.  Investigations are already underway, and it is the people of Chardon who must find ways to, simultaneously, forget and never forget.

Instead, it's the whole idea of fear in the schoolroom that has long appalled me--from my own boyhood and adolescence through my 45-year teaching career.

Some of my earliest school memories are scarlet with fear. I was not a big child--and I was afraid of bigger kids.  The boy in fifth grade who kept hitting me on the legs with a stick until I had to fight or run; I fought and lost and wept.  The high school boy (when I was in junior high) who would routinely wipe his feet on my white shoes. Daring me.   I could do nothing.  Trying to go unnoticed in the hallways when I was among the youngest in the building.  Safety lay, I knew, in invisibility.

And, of course, I was no saint, either.  I remember with great regret and horror the things I said and did to classmates farther down the totem pole of fear than I.

Things about the school itself frightened me in the early 1950s at Adams School in Enid, Oklahoma.  We all knew that the principal, Miss Hinshawe, kept in her desk a piece of rubber hose that she used on kids for ... well, for anything!  (No one had actually ever seen it--but we knew it was there.)

And as the Cold War accelerated, we practiced in our classrooms what we would do in the event of an atomic attack.  When the warning came, we had to get under our desks and cover our heads.  I remember feeling somehow safe in that position.  Nothing could hurt me there, hidden, covered.

And, of course, there were the periodic fire drills.  As a student, I hated getting in line, being silent, marching outside, standing silently while the teacher called the roll.  I thought it was all so silly.  I could outrun a fire.  Fear, I knew already, fueled me to a startling extent--I once outran a much bigger and faster kid who was chasing me and crying out dreadful promises about what he would do when he caught me.  Which he didn't.  I made it to our front door.  Ran upstairs to my room. Safe.

Later, a teacher, I dreaded fire drills, as well.  They always seemed to come when I had a busy agenda.  I hated insisting on silence, on the military march to the playground.  But I knew by then that I couldn't outrun fire.  I couldn't outrun anything that could kill.

Even farther along in my career came the tornado drills.  Even though I had grown up in Oklahoma and on humid spring days had seen worry on the face of my father, a man who, I thought, feared nothing, we had never had any drills at school.  It was just part of living in the Southwest, I guess.  And after all, Dorothy had done all right up there in Kansas.  When required tornado drills came to Ohio schools, I found them terrifying--though my middle school students, most of them, seemed more annoyed than frightened.  (Though there were always kids whose eyes sought mine in silence: Is this real?  Will I be hurt?)  At Harmon School in Aurora, Ohio, I had to take my students down to the basement level for our tornado drills.  Keep them silent.  Line them up, kneeling, facing the wall.  And wait ...

And then, at last, in the wake of the school shootings at Columbine High School: lockdowns.

When I was teaching at Western Reserve Academy, we had periodic lockdown drills.  A piercing alarm.  A step into the hall to lock the door.  An order to the kids: move out of sight.  Be silent.  Wait.  We would hear footsteps in the hall--we could not look.  It was surely the security officers, just checking ...  Right?

Even when I knew these drills were coming, they still frightened me.  Death in a school hallway.  A classroom.  The very thought is obscene.

But I also knew this.  No drills, no security, no technology can stop a determined killer.  Presidents can fall.  So can schoolchildren.  A metal-detector at the doorway?  It would mean only that the shooting would start sooner.

A few years ago, I was back in Enid for a visit.  I wanted to walk through Adams School again, to see the halls, the classrooms, the playground.  I wanted some pictures.  I knew I would have to stop first in the school office and report.

I immediately tried to diminish the secretary's worry.  I told her I'd been a student at Adams a half-century ago.  My parents had met and married in Enid--my mother had gone to Adams.  I told her I was a writer now.  Had published some books.  And I was at work on a memoir about my boyhood in Enid.  She smiled, sort of.  Handed me a visitor's badge.   But then she saw my camera.  "You cannot take any pictures," she said with school-secretary-sharpness.  "We can't frighten the children."

We can't frighten the children.

I was out in the hallway when some classes changed.  Third and fourth graders flooded out into the hall.  Some looked at me with alarm.  Is he dangerous? 

***
 
There are few images that hurt and haunt us more than a frightened child.  A wounded child.  A murdered one.
 
We need to do everything we can to reduce fear in our homes, schools, communities and country.  We need to teach--in every way we can--that violence against one another is no solution to anything.  When we're afraid, we can't learn.  We can't even live, not in way?s we want to, the ways we dream of.  And there are just so many things we need to do to diminish fear in our lives, in our children's and students' lives.  We know what those things are.
 
But I am afraid--afraid--that we do not have anything like the will or the courage to enact any but the easiest of them.
Daniel Dyer is an educator and freelance writer. A 45-year veteran of teaching, Dyer's writing has appeared in numerous outlets including Education Week, the Chicago Tribune, the Clevelans Plain Dealer and Kirkus Reviews -- where he has contributed more than 1,000 total reviews.