Seventeen years ago, against the advice of my parents, I decided to become a public school teacher. Once I did, both my mother and father, educators themselves, warned me that choosing to teach was to invite attacks from those who viewed the profession with derision and contempt. They advised me to stay strong and push through when budgets were cut, my intellect questioned, or my dedication to my students exploited. Nobody, however, warned me that someday I might have to defend myself against those who asked me to step back into my classroom and risk my own life, the lives of my students and their families, of my friends, my husband, and my child in the middle of a global pandemic. And nobody told me that I’d be worrying about whether or not our nation’s public schools, already under siege, would survive the chaos of Covid-19.
May 11, 2020
Do you hear that silence?
<p>That’s the absence of footsteps echoing through our nation’s public school hallways. It’s the silence of teaching in a virtual space populated with students on mute who lack a physical presence. It’s the crushing silence of those who are now missing, who can’t attend the classroom that Zoom and Google built.</p><p>Maybe you heard the shouted pleas of teachers across the country last year as we walked out of our classrooms and into the streets, begging for <a href="https://www.vox.com/2019/10/17/20919027/chicago-teachers-strike-deal" rel="noopener" target="_blank">affordable housing</a>, <a href="https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2019/10/chicago-teachers-strike-educators-trauma-care-students-191025182847058.html" rel="noopener" target="_blank">health care</a>, and access to equitable <a href="https://edtrust.org/resource/funding-gaps-2018/" rel="noopener" target="_blank">funding </a>and <a href="https://www.cnn.com/2019/05/08/us/oregon-teachers-walkout/index.html" rel="noopener" target="_blank">resources</a> for our students? Or maybe you heard the impassioned screams of frightened kids as they stormed into the streets and onto the news, <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/14/us/school-walkout.html" rel="noopener" target="_blank">demanding safety</a> and an end to the threat of gun violence in our nation’s school buildings? Now, there’s nothing left to hear.</p><p>Today, all we’re left with is a deafening silence that muffles the sound of so much suffering. The unfolding public health, mental health, and economic crisis of Covid-19 has laid bare the fragility of what was. The institutions charged with caring for and guiding our most valuable assets -- our children -- were already gutted by half a century of chronic <a href="https://www.forbes.com/sites/lindadarlinghammond/2019/08/05/americas-school-funding-struggle-how-were-robbing-our-future-by-under-investing-in-our-children/#5b9790175eaf" rel="noopener" target="_blank">underfunding</a>, misguided curricular policies that prioritized <a href="https://www.edutopia.org/article/what-does-research-say-about-testing" rel="noopener" target="_blank">testing</a> over real learning, and social policies that favored austerity over <a href="https://www.thenation.com/article/society/prepare-pandemic-coronavirus-neoliberalism/" rel="noopener" target="_blank">taking care of</a> the most vulnerable members of our society. Now that so many teachers are sequestered and alone or locked away with family, our bonds of proximity broken, we’re forced to stare into that void, scrambling to find and care for our students across an abyss of silence. The system is broken. The empire has no clothes.</p><p>Not so many weeks ago, I used to be a teacher in a sprawling public high school outside Portland, Oregon. Before the virus arrived, I taught painting, drawing, ceramics, and filmmaking in three different studio classrooms. There, groups of students ranging across the economic, ethnic, religious, racial, and linguistic spectrum sat shoulder to shoulder, chatting and creating, day after day, year after year. Music played and we talked.</p><p>On some days, the classes were cacophonous and chaotic; on others, calm and productive. In those spaces, we did our best to connect, to forge thriving communities. What I now realize, though, is that the physical space we shared was the only thing truly tying us all together. Those classrooms were the duct tape securing the smashed bumper on the wreck of a car that was our public education system.</p><p>Now, it couldn’t be more obvious: no one’s going to solve the problems of our present and near future with the usual solutions. When desperation leaves us without imagination, clinging to old answers, scrambling to prop up systems that perpetuated and solidified <a href="https://www.thenation.com/article/archive/how-unequal-school-funding-punishes-poor-kids/" rel="noopener" target="_blank">inequity</a>, it means missing the real opportunity of this otherwise grim moment. The “great pause” that is the Covid-19 shutdown has allowed us all to stare into the void, to see far more clearly just how schools have long shouldered the burdens of a society that functions largely for the privileged, leaving the rest of our nation’s children and families to gather the crumbs of whatever remains.</p><p><strong>The Privilege of Homeschooling</strong></p><p>In the first weeks after schools closed across the country, as parents struggled to “homeschool” their children, memes, rants, tweets, and strongly worded emails to school administrators popped up across the Internet. They expressed the frustrations of the moment. Those shared tales of the laughably insane trials and tribulations of parents trying to provide a reasonable facsimile of an education to kids sequestered at home, while still trying to work full time under the specter of a pandemic, amazed and depressed me.</p><p>Television producer and writer Shonda Rimes <a href="https://www.cnn.com/2020/03/17/entertainment/shonda-rhimes-homeschool-coronavirus/index.html" rel="noopener" target="_blank">tweeted</a>, “Been homeschooling a 6-year old and 8-year old for one hour and 11 minutes. Teachers deserve to make a billion dollars a year. Or a week.” Rimes's tweet seemed to encapsulate the absurd reality of life at home with kids in the time of the coronavirus. As I read her tweet, I laughed out loud and in utter solidarity with her. A teacher no less, I, too, was trying and failing spectacularly to oversee the “education” of an increasingly frustrated and resistant third grader from home.</p><p>For those of us siloed in our privilege -- healthy, with plenty of food stocked away in cupboards, quiet rooms with doors that shut, ample Internet access, and enough Wi-Fi-enabled devices to share among the members of our households -- our quarantined home life is challenging, but not impossible. Our daily frustration continues to be a function of that privilege. For those without it, those who were already living in poverty or at its brink when the pandemic struck, homeschooling poses yet another crushing hurdle in life. How can you provide an education for your children when simply securing food, work, and shelter is your all-consuming reality?</p><p>Meanwhile, as exhausted parents screamed at school districts, teachers, and administrators on the Internet about providing virtual learning resources and online curricula to engage students during the school day, public school officials (at least in my world) were scrambling to deal with a far more immediate threat: kids going hungry. What this pandemic promptly revealed was that the most fundamental and urgent service schools provide to many children is simply feeding them.</p><p>The gravest and most immediate threat to our most vulnerable students was, and continues to be, hunger. If schools are closed, so is the critical infrastructure that helps keep our nation’s children fed. Aside from SNAP (the food stamp program), the National School Lunch Program is the largest anti-hunger initiative in the country. It <a href="https://fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R43783.pdf" rel="noopener" target="_blank">feeds</a> 29.7 million children on school days, with an additional 14.7 million children fed thanks to the School Breakfast Program and more than 6.1 million via the Child and Adult Care Food Program. And those numbers don’t even include the informal system of food distribution that teachers often provide students in their classrooms. On average, teachers <a href="https://www.nokidhungry.org/who-we-are/pressroom/teachers-spend-hundreds-dollars-help-feed-students-who-are-hungry" rel="noopener" target="_blank">spend</a> upwards of 300 of their own dollars yearly providing food to students.</p><p>So, no wonder that, as soon as Covid-19 closed the doors of our schools, administrators, teachers, custodians, cafeteria workers, bus drivers, and volunteers across the country <a href="https://www.vox.com/the-goods/2020/4/17/21220016/school-lunch-coronavirus-meal-programs" rel="noopener" target="_blank">mobilized</a> on a large -- and downright heroic -- scale to attempt to keep those students fed. In the Beaverton school district where I teach, a “Grab and Go” curbside meal distribution program was quickly set up, making daily meals accessible to every student in the district. As economic conditions <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/apr/08/coronavirus-putting-world-on-track-for-new-great-depression-says-who" rel="noopener" target="_blank">head for</a> Great Depression-level misery, think of these as 2020 versions of the <a href="https://www.kennedy-center.org/education/resources-for-educators/classroom-resources/media-and-interactives/media/media-arts/dorothea-lange-white-angel-breadline/" rel="noopener" target="_blank">infamous breadlines</a> of that era, only in this case they’re for children (and sometimes their families).</p><p>The responsibility for feeding students was not the only immediate concern. The adults in our school typically also serve as first responders for those students. We monitor their moods and listen to their stories. We notice when kids are struggling emotionally and, as mandatory reporters, step in when we suspect a child is living in a perilous or unsafe situation.</p><p>In the first weeks after we left our classrooms, calls to Oregon’s child abuse hotline <a href="https://www.oregonlive.com/coronavirus/2020/03/oregon-child-abuse-reports-drop-dramatically-after-schools-shut-statewide.html" rel="noopener" target="_blank">dropped</a> by more than half. Other states across the nation <a href="https://www.propublica.org/article/illinois-dcfs-child-abuse-hotline-calls-coronavirus" rel="noopener" target="_blank">reported</a> similar declines. The drop in calls has frightening implications. Coupled with increasing economic insecurity and social isolation, rising rates of child abuse are undoubtedly imminent. When teachers, counselors, and school social workers are no longer able to observe and communicate openly with students, signs of neglect or abuse are much more likely to go undetected and unreported.</p><p>The closure of our buildings also poses a huge barrier to the normal <a href="https://www.labornotes.org/2020/03/saint-paul-teachers-strike-their-students-mental-health" rel="noopener" target="_blank">support</a> of students struggling with mental-health issues. Our children are already <a href="https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2020/05/childhood-in-an-anxious-age/609079/" rel="noopener" target="_blank">suffering</a> from alarming rates of depression and anxiety. <a href="https://www.npr.org/2020/04/20/828026185/school-counselors-have-a-message-for-kids-it-s-ok-to-not-be-ok" rel="noopener" target="_blank">Isolating</a> them from their friends, peers, mentors, caregivers, and teachers will only compound their mental-health challenges.</p><p><strong>Trying to Bridge the Digital Divide</strong></p><p>Add the surreal nature of an invisible foe to a lack of clear <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/28/us/testing-coronavirus-pandemic.html" rel="noopener" target="_blank">directives</a> from both the federal and state government and you have a formula for problems. When we were finally instructed to leave our school, it was without advanced warning. In my classrooms, half-finished clay projects littered the countertops, while palettes loaded with acrylic paint and incomplete canvases were left to desiccate and gather dust on the shelves.</p><p>Students departed without cleaning out their lockers or often even gathering their schoolwork and books, not to speak of the supplies they’ll need to complete that work at home. And even though our students do have access to technology -- three years ago, our district adopted a policy of providing a Chromebook to each student -- it soon became apparent that there were huge obstacles to overcome in transforming our brick-and-mortar classrooms into virtual spaces. Many students had, for instance, broken or lost their Chromebooks. Some had missing chargers. And even many of those who had their Chromebooks with them at home had <a href="https://west.edtrust.org/resource/education-equity-in-crisis-the-digital-divide/" rel="noopener" target="_blank">limited </a>or no access to Wi-Fi connectivity.</p><p>Trying to reach all my students across that digital divide became the central focus of my waking hours. I made calls; I texted; I emailed; I posted announcements in my digital classroom stating that we’d be reconvening online. Still, none of these <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/23/education/learning/coronavirus-online-class-public-schools.html?action=click&module=Top%20Stories&pgtype=Homepage" rel="noopener" target="_blank">efforts</a> mattered for the students stuck at home without Wi-Fi or lacking the necessary devices.</p><p>Before our nation’s schools closed, the Federal Communications Commission estimated that around 21 million people in America did not have broadband Internet access. According to data <a href="https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-03-26/covid-19-school-closures-reveal-disparity-in-access-to-internet" rel="noopener" target="_blank">collected</a> by Microsoft, however, the number who can’t access the Internet at broadband speeds is actually closer to 163 million. While districts across the country scrambled to provide mobile hotspots and working devices to students, teachers like me began the demoralizing and herculean task of scrapping years of thoughtfully crafted curriculums in order to provide an entirely new online learning experience. We stepped into our virtual classrooms with the knowledge that, no matter how many shiny new digital resources we have at our disposal, there’s nothing we can do to provide equitable access to education remotely.</p><p>And even if we were to solve such problems, we couldn’t offer the space or the <a href="https://www.vox.com/2020/4/9/21200159/coronavirus-school-digital-low-income-students-covid-new-york" rel="noopener" target="_blank">support</a> students need to learn. Kids living in cramped situations will struggle just to find a quiet place to attend our online classes. Those whose working parents suddenly need childcare for younger siblings have sometimes found themselves taking on the roll of primary caregivers.</p><p>Some students whose families were in ever more perilous economic situations increased their work hours and scrapped the idea of attending school altogether. And many of our English-as-a-second-language, or ESL, students, as well as the 14% of students nationally who require additional “learning supports,” are now in trouble. They’ve been left to navigate a complex web of digital platforms and new learning approaches without the individualized attention or frequent checks for understanding that they rely on from their teachers.</p><p>What virtual learning can never stand in for is the moment when a student leans over and asks me or a peer for help. That simple act of vulnerability that builds a bridge to another human being may be the most important moment in any classroom and now it’s gone. In Covid-19 America, when school kids need help most, they can’t simply lean over and ask for it.</p><p><strong>The Time to Pivot</strong></p><p>Today, I teach from my kitchen, my dining room, or the floor of my bedroom. I stare across the digital abyss into the pixelated faces of just a handful of students. It’s impossible to read their emotions or body language. Even when I unmute them, most choose not to speak.</p><p>Each day, fewer of them show up to class. Sometimes, students turn off their videos, and I speak only to a sea of black rectangles, the white text of the student’s name the sole indicator of his or her presence in my new classroom. Not surprisingly, our sessions together are stilted and awkward. I try to make jokes and connect, but it’s impossible to replicate online the intimacy of a face-to-face interaction. The magic of what was, of 25 to 40 students working cohesively in community, is lost.</p><p>And in the darkest hours of the early morning, when I wake with a start, crushing anxiety pushing on my chest, I think about all the third graders unable to participate in my daughter’s distance-learning classroom. I wonder about the students I’ve still been unable to reach -- the ones who haven’t responded to my emails or completed any assignments, and whose faces I never see online. Where are they? How are they? I have no way of knowing.</p><p>Our world no longer looks the same. This pause, which has caused, and will continue to cause, so much suffering may also be a gift, offering a shift in perspective and a chance to pivot. Perhaps it’s a rare opportunity to acknowledge that our nation’s public schools should not be left so alone to provide food, mental health care, and digital connectivity for our nation’s children. That should be, in a fashion almost unimaginable in America today, the role of the larger society.</p><p>Now is not the time to be silent but to raise our voices, using any privilege we may have, be it in time, money, or simply access, to demand major changes both in how all of us think about our American world and in the systems that perpetuate such inhumane and unconscionable disparities for so many.</p><p>There is no way to continue putting yet more duct tape on that smashed bumper of a public education system that was already such a wreck before the coronavirus arrived on these shores. Nor is this the time to retreat into our silos, hoarding privilege along with toilet paper and hand sanitizer, too cowardly to demand more for all the children in this country. It’s time instead to reach out across the six feet of social-distancing space that now divides us all and demand more for those who aren’t able to demand it for themselves.</p><p><em>Belle Chesler, a </em><a href="https://www.tomdispatch.com/blog/176553/tomgram%3A_belle_chesler%2C_defunding_children%2C_a_national_crisis_of_the_soul" rel="noopener" target="_blank">TomDispatch <em>regular</em></a><em>, is a visual arts teacher in Beaverton, Oregon, and is now teaching from her home in Portland, Oregon.</em></p><p><em>Follow </em>TomDispatch<em> on <a href="https://twitter.com/TomDispatch" rel="noopener" target="_blank">Twitter</a> and join us on <a href="https://www.facebook.com/tomdispatch" rel="noopener" target="_blank">Facebook</a>. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer’s new dystopian novel (the second in the </em><em>Splinterlands</em><em> series) </em><a href="https://www.amazon.com/dp/1608469484/ref=nosim/?tag=tomdispatch-20" rel="noopener" target="_blank">Frostlands</a><em>,</em><em> Beverly Gologorsky's novel </em><a href="https://www.amazon.com/dp/1608469077/ref=nosim/?tag=tomdispatch-20" rel="noopener" target="_blank">Every Body Has a Story</a>,<em> and Tom Engelhardt's </em><a href="https://www.amazon.com/dp/1608469018/ref=nosim/?tag=tomdispatch-20" rel="noopener" target="_blank">A Nation Unmade by War</a><em>, as well as Alfred McCoy's </em><a href="https://www.amazon.com/dp/1608467732/ref=nosim/?tag=tomdispatch-20" rel="noopener" target="_blank">In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power</a><em> and John Dower's </em><a href="https://www.amazon.com/dp/1608467236/ref=nosim/?tag=tomdispatch-20" rel="noopener" target="_blank">The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II</a><em>.</em></p><p>Copyright 2020 Belle Chesler</p>
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March 09, 2018
“It was no surprise to anyone who knew him to hear that he was the shooter.”
-- Emma Gonzalez, Senior, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School
<p>Over the past three weeks, the impassioned voices and steadfast demands of the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School have resounded across social media and through the halls of the large suburban high school where I teach visual arts. A group of senior girls, spurred to action by the horrors of the Parkland massacre and emboldened by watching videos of its protesting students, organized a walkout of their own. Though it was an uncharacteristically cold, snowy day in our part of Oregon, hundreds of students marched out of school, engaging in what was certainly, for many of them, their first act of civil disobedience. I positioned myself near the back of the crowd, listening as they shouted their demands for safer schools and an end to fear in the classroom. Standing on that icy sidewalk, I was overcome by waves of conflicting emotions. Though deeply proud of them for raising their voices and insisting on being heard, I was also forced to confront a stark and brutal reality: neither my students nor I feel safe in our school.</p><p>I still remember the cold December morning in 2012 when I first heard about the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. A colleague walked up to my desk, tears streaming down her face. She then recounted the grisly details of those shootings: a classroom of first graders and their teachers murdered on what should have been just another routine school day.</p><p>At the time, my daughter was a preschooler. In those <a href="http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2249694/Sandy-Hook-shooting-The-tragic-school-picture-graders-gunned-Adam-Lanza.html" target="_blank">school pictures</a> that began appearing in the media of gap-toothed Sandy Hook first graders I saw her face. I began to think about her future in such a world and it looked bleak. From that moment on, I couldn’t bear reading the stories of what had transpired within those school walls and so found myself avoiding the impassioned, anguished speeches of the brave parents and teachers of those senselessly slaughtered children. It hit too close to home. It was horror on a level I had previously thought unimaginable and in a school not that different from mine. Naively, I assumed things would have to change, that nobody could look at those tiny little people and callously advocate for the status quo. How wrong I was. And as we all know, the shootings just kept happening.</p><p>So what was it about the Parkland killings that tipped the scale? Why hadn’t this happened after Columbine or Newtown? These are among the questions we teachers have been asking one another at my school recently. Perhaps what’s driving this moment is fear of the seeming inevitability, the not-if-but-when of it all. As teachers, we are forced to wonder: When will it be our turn? When will we bar the doors, fight, run, or hide? When will despair be given a physical form in the shape of a teenager with a gun and our school turned into a shooting gallery for the deranged?</p><p>At this point, we’ve been practicing lockdown drills for years. We lock and block the doors, then huddle on the floor in the darkest corners of our classroom, 36 teenagers and one adult trying to be as quiet as possible. No phones, no talking, no movement. We wait for the rattle of the door handle, at least one of us cries, and then it’s over. The all-clear.</p><p>We turn on the lights, stretch our cramped limbs, and return to our seats. I tell a joke, try to lighten the mood a bit, and resume class. One grim effect of these drills and procedures, though, is to normalize the threat of an act so heinous, so abnormal it’s hard to take in. We’ve essentially desensitized our entire school community to the true horror of what we’re playing out -- a fight for our lives. We expect the routines of the classroom to resume once the lights come back on, hoping that the students will have grasped the seriousness of the drill but won’t have internalized the fear. That none of us will. When my students voice the fear that sits inside them in that darkened room, when they give the despair space to breathe in the light, we’re all forced to confront the twisted reality of what we’re doing.</p><p>At the beginning of the semester, I gave my new students a questionnaire about their lives. One of them answered the question “What is one thing that really stresses you out?” by writing: “What really stresses me out is the fact that I might die in this building.”</p><p>I had no idea how to respond because, honestly, I feel the same way. How do I convey what it feels like to walk into your workplace every morning wondering if today is the day you’ll die there? How do I explain the trepidation I feel when I have to confront that student -- the one who’s been making the disturbing art, doesn’t smile or interact with his peers, and whose parents won’t return my emails or calls -- to tell him that he needs to tone down the violence in his work? How do I share my deepest fear that this is the kid who will come back for me later, armed and ready to exact his revenge?</p><p>How do I express the complexity of the emotions I feel when I’m huddling in the dark with my students, thinking about what it would take for all of us to make it out of the building alive in a real version of the same situation? And how do I begin to think about the worst possible scenario, that the sixteen-year-old kid crouched next to me in the dark is the next school shooter? In the heightened paranoia of my classroom, my students are now suspects.</p><p><strong>Teachers as Martyrs?</strong></p><p>I imagine every new teacher arrives with some version of the story of the triumphant teacher who takes a ragtag group of students from disarray to academic excellence playing in the back of his or her mind. That cinematic dreamscape is often discarded as the years go by. If you’re actually going to survive in the system, tough it out for the long haul, certain illusions must be shed. Almost a third of all new teachers <a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/answer-sheet/wp/2017/11/27/why-its-a-big-problem-that-so-many-teachers-quit-and-what-to-do-about-it/?utm_term=.4fc01dfeeb97" target="_blank">jump ship</a> by year three when the challenges of the profession -- the long hours, the constant planning, the never-ending grading, and the worries about meeting the intellectual and emotional needs of our students -- begin to seem unsustainable.</p><p>In my first years on the job, the enormity of the psychological task of caring for the wellbeing of my students and a creeping awareness that I would never be able to fully support and know all of them could reduce me to tears. My commute home in the afternoon often felt like a therapy session sans therapist. I’d replay every missed opportunity, every interpersonal challenge, and then I’d cry. I knew that, despite what I’d been led to believe, the stark reality of the situation was that I couldn’t support all of my students. Part of teaching would always be about failure: failure to connect, failure to notice, failure to address the nuanced and specific needs of every one of those students. It was a numbers game that I would always lose and that was a truth I had to embrace in order to become a more effective educator.</p><p>Nevertheless, the archetype of the teacher-martyr who toils late into the night, sacrificing her personal life in order to focus solely on her students, is one we’ve bought into as a culture. The story we tell is that teachers are superhuman, capable of reversing any tide, remedying any hurt, and counteracting the problems of our society by sheer focus, persistence, and care. If I just devote myself more, put in longer hours, and implement a better curriculum, I’ll ultimately save them all. Being this martyr is a badge of honor in the school itself, a symbol of who is doing the best work. I can’t help but wonder, though: Isn’t martyring oneself by taking a bullet for our students the ultimate expression of this archetype? Isn’t this what is, post-Parkland, now being demanded of us?</p><p>This uniquely American myth of the teacher who provides salvation for each student is the one we’ve now ascribed to the teachers at Parkland who threw their bodies in front of bullets to save their students’ lives. And while I’m awed by their bravery, I’m still willing to question the motivations behind those, <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/26/us/politics/trump-school-shooter-florida.html" target="_blank">including</a> the president of the United States, holding them up as icons.</p><p>Perhaps valorizing teachers as heroes is simply another way of continually refusing to honor and respect the profession in the ways that actually matter. Heroes don’t need smaller class sizes, benefits or adequate retirement accounts. The truth is, those teachers should never have had to put their lives on the line for their students. It wasn’t their job. We are not warriors, we are teachers. We are not heroes, we are teachers.</p><p><strong>When Dreams Fail</strong></p><p>My last year of classroom teaching has been the most demanding. Not only because of the subjects I teach, my class sizes, or workload, but because of the mounting stress I feel from my students. Our children are the canaries in our American coal mine (an image that has <a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/energy-environment/wp/2017/03/29/trump-promised-to-bring-back-coal-jobs-that-promise-will-not-be-kept-experts-say/?utm_term=.d22e6a47c55c" target="_blank">new meaning</a> in the Trump era). When I ask them about their <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/11/magazine/why-are-more-american-teenagers-than-ever-suffering-from-severe-anxiety.html" target="_blank">mental health</a>, I’m always overwhelmed by how many of them admit to depression and anxiety. They’re constantly exhausted and stressed out. So many of them express a simmering despair about their future. And how can I argue with that? When you’re huddled in the corner of a dark classroom, practicing for your own death, it’s difficult to feel as if there’s any hope for a decent future.</p><p>I’m no longer naÃ¯vely dreaming of changing the lives of each of my students. My goals have narrowed: to get the kids to invest in learning, to be an advocate for them, to listen to them, to create a relevant curriculum, to turn the classroom into a vital and thriving place. In any given semester, I make it a priority to quickly learn the names of my more than two hundred students, to check in with them as frequently as I can and attempt to attend to each of their unique and complex individual needs.</p><p>I try to put whatever extra energy and attention I have into working with my more marginalized students, knowing that, as a white, middle-class woman, they likely will see me as an agent of a system that reinforces preexisting layers of alienation. However, I no longer feel as if I can save any of them. I don’t even feel that that’s my job. My job is to provide a space for inquiry and expression.</p><p>If I do that job well, I’ll at least assist my students in finding their own voices. But believe me, it’s a Sisyphean task. They’re teenagers after all. Their emotional landscapes change minute by minute, day by day. They walk into my classroom with 15 to 18 years of lived experience, products of their family dynamics and their community. The hours I spend with them, no matter how impactful, cannot out-compete those actualities. Some of them will feel seen and heard in my classroom, and some of them, no matter what I do, will feel invisible, unseen, and lost.</p><p><strong>Pulling the Trigger</strong></p><p>School is the place where adolescents experiment with the lofty promises of the American Dream. We teachers deliver the message that you can be anything, do anything. Study hard enough and you’ll make something of yourself in your life, no matter the challenges along the way. Make friends, get yourself a boyfriend or a girlfriend, and you’ll climb that social ladder. Find your path and your talent and the world will be yours for the taking.</p><p>As educators we know that there’s no one more passionate and engaged than a teenager doing what she or he loves. Tap into that intensity and myopic focus and you have the potential for genuine pedagogical alchemy. But what if all the promises that we (and so many others) implicitly or explicitly make prove remarkably out of reach and those same students are increasingly aware of that? What if you’re a student of color or an undocumented student and the American Dream was never promised to you in the first place? What if you don’t make friends easily? What if the emotional stresses you carry with you are too heavy and all school represents is a relentless reminder of them? What if, like the society it’s part of, school becomes a place for failure, not possibility? </p><p>If teenagers excel at one thing, it’s sniffing out hypocrisy. Kids can see through the veneers of so many promises. And the kids any teacher now sees are likely to be wondering: What’s really there for them in this world we’ve built? What hurts have gone unnoticed, unattended?</p><p>Is it any wonder that the most disgruntled among them, those who feel most betrayed by the broken promise of that Dream, return to the place they feel failed them the most, the institution society promised would provide them with salvation and so obviously didn’t? They bring with them their failed social and familial relationships, their realization that the Dream was never for them in the first place, and -- in a rising number of cases -- <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/25/business/gun-show-tampa-parkland.html" target="_blank">AR-15s</a> or other deadly weaponry. They cash that voided check by pulling the trigger, decimating that illusion, and possibly ending the lives of students and teachers while they’re at it.</p><p>Shooting that gun is the last act of personal agency these boys -- and so far they are <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/17/us/mass-murderers.html" target="_blank">boys</a> -- have to offer. That myopia and total focus, which leads to death in our schools, reflects the despair and nihilism seen in many of these shooters. It’s something that, at least at a lesser level, should be familiar to any classroom teacher these days. Think of the nameless, faceless frustration and despair that drives a child to pick up weapons of war and wantonly kill as the failure of the American Dream played out in blood.</p><p>Dear America: You’ve given me an impossible task and condemned me for my failure to perform it. Now, you -- or at least the <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2018/feb/21/donald-trump-solution-to-school-shootings-arm-teachers-with-guns" target="_blank">president</a>, the <a href="https://www.npr.org/2018/02/26/588865775/renewing-call-to-arm-teachers-trump-tells-governors-the-nra-is-on-our-side" target="_blank">NRA</a>, and various <a href="http://thehill.com/blogs/blog-briefing-room/news/374159-nc-state-rep-calls-for-teachers-to-be-armed-we-have-to-get-over" target="_blank">politicians</a> -- assure me that I can redeem myself by holding a gun, firing back, and so blasting away the despair. No, thank you: I do not want to hold that gun and cannot be that shield. Neither figuratively nor physically can I save my students.</p><p>What we are asking of our children, our teachers, and our schools is unlike anything we ask of any individuals or any institution. We are martyring our children on the altar of society’s failed promises and then we wonder why they keep coming back with guns in their hands.</p>
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