For 17 minutes Wednesday morning March 14th a circle of people gathered in the quad of the university at which I teach. We stood as part of a nationwide phenomenon as students, faculty, staff, and administrators of our university left their classrooms, offices, and buildings to stand in solidarity with students, faculty, staff, and administrators around the country for National School WalkOut. On our campus, we huddled surreptitiously against each other in the cold as the wind snaked its fingers up our sleeves and down our necks and we listened to the names of the 17 people* killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida one month ago and we listened to the wind and our own low voices. We reckoned, each of us in our own way, with where we are, as individuals, as a school, and as a nation.
I teach on the campus of a public university in Western North Carolina. Like all college campuses, ours comes with its own unique cultural context and its own individualized set of issues that are in many ways reflective of the larger cultural context and set of issues we’re facing as a country. As an example, my campus is currently struggling with how to best support our students of color as they express the need for administrative consequences for overt racism on our campus, since last month some students yelled racial slurs out of a residence hall window at other students during the MLK Jr. Unity March. That is of course not the only instance in which our students of color have felt unsafe or unwelcome, but again: one symptom of a much larger sickness.
These issues we’re dealing with are unique in their expression, but they’re also symptomatic of a larger cultural reckoning, one that asks of us who we want to protect, when we choose to act, how far we’re willing to go to be that proverbial change. And as our campus most directly wrestles with these questions with regard to racism, it’s painfully obvious that another place where we’re being asked these same questions culturally is in the conversation about gun violence.
Wednesday morning, I stood in a circle of people, some of whom I know but most of whom I have no personal connection to and I thought: what happened in Parkland can happen here. May happen here. Every person in this circle has their own stories and experiences, their own hopes and dreams and fears and futures, and yet we are all united by the looming threat of violence.
Every day we come to school is a statement of hope, a commitment to pursuing a better future even under this heightened threat.
I find it telling that these shootings are playing out in spaces of education. There’s no doubt that the education system in the United States is rife with systemic issues itself, but still… these shootings happen, largely, in spaces where the pursuit of knowledge is paramount. What does that mean?
To me, this is an ethos problem: how does a college campus or a nation embody the values it claims to uphold? When necessary, how do we change our values? How can a campus or a national culture shift from one of division and threat to one of communion and dialogue? When will we be willing to face the fact that something is deeply wrong with our culture and needs to be directly addressed? How do we become the people we want to be, and how do we live, daily, knowing that who we are matters?
These are the resources I’ll be spending time with in the coming weeks as I continue to wrestle with my own complicity in this cultural mess. If you know of other resources, please feel free to email me or to add them in the comments. Let’s work together to create a better world for our students.
- Isabel Fattal in “Another School Shooting—But Who’s Counting?” from The Atlantic :
“there is no comprehensive federal database on gun deaths, let alone on school shootings”
- Mother Jones open-source database of mass shootings
- Education Week database that counts school shootings
*Alyssa Alhadeff, Scott Beigel, Martin Duque Anguiano, Nicholas Dworet, Aaron Feis, Jamie Guttenberg, Chris Hixon, Luke Hoyer, Cara Loughran, Gina Montalto, Joaquin Oliver, Alaina Petty, Meadow Pollack, Helena Ramsay, Alex Schachter, Carmen Schentrup, Peter Wang