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Their fear was palpable

Bill Smith, Community Voices • Aug 25, 2019 at 8:00 AM

I retired from teaching eight years ago, so most of the fifth-graders I taught that year are now college sophomores. They were a wonderful class, and my memories of working with them are entirely positive — with one glaring exception.

In truth, almost all my recollections of a long career in education are pleasant, and that’s a wonderful gift in retirement. My memories of this last class, however, remain the clearest, and perhaps not just because they are the most recent. I began that year knowing I would retire at its end, so I resolved that it would be exceptional in every way and that I would consciously commit every moment to memory.

I couldn’t have asked for a better group of students. Behaviorally and academically, they met every challenge I gave them, and they worked with a passionate engagement and exuberance that inspired me daily. As I drove to school each morning, mentally rehearsing the day’s lessons, I always had a relaxed confidence that everything would go well, and that if I needed to adjust instruction on the run, the children would respond favorably. Looking back, I think I most appreciated the optimism they gave me about the future. They were great kids with all the tools for success.

My one negative memory of this class was neither their fault nor mine. It was when our school conducted an intruder drill, in fact the last one I experienced as an educator.

To be clear, I am not criticizing that school practice. The safety procedures used in today’s schools are the result of serious study and consultation with experts in the field. They are the best possible response to present circumstances and are absolutely necessary. However, as mass shootings have occurred in the years since that day — not just in schools, but in every type of public setting — I have often wondered if staunch opponents of gun control would view the issue differently if they witnessed school children enacting an intruder drill.

When the drill began that day, my students were more somber than I had ever seen them. As we gathered in our safe place, some crouched on the floor while others stood, all of them packed tightly and looking directly at me as I whispered how imperative it was that they maintain complete silence. Although I never timed one of these drills, they always seemed interminably long, as we had to wait for our principal to walk the entire school and check every lock.

Long minutes passed before we heard the principal’s footsteps. When he shook the door handle, many of the children gasped audibly, and a few visibly flinched. Years later, that image still comes to me each time there’s news of another mass killing. Clearly, my students weren’t practicing that day for a circumstance they considered unlikely. At that moment, they were imagining a gunman on the other side of the door, and their fear was palpable.

Especially since the Parkland massacre, there have been multiple reports of a finding that should surprise no one: that is, many of our young people go to school, church, the mall, entertainment venues, and every other public place wondering if they will be victims of gun violence. In other words, America is failing in its most fundamental responsibility to its children, to protect them from harm. And our children know it.

In the interest of bipartisanship, I suppose I should say at this point that it’s time for the government to do something, thus implying equal blame to elected Democrats and Republicans. Let’s dispense with that nonsense.

We all know Democratic leaders favor gun reforms that are supported by most Americans and that Republican leaders reject essentially all gun control measures. We know the National Rifle Association funnels substantial amounts of money into Republican campaign coffers and very little to Democrats.

We also know Republican leaders have given a nod and a wink — and smiled slyly at their political good fortune — as the NRA and conspiracy theorists like Alex Jones have stoked irrational fears among even responsible gun owners. To change course now, Republican politicians will have to summon the political courage to confront the monster they helped create and tell their base the truth about gun control. Our gun laws (or the lack thereof) are the problem, and the enactment of common-sense gun control legislation will not effectively negate the Second Amendment, no matter how often or emphatically the leaders of the scandal-plagued NRA say so.

In the end, Republican leaders can choose to protect the right of our children to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, or they can continue to choose political greed and cowardice. The choice is that clear, and it’s theirs and theirs alone.

Dr. Bill Smith of Johnson City is a retired educator and public school advocate.

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