Every school shooting hits me hard, and I assume this is true for all teachers. And at a time when these horrific attacks are becoming all too common, it is sad to say that some hit me harder than others. There was the day in 1998 when I was subbing at a Eugene middle school while Kip Kinkel went on a rampage at a Springfield high school across the river. There was Sandy Hook Elementary in 2012, so shocking because of how young the victims were, so shocking that I still don’t think our society has wrapped its head around it. And now, for me, there is Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, where I did my student teaching.
This is how I remember Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School: a new building full of promise and potential, named after an amazing woman who spent her life working toward the preservation of the Everglades; a building just a year old when I was assigned there in the fall of 1991. It was an easy 20 or 30-minute drive from my childhood home in Sunrise. I was 21 and idealistic, ready to make an impact. My supervising teacher was old school, heavy on grammar and discipline. She suggested I shave my goatee and I listened to her. The school had a state of the art computer lab where the computers were actually connected to each other. Imagine that! One student could post his or her writing and another student could comment on it. But we didn’t really use it. I taught grammar and ‘The Crucible,” by Arthur Miller, and this one day I remember, there was an apathetic vibe in the classroom. I wasn’t having an impact. I can’t remember how we were studying the play, but it wasn’t very exciting. I switched it up and asked for two student volunteers to assume the parts of the male and female leads in a scene. Nobody jumped on the offer, but finally two students who shared a desk in the front row – a white girl and a black guy – looked at each other, shrugged, and stood up. I had just assumed they would read from their seats. The girl was small and she wore glasses, the intellectual type. The guy was over 6 feet tall and pushing 200 pounds, wearing his football jersey. “Go ahead,” I offered, and they just grinned and got into it. These quiet kids from the front row started reading, and then they started acting, raising their voices and utilizing their bodies. The class was loving it. I was loving it. It was a glimpse into all the promise and potential of this teaching career I was embarking on – two seemingly different kids united in this activity and being cheered on by their classmates. They had broken the ice for me.
As I try to make sense of today, this tragic Valentine’s Day twenty-seven years later and 3000 miles away, I choose to focus on the love instead of the hate. I will remember the morning team meeting I attended with my dedicated colleagues, my fellow English teachers and a supportive administrator, and how part of our conversation centered around how hard this job is but how much we love it. I will remember my freshmen classes working thoughtfully on essays about the novel “The Girl Who Fell from the Sky,” which tackles issues of race and addiction, and the memoir “Night,” which tackles the Holocaust, one of the worst tragedies in human history. I will remember a trio of giggling sophomores catching up to me in the hallway in desperate need of a paper clip to hold together a stack of Val-o-grams. I will remember the juniors and seniors in my Creative Writing classes who showed tremendous courage and trust in sharing deeply personal nonfiction narratives with each other, sometimes anonymously and sometimes not. And I will remember the senior who gave me, with all sincerity, a Spiderman Valentine.
I will remember coming home to the love, support, and warmth of my wife, Carley, and one hug that meant more than any Hallmark card. And I will remember the excitement of our children, ages 5 and 7, as they looked through their Valentine’s bags at their cards and their treats and remembered this day that was all about the love.