THE BLOG
01/19/2011 12:32 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Teaching Past the Violence

Violence in any school under any circumstances--accidental or not--is intolerable. And yet many of us live with it (the threat and the reality) every day.

The accidental shooting of two Gardena High School students here in L.A. is a reminder of the price we pay for urban violence and the degree of terror many of our students face getting to and from school that makes some of them take up arms for self-protection. In years past I've confiscated knives and mace from students and then wondered if they got home all right.

My first day as a teacher in South Central, a veteran told me it's not the armed thug you worry about so much as the kid who throws his backpack down on the desk and the gun he's got inside goes off. He really said those exact words--and he was probably right--though none of my near calamities, including my basketball team and me being shot at from the street during an outdoor basketball practice, were accidental in nature.

Our school is a few miles north of Gardena High School. Many of our students are friends or family of the students who go there so the details of yesterday's tragedy spread quickly through our campus. But not all of our students learned about this shooting that way. One boy, who lives in the other direction, would have to have found out about the Gardena High shooting via the electronic news because he and his family were locked inside their home all morning while police secured his street after a shooting last night.

Obviously, no one can figure out how to keep violence out of our inner-city schools or the surrounding neighborhoods. The homicide rate in L.A. County is lower than it has been since 1965, but what is an acceptably low homicide rate?

Most of our students are already beyond the fear and loathing and petty grudges that manufacture tragedy. At least most of them don't carry weapons and most of them want no part of the violence though they understand the extent of the burden they carry.

Better security means that every student must be treated as a potential suspect the way that every air traveler now has had to become, at least for a few moments, a suspected terrorist.

I used to mind an intrusion into my classroom for a weapons search. Now I just try to talk students through it and maybe find a teachable moment in it. There is always the hope that the next frisking and wanding of my students will coincide with the teaching of Kafka's Metamorphosis or Orwell's 1984--though my students hardly need any more experiential examples of alienation or dehumanization.

What can educators do to help prevent violence? The world of ideas can be an antidote for students who are being swallowed up by the streets. In that way, we are engaged in a battle with those mean streets for the hearts and minds of those children. Overcrowded classrooms and mindless mandates make that battle much harder to win.

Equally important is what we can do for our non-violent majority of students who must live amidst the ignorance and carnage. Aside from protecting them physically we can at least try to win them away from cynicism and despair.

I remember a six hour lockdown one day, about eight years ago, when a woman and her child were gunned down near the front of our school. We didn't know what was going on outside, only that there had been a shooting and that police didn't know which way the assailants had gone. Helicopters thumped over the roof of my windowless bungalow classroom. Students had to urinate in a waste basket. I made my all-day second period class keep working as long as I could. We finished the day's assignment and I started the next day's, which I partly had to improvise.

I did my best impression of Al Pacino (at the end of Dog Day Afternoon or And Justice for All) screaming my head off, as if the helicopters were louder than they actually were, imploring them to keep learning, be scholars no matter how many gunmen tried to stop them.