After the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School on Friday, parents across the United States held their own children close, crying the tears of relief that it didn't happen to their baby, of guilt that they can still hold their baby close, of fear that someday, they might not be so fortunate.
I know the Mayan apocalypse is supposed to be a tongue-in-cheek joke, but it really did feel as if the world were ending on Friday. There are parents who were buying Christmas presents on Friday for 6-year-olds for whom they now need to plan funerals. When a classroom full of first-graders is massacred, it's difficult not to question what exactly we are doing here.
There are three hundred million pairs of eyes on Newtown and 300 million arms reaching out to help, as there should be. But we cannot pretend the parents in Newtown are the only ones burying their children because of gun violence, nor can we insinuate that it is only after Sandy Hook that students feel unsafe in school.
As a teacher in Philadelphia, I have taught students whose relatives were shot, who have been shot at themselves, and who have been beaten and robbed at gunpoint. Gun violence aside, I also teach students who have not been able to continue therapy and needed mental health services because of inadequate health insurance. All this, and I teach at what is regarded citywide as a "safe" charter school, a place without metal detectors on a quiet block. My friends who teach in other, more dangerous schools have come into work on Monday to find that a student of theirs had been murdered over the weekend, at the hand of an anonymous gunman who never even made the news.
Children in Philadelphia and Camden live alongside gun violence daily; last week, they saw a man open fire at 46th & Market as effortlessly as one steps onto the train platform. Although they may not know the numbers (265 were murdered in 2011), they feel the effects of trepidation; they hear the lost tourists roll up their car windows as they drive through their neighborhoods. They know gun violence has changed the landscape of their communities.
My primary responsibility is to keep my students safe and teach them to make their way in the world, a way that includes scholarship, empathy, and peace, and a respect for human life. Contrary to the ideas of some misguided individuals like Larry Pratt, the director of Gun Owners of America, I can do that without a gun, thanks.
Teachers and parents know that children -- and all people, perhaps -- learn best through the examples of the adults surrounding them. So while watching the news and witnessing the debates regarding gun control, I wonder whether some of us are aware that our children are listening. Our students realize that there are politicians and NRA leaders who systematically refuse to place legal restrictions on assault weapons, citing an amendment that was written when the most dangerous weapon was a musket.
Senator Joe Manchin said Monday, "Never before have we seen our babies slaughtered." While I understand the sentiment, Senator Manchin is incorrect: we have seen our babies slaughtered; we have just chosen not to air it on the evening news. We know that children in major cities have been traumatized by routine gun violence; we just choose not to treat the trauma.
The children in Newtown are the most infamous, but certainly not the only innocent victims of gun violence. Their deaths have stirred a renewed debate on firearm legislation that will hopefully impact the lives of the children in Philadelphia, Camden and other major United States cities. As a nation of adults who now, more than ever, feel compelled to protect the youngest among us from unnecessary gun violence, we must realize that our babies are watching and listening to us argue, and that they will learn from our action -- or our inertia.