The day after Valentine’s Day 2008, I watched my 1st period students file into the room. They were uncharacteristically quiet. When the bell rang, they all looked at me, waiting to hear how I might make sense of the previous night’s tragedy when Steven Philip Kazmierczak opened fire in Cole Hall on Northern Illinois University’s campus, shooting 21 people and killing five.
It was my second year of teaching, and already this sort of thing was becoming routine. The year before, we watched the deadliest school shooting in U.S. history unfold at Virginia Tech. In 1999, when I was a high school freshman, I’m sure my own teachers were similarly daunted by classrooms full of wide-eyed students after the Columbine High School shooting, more than 900 miles away.
The NIU shooting was different, though; it was practically in our backyard. This was no longer the sort of thing that happened somewhere else. My students had siblings on campus. I had several close friends there. We were all exhausted from a long night of phone calls, text messages and watching the news for updates.
I looked at my students. I wanted to help them understand why someone would do something so heinous, but I didn’t understand it myself. I took a deep breath and said the first thing that came to mind: “It’s not fair. You go about your lives and you never know what might happen or if you’re going to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. School is a place where you are supposed to feel safe, and now that has been taken away from you.”
Some of the students began to nod emphatically. Finally, someone had said what they were thinking. It’s just not fair.
Even as we wait for the next news story, however, we must go on. Classes must be taught, grades assigned, the dead mourned, the injured treated. The next tragedy inevitably comes, and we are all caught off-guard, even though we have come to expect it. My husband and I were at Fenway Park in Boston when we heard about the shooting at the Century Aurora 16 movie theater in Aurora, Colorado. Before the National Anthem, the announcer called for a moment of silence in honor of those killed and injured. The entire park fell quiet.
Even in the wake of one tragedy, another occurs. I was sitting with my mother and husband when I learned of the shooting at the Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. Some of my family lives in nearby Milwaukee, so we received text messages as we watched news updates on TV.
It is still summer break here in Chicago, so I do not have to go back to school and face wide-eyed and confused students. Even without seeing my students, I know, that like me, they are trying to make sense of this tragedy on their own. There are thinking “It’s not fair” and “Why?” Some will refuse to see the new Batman movie either out of fear or a notion that doing so somehow honors the Colorado victims who were killed while attending the movie’s midnight preview. Some will think twice before going to a movie theater ever again.
What will I say to them and to my colleagues about how to respond to these violent incidents?
We may never know all of the reasons some people choose violence, but we do know some. Many school shooters cite bullying as a reason for their actions. Educators must discuss bullying with students and ways that it can be prevented. Each of us should be sensitive to the needs of others, to offer a kind word to someone who is having a bad day, and to practice tolerance and acceptance. Very often it’s the simple things that can turn someone’s day around and create positive change.
In the case of the Sikh Temple tragedy, knowledge is key. I would urge fellow educators to teach students about the Sikh religion, to be a role model for religious tolerance, and to ask students to do the same.
I will tell my students not to associate tragedies with the places in which they occur. They should go see movies, go to their places of worship, and apply to schools such as NIU or Virginia Tech. And, when they go to school, they should take these lessons with them. We can all work together to create lasting, positive changes in our classrooms and communities.
Samsa is a freelance writer and teaches high school English in the south suburbs of Chicago.