It’s been a very difficult week for our community and for our country. We’ve all experienced varying degrees of shock, horror, and profound sadness as this tragedy continues to unfold in Newtown. I watch not only as a concerned citizen, but also as a father of three young girls and a teacher. It is as a teacher that I speak to you today.
I believe that all students in my classroom bring with them the unlimited capacity for human greatness. My job is to provide the basic tools of discovery and offer my assistance in their journey to unlock that greatness. That’s why I became a teacher.
But, teaching is not just the acquisition of knowledge. It is far more complex than that. Consider this. Every day, hundreds of mothers and fathers leave us responsible for the most precious thing in their lives: their babies. I know what that means because I am a father.
I spent some time this week reaching out to former students and found the connection we had from the classroom was still there. I’ve found that being a teacher offers insight into a person on such a fundamental level that the bonds never break – especially with the most difficult kids. We nurture their growth, intellectually and emotionally, and we take that duty seriously because we want all of our children to reach whatever purpose or dream for themselves that they hold deep inside.
That’s why I’m not surprised that the teachers in Connecticut laid down their lives to save their students. Because I’ve never worked with a teacher who would stand down in the face of a threat to the covenant we hold with those families.
It is also our obligation to speak truthfully about what we see in the classrooms, to our administrators and to the parents.
The truth as I see it is that these acts of violence reflect the fact that our nation is in the midst of a crisis of isolation. Critics of technology have long decried the loss of human connections because of our gadgets, but our isolation runs deeper than that.
Philosophically, we are living at a point in time when it is easier to seek out rationalizations and audiences with people who think the same way than ever before. That means that we can easily find a supportive network for whatever ideologies we want and avoid the natural pushback we would experience in a connected community run by diverse opinions and perspectives.
In other words, we can easily isolate ourselves in whatever belief system we want without fear that we will be challenged to look at our ideas. If someone does challenge us, we can just drop them from our lives and find someone somewhere in the world who will agree with us – even applaud our decision to refuse objections to our ideas. Compounding that fact is the social taboo of expressing our beliefs in a way that challenges someone else’s belief system. We are more prone to passive, polite conversation that won’t disrupt the “peace” of our community while we retreat to our ideological backers at home, online, or wherever we might find blind acceptance of our beliefs.
Beyond the isolation of our ideas, each one of us has allowed someone else in our life to suffer in silence while we did nothing. Whether it was someone slipping into depression, overindulgence, or anger – we have all faced the moment of truth and failed to engage with that person. It is easy to ignore the suffering the goes on in the periphery of our lives.
That’s what we are missing in America today. We argue, but only in the sense that we shout our opinions. We have lost the sense of personal responsibility for our community’s well-being because most of the time, the ones we watch slip away from the eyes of the community simply disappear. They very rarely explode in public and that makes it a lot easier to move on with our own lives, “safe” in our own small, isolated world.
It’s just too easy to avoid the kinds of political and spiritual debates that might leave us exposed to the possibility that one of us – or maybe all – are culpable for the crisis in community we are experiencing. But we will only be able to address our community’s problems at their root if we commit to work together and support one another by challenging each other’s assumptions and refusing to let people wither away in a dark corner. We must take action when we see misery around us, consistently and without regard for upsetting any particular interest group.
Much of the media is focused on guns and a violence-driven media, but violent films and the availability of weapons do not make someone rampage against his community. I’d like to continue a conversation we began in my church this past Sunday – not one of the need for gun control or arming teachers, but of the state of the human spirit and the rip that has occurred in our sense of community.
Schools are a microcosm of our world and I see deep fractures in our ability to communicate with each other. I see people who live in a stark, black and white, right and wrong, my side and your side world. I watch children acting out the contentiousness of our politics and the growing national trend towards isolation – an isolation between ideologies and religions that is ironically unfolding within an increasingly multi-cultural world.
And perhaps that friction is what we are witnessing. Don’t get me wrong on this issue. I don’t see any magical solutions, but I do believe that we need to start assessing where we invest our time and energy.
Take the balance of prisons and schools. In California, we’ve tripled the number of prisons in 30 years. At the same time we’ve shortened school years while cutting arts and physical education from the curriculum. We eliminated counselors and funds for field trips while the number of people we put in those new prisons has grown at a rate 8 times faster than our state’s general population has grown.
It reminds me of the old adage, “where your money is, your heart will follow” and I wonder – what are our priorities? Do we want to isolate violence or nurture the human spirit? I’m not suggesting that art classes will save our nation or in and of themselves keep kids from repeating the Newtown tragedy, but providing an expressive outlet for our kids helps them channel the feelings that they sometimes can’t understand or control. More counselors in our schools would allow us to identify at risk kids earlier and intervene to help them.
We’re overdue for a frank discussion on where we, as a school system and society, fail our children. There is much to be done, on many levels, to address this problem and keep our kids safe. Gun control and improved security both have a place in the discussion. Certainly, we don’t need as many machines to kill people as we currently have on the gun market, but let’s not be so hasty to end the conversation with gun control. Available guns didn’t isolate this young man into a world of anger and resentment.
Something happened to this boy. He was born, as we all are, a small, helpless baby and somewhere along the way he gradually became something else, something much darker, probably alone, frightened, and at some point angry and vengeful. Most of the time, we don’t see the havoc this failure in community permits. But when those silent tragedies shout, the pain reverberates within all of us.