System Malfunction

It’s a balmy spring-like day, and I just came back from a walk. I needed to process the scenes from Florida. Once again, we’re shown footage of students filing out of a school with their hands up or on each other’s shoulders. An army of emergency vehicles and school buses parked helter-skelter around the campus. Frantic parents behind crime scene tape. Swat teams in riot gear. And then I keep imagining what the media mercifully doesn’t show you. A mother rocking in a fetal position in her teenaged son’s room, clutching his soccer jersey. Or the spouse of a murdered teacher, catatonic with grief, sitting at the kitchen table where she ate breakfast with her husband that morning.

This hits so close to home for those of us who spent our professional lives inside a public school. We know what a February afternoon feels like, right before the dismissal bell rings. Late winter is the armpit of the school year; the shine has long worn off, winter sports are over, spring sports haven’t started yet, standardized tests and final projects loom and June is barely visible on the horizon. The natives tend to be a little restless. I remember instances of fire alarms going off at the end of the day, occasionally pulled by a bored student, but more often accompanied by an announcement “Please disregard. There is a system malfunction.” Indeed.

We have a long history of violence in this country. The wars, including the one we fought with each other, the bloodshed in the western frontier, the gangsters and organized crime of the 1920’s, the bitter strife of race riots and now drug wars–it’s all horrible, but it’s the sad nature of the human beast.  I don’t condone any of it but at least there is some sort of ugly agenda. I will shoot you because you own slaves, or you didn’t pay your drug bill, or I want the land that belongs to you. What I cannot get my head around is the slaughter of innocent people for no apparent reason other than the shooter is hurt and angry or carries some stain that can only be washed clean by the blood of strangers.

I was bullied in school as I suspect most of us were, to some degree.  Whether we were too fat or too skinny, didn’t make the football team or cheerleading squad, were too bright or too slow, or maybe our family was poor and our clothes smelled bad—it didn’t matter. We’ve all sustained injury from grenades of pain hurled by our peers and most of us have probably thrown a few of our own.

I can remember a fourth-grade classmate who was vilified by the teacher every single day. Whatever went wrong, it was his fault, and he would just lower his eyes and take it when she lit into him. Looking back, that teacher should have been yanked from the classroom, but she was one of the revered grand dames of our elementary school and no one dared criticize her. The young man eventually graduated, shows up at class reunions happily married and successful, and to my knowledge, has never shot anyone with a high-powered rifle because he was treated like a pariah in fourth grade.

What’s different now? Is it because social media allows us no escape? Back in the day, we could at least go home and close our door and cry or scream or play loud music or do whatever we needed to soothe ourselves without seeing continued taunts and ridicule on the electronic device we’re connected to 24 hours a day. Or is it that we no longer have the resilience to accept that life can be bitterly cruel and terrible things happen to us that are not our fault and are therefore entitled to take out our frustration on others we perceive as more fortunate? Or is it simply because it’s harder for some of us to find a support system? Whether it’s within our own family or a church or an organization—we all need a place to go where someone will wrap their arms around us and say it’s going to be ok. If we’re out there flailing for too long, we’ll grab onto any lifeline we can find, even if it’s extended by the hand of evil.

It appears there is nothing we can do about slaughtering the innocent except voice platitudes, wring our hands, and wait for it to happen again. When we dare raise our voices in question or protest, we are like gnats smashed against the windshield of this giant stinking leviathan of corruption that purports to be our federal government. Someone told me recently that when he sent an email to his congressman, he got an automated response informing him that the site was no longer being monitored. Not even a “Duly noted. Thank you for sharing your concern.” No, this was “Sorry, but we can’t be bothered with your petty email because we are too busy pandering to political action committees and special interest groups and whoever else will guarantee us lots of money for re-election.”

I have been blessed to live a life of comfort and ease and although I faithfully vote in every election, I have never been terribly political. This sixty-year old moderately liberal retired school teacher is angry and frustrated about what is happening, but I feel helpless. The message is loud and clear that I can send all the emails and make all the phone calls I want, and it will do no good whatsoever. Dying children don’t stand a chance against big money and big power.

I was still teaching when we started code red drills after Columbine. We’d hear the announcement over the intercom, and I would close the blinds, lock the doors, and turn off the lights. My students would put down their instruments and we’d all crowd behind my desk, in awkwardly close proximity, away from view of the windows. The kids would snicker and whisper, and I would admonish them to be quiet, that this was serious, and we’d wait patiently for the all clear announcement. At the time it seemed silly and contrived, and we’d roll our eyes at the idea of a boogie-man coming down the hall to get us. And then at a neighboring rural school district in April 2003, a middle school student walked into the cafeteria and shot his principal dead in front of hundreds of his classmates.

Fifteen years later, we are still slaughtering the innocent. The system continues to malfunction.


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