I Used To Call In Sick On April Twentieth

I was a high school senior in Wisconsin when a freshman boy in Kentucky opened fire on a circle of students gathered in prayer, killing three and wounding five. Later that winter the school shooting was a discussion on Dawson McAllister Live, a Christian call-in show for teens carried by the station our family radios were tuned to. I listened from the backseat of the minivan, staring out the window at the dark evening, hearing stories from witnesses. I remember McAllister talked about having compassion for the shooter’s sister. I remember we were all silent, maybe a little uncomprehending. Something inside me wanted to scream. If I held myself still enough, if I didn’t let a sound out – I watched the dark sky, the shapes of trees.

Also in that minivan was my then infant sister, Mary Grace, who is now graduated after twelve years of homeschool. My sister Ruth is just graduated after completing her senior year at public school. Ellie and David are attending that same school as a junior and sophomore, while the youngest of us siblings, Danny, is in seventh grade homeschool. All of my youngest siblings have grown up or are growing up during a time when the US moved from shock, sorrow and outrage at school shootings to a kind of apathetic acceptance that these tragedies are now part of our culture – attributed to  a diet of violent media or bullying or family dysfunction or mental illness or, ultimately (obviously) easy access to guns.

One of my friends, also a teacher, posted his response to the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting on Facebook. He acknowledged there are deeper issues to address – I think of how many students question their inherent worth, how we might restore value to the least of these, how we might increase our love for one another in community. And he also stated the necessity of gun restriction discussion and change.

And change.

I am heartened by the Florida high school students who are not retreating to thoughts and prayers but are saying we do need change, now. It is now.

I am disheartened to think how we have become an unreasonable nation, to resist this change. No. One political party has become unable to attend the morality of gun control debate and legislation. And that is unreasonable. This morning I thought how many Republicans love the Christian right vote. I thought about how many Christians want their rights protected in the US, to the point of canceling other people’s constitutional rights, to the point of negating compassion. I think these voters and lawmakers are afraid. Our country is not listening to one another. Our mouths are full of old arguments.

We possess innate morality. We are not born good but we are born to know the difference between good and evil. It is evil to neglect our children. It is evil to pretend any preventative measure of gun violence is an infringement of civil liberty. It is evil to only send up thoughts and prayers when we are also given wisdom to end the massacre.

Columbine happened spring of my freshman year of university. I came home from class and a girl named Jenny asked did I hear what happened? A school shooting in Colorado. She had her television on CNN coverage and I stood in her room for a few minutes, long enough to read the scroll of what was known so far, long enough to hear conjecture, long enough to see the line of students evacuating their school, the teenagers dangling and dropping from classroom windows. I ran out of my residence hall, that shuddering fury I felt when I heard accounts of Paducah returned, and I cut across campus, gasping a little. I looked up at the sky and asked God why. I don’t understand why I was so affected by this shooting but it happened as I was considering a teaching degree. Later that evening after I returned to my hall, after Jenny told me they got the shooters, the shooters were dead, I sat at my narrow desk by the window and wrote. I wrote I wasn’t sure if I could teach if this is what school meant now. I wrote my worry and fear.

I began my teaching career with a wary eye on the slumped boy, the angry girl. I assessed my classroom for barricade potential. I counted how long it would take to lock my classroom, turn the lights out, draw blinds. During my first years teaching in Wisconsin, April twentieth was difficult – I was anxious the weeks before and the day of I might call in sick or schedule a medical appointment. The year before I moved abroad, I decided I could go to school on the anniversary of Columbine but during first period I asked the office for sub coverage, left school midmorning.

April twentieth is not charmed. Nor is it cursed. It is only a date. And there are so many that followed.

Since leaving Wisconsin I have taught in Colombia, Kuwait and now, Korea. Each of these places have their own risks but I am not afraid of going to work as an educator or of sending my kids to their classrooms.

My daughter was in kindergarten when Newtown happened and there was a stretch of time I was most afraid for my children because humans are capable of such atrocities. The likelihood of a shooter firing into my son’s preschool room was so minimal but after Newtown I could imagine anything, and did. I hated the stay-in-place drills. My son’s teacher asked parents to send comfort objects for the boys and girls to hold during a scheduled drill. If there was a terrorist attack or a shooter on campus there would be no blankies, no stuffies, only thumps and cracks, a siren punctuated by a female voice urging

Stay — in place
Stay — in place

What followed Newtown was a slow realization I could not return to live in my country. I was as saddened and shocked by the details of the attack as I was by the federal government’s inability to enact gun restrictions which would make such mass murders more difficult to commit. The years since have entrenched an oligarchy placed by corporate interests, kept by voter suppression; and an ugly, entitled turn of political bias that refuses practical or difficult compromise necessary in such a diverse nation as ours.

At one point, I started a short story about the fabled good guy with a gun. He received address, dates and times and if he could only get through gate check and catch his plane, if he could only make his way through rush hour traffic he’d protect this school or that movie theater from a barrage of bullets. His performance review was shit.

I was mad. Just after Newtown a neighbor told me his plan to buy one or two assault rifles that summer when he was home, before Obama signed any gun control legislation reducing his right to bear arms. Why do you need a gun like that? I asked. Because it’s fun, he said. I remembered that conversation two years later when a nine-year-old girl at a firing range accidentally killed her instructor because she was unable to manage the power of an Uzi. Was that fun?

I wish I didn’t know the phrases “high capacity magazine” or “bump stock.”

Restrictions are imperative. Boundaries, rules, expectations can be gifts that shape fuller, longer lives. This morning I read about the victims at Marjory Stoneman Douglas – those cropped photos and short descriptions we are all familiar with. I watched a clip of David Hogg telling our representatives they are adults who need to do something. All the children in the US start kindergarten in a country where school is not safe.

Our last year in Wisconsin there was a school shooting in a neighboring district. I remember reading the email sent to all staff. We were supposed to continue teaching. That night on the news, the story told of a boy who walked into school, shot and killed his principal. Last school year, my siblings’ Janesville high school was put on lockdown and later closed while local, state and FBI law enforcement searched for a man who burgled a gun store and mailed a manifesto to the White House. The man was apprehended in the southwest part of the state, a little less than a hundred and fifty miles away from where my family lives. I still haven’t asked Mom what it was like to know three of her children were on lockdown because of a credible threat from a man with lots of guns. Weirdly, when I heard the story I didn’t feel alarmed or afraid. I had no deep feelings, not even rich gratitude for my siblings’ safety. The incident seemed regular.

This morning I was thinking about Paducah because it was not so long ago when this carnage was truly uncommon. I googled “paducah ky school shooting” and first results included news articles about Kentucky’s most recent school shooting which left two dead and fourteen injured. That happened January 23, 2018. I hadn’t heard of it. You probably haven’t heard of it. Two dead and fourteen wounded is no longer national news.

If all gun deaths were national news, what might happen? Could we say the number out loud? Two here, five there has become nothing but each is a life our nation let go.

Following Christ exacts a high cost. Deny yourself. Be angry but do not sin. So far as you are able, keep peace. Be humble. Love even the ones who are difficult to love. This is my anger: the political party who wants most to align itself with Christianity has twisted my faith to prosperity gospel, hypocritical prolife sentiment, protection from any “other,” and the right to bear an arsenal. How has personal liberty in the US usurped freedom in Christ – who will now deny themselves a military grade weapon? who will now lay down the handgun when they leave the house to buy groceries?

Not all will follow Christ. Not all will choose the hard work of love. But it is not the end. But, oh God, we are fucked as a nation if we cannot come to this issue humbly, openly, willing to draw necessary restrictions to help curb all gun violence in America.

Notes: I am a hit and miss expat voter newly resolved to vote, regardless the inconvenience. While at different points I thought I could not return to live in the States, I know that my life is best lived where I am and if I am one day back in the US, I will be glad. Also, I pray. I do believe prayer matters. But wrestle the issues, persist. Learn to listen. Last, while I am far away from my home country, it is my home country and I care deeply for the men, women and children living in its borders.

Please take time to read “A ‘Mass Shooting Generation’ Cries Out For Change.”