A Conversation About Guns In Schools
By J. L. Thurston
I meet lots of interesting people. We all do. Even introverts have occasional conversations. The other day I met an older man, grandfatherly, who was and always had been a people-person. He chose to talk with me and I’m glad he did.
We were in the ER, in a patient room. His wife had tripped on the sidewalk and was awaiting stitches. He sat in a chair beside her bed, both of their faces turned upward and slightly to the side as they watched the miniature television screen mounted in the corner of the ceiling.
The news was going on about the latest shooting. You know the one.
“Can you believe all this?” the old man hissed.
His wife pursed her lips, as though able to taste the bitterness in the world, and gave a solemn nod of agreement.
Feeling the need to reciprocate in the spirit of socializing, I said, “It seems like there are more and more shootings these days.”
The old man looked right through me. He’d seen three times the years I had, he had wisdom I could only dream of.
“You think they should take away guns?” he asked me in that knowing voice teachers often use.
In my line of work, I know enough to bite my tongue when it comes to opinions. Especially on heated topics such as Trump, immigrants, and guns. If I said the wrong thing to a patient, they could report me and I could be reprimanded. It’s just so damn easy to offend people.
But there was something in this grandpa’s voice that made me think it was safe to express myself. His eyes glistened with real interest. I don’t know. I felt like I could talk to him, which was too rare of an occasion to let pass by.
“Honestly,” I began, hoping my next statement wouldn’t bite me on the ass. “Guns or no guns, if someone wants to kill people they will find a way.”
He gave a wry smile and nodded. My shoulders sagged in relief and there was a squirm of pride in my belly. I had won the approval of this nice, wise, old man.
But he wasn’t through with the conversation. “What do you think about people wanting to arm teachers?”
I actually hadn’t heard that one, yet. My first response was a bark of laughter. In my mind, I envisioned a teacher of my past packing heat. In seconds, this scenario played out in my head. Mrs. Schnell, my algebra teacher, strutting back and forth in front of the marker board with a Glock resting comfortably at her hip. She was a thin woman, bony, and always wore high-waisted pants with her shirts tucked in. In her youth she was very beautiful, and had retained beauty and health in her golden years. For pep rallies this woman would do the splits with the cheerleaders. I’m not making this up.
But there she was in my brain with a gun. I suppose she popped up foremost in my imagination because she was so sweet and fair and kind, and even funny, but math terrified me almost as much as a gun would.
It was a reasonable scenario that my brain formulated for me to ponder over. What did I think? What would it be like to have the stress of class and the knowledge that your teacher has the means to kill a rogue student in order to save us? Could she have pulled the trigger on one of us? If any of us had lost it and gone nuts, could she push away the motherly love she undoubtedly developed over the years of teaching the same kids? Even if it meant saving lives?
“I think it’s a little absurd,” I concluded. “But I can see why people want it to be an option.”
Not to name names, but I thought of another teacher of my past. This one wasn’t so kind. He had a short fuse and a rough life. He had hard opinions and grew easily frustrated when a student refused to bend to his will.
A friend of mine, Kayse, knew the Bible pretty well in those days. She made a comment in class that tattoos were against God, in the terms that He considered our body a temple and tattoos would be a form of desecration. This teacher didn’t like that kind of talk, even in this small town with nine churches. She ended up bringing a Bible to class just to show him she knew her references, not really in a pushy way but annoying nonetheless, and he became so angry he threw a chair against the wall.
What if he was armed? I’m sure he wouldn’t become enraged so badly that he’d shoot a kid. But… I actually wouldn’t put it past him. He had a temper that would shame an Irishman. I witnessed this over a single Bible verse. How would he react when a boy threw a spitball at him? Or refused to stop Tweeting in class? What would he do to the kid from the rough family, who swore a lot and wasn’t afraid to yell at his teacher?
It’s horrible to think a teacher would gun down a student because the student was being a little shit. But in the heat of rage, people have been known to murder their own parents. I’m not saying it happens a lot, but I am saying that it does happen.
The old man broke up my thoughts with a story. “When I was a kid, we used to have Pest Contests. Do you know what they are?”
At first, I thought he had said Piss Contests, but my ears caught up with my brain and I shook my head. “No, sir.”
A soft smile formed on his graying lips at the memory of his boyhood. I think he must have had a very happy childhood, judging from the serenity brightening his face. “A couple times a year we’d have these Pest Contests where all the boys could bring their rifles to school. Nearly all of us had our own rifles, and those who didn’t have ‘em would bring their daddy’s. At recess, we’d go out into the woods outside the school and we’d all shoot at birds and squirrels. We’d collect our kills and whoever had the fullest game bag would win the contest. So, imagine, a school where the lockers were wooden and didn’t even have doors on ‘em, and almost each and every one of ‘em containing a loaded rifle.
“Times were different, back then,” he continued, his eyes shadowing now as they gave a sad glance back to the television screen. “We didn’t think about killing each other. We even got whooped by our teachers and never for a second would I have raised violence toward them. It just wasn’t an idea rolling around in our heads. I suppose, there must have been Pest Contests somewhere else that ended in injury. Maybe one or two that ended in tragedy, I don’t know. You didn’t really hear about much back then if it wasn’t in the paper or on the radio. We weren’t really afraid of getting hurt like that.”
He had gone from the joyful carefree days of his boyhood to the dark and twisted present we live in. The change in his eyes nearly broke my heart.
“I have a stepson who’s a freshman.” I began a little story of my own. “He overheard another student threatening to bring a gun to school. That boy listed names of kids and teachers he wanted to shoot. My stepson was worried. He told his friend’s mom and they reported it to the police. I was at work at the time. When I heard that he had gone to the cops I was pretty mad. I kept thinking that my mother would have beat my ass if I’d pulled a stunt like that.
“But my stepson lives in a different time. His school is constantly locked up, there’s metal detectors at the doors, drug sniffing dogs get passed by the lockers. Schools get shot up frequently. He’s grown up in a world where being murdered in school is a very real possibility. Once I realized that, all my anger faded. Instead, I wanted to cry for him and for all the kids of this generation. I can’t imagine not feeling perfectly safe in the classroom. If a kid threatened to shoot up the school in my day we just called him a spaz and forgot about it. But not anymore.”
I took a breath. The old man was paying close attention. His eyes encouraged me to go on. “What I’m saying is, yeah, times are different, but the problem isn’t taking guns away or adding new ones. The problem is kids who are wounded so deeply their souls are fractured, and no one helps them. These kids get broken so badly that they give in to the call of violence. We live in a culture that considers therapy as shameful. We are embarrassed to seek mental help, and we are mostly blind to kids who need help with depression or anger. So, the bottom line isn’t guns. It’s failing to save the shooters before they become shooters.”
It was a daring statement to make while in a position that limits opinions. But this grandpa, in all his years of experience with joy and success, pain and lamentation, puffed out his chest and smiled approvingly.