Last Friday, my seventh graders diagrammed a sentence. They analyzed poetry in small groups. We took a break to play Zip Zap Zop, and we read a half-dozen pages of the trial scene in To Kill a Mockingbird. I gave them their homework, told them to be safe over the weekend, and said goodbye. But we didn’t talk about the Christchurch shooting.
I didn’t talk about the shooting because I wasn’t sure they knew, and I thought they should have the conversation with their parents. I know I’d want to address it with my own kid before he talked about it in school.
But this was an act of terrorism, and I should have talked about it.
I didn’t talk about the shooting because of some vague idea about not being political in the classroom. It’s something I struggle with, and I need time to get my thoughts straight before I make any comment about current events.
I didn’t talk about the shooting because I’m the only white face in the room during every class I teach. Because a guy went into a place of worship and murdered fifty people, claiming to represent me. Claiming that he was defending my safety and my interests. I didn’t know how to talk about white nationalism without making it about me. But we can handle awkward conversations, and I should have talked about it.
I didn’t talk about the shooting because I didn’t want to single out my Muslim kids. There are a handful in each class, and I knew that if I brought it up, other kids would be sneaking furtive glances at their hijabs, watching their every move to see if they’d cry, and I didn’t want to put them in an awkward position.
But they were grieving and afraid, and I should have talked about it.
I had no idea what to say to my kids. I can’t guarantee their safety. I can tell them—again—as I do after every school shooting, that I would give my life to protect them without a moment’s hesitation. But I don’t go to their mosques, their Ethiopian Orthodox churches, or the Spanish mission near their apartments. I can’t protect them everywhere, and they’re old enough to know it. Once, after the Parkland shooting, a kid asked me if the school windows were made of bulletproof glass. I’d never so badly wanted to lie.
I can’t always protect them, and I won’t lie to them about it. But that’s the goal of terrorism, right? I mean, besides killing people. It’s to make everybody else feel afraid and, most of all, powerless. Like there’s no way to keep ourselves and our children safe, no matter what we do.
I could have done something about the feeling of powerlessness that terrorism inspires.
I should have told them that when the world is dark, they can bring light. That relationships between people not only can change the world, they’re the only thing that can change it. That building a better society begins at the lunch table and on the soccer field and, yes, in poetry-analysis groups. I don’t know that I could have convinced them, but I could have told them.
I should have told them that I was grieving with them and that I saw their fear and sadness and felt the same way. I should have reminded my non-Muslim kids of all the times their communities have been targeted by “white nationalists” and asked them to show a little extra compassion and support.
Most of all, I should have listened.
I should have just said, “Let’s talk about Christchurch Mosque,” and let my kids have the floor. And I should have done it the second the bell rang to begin class, so my students would know that their pain and anxiety were infinitely more important to me than their ability to find the direct object in a sentence.
I went home and thought about it over the weekend, and we talked about the shooting first thing on Monday. I told my kids everything I wanted them to know, and I gave them a chance to share their feelings. (Honestly, they mostly wanted to talk about YouTubers, which I should have predicted.) But I wish I’d done it earlier and shown them that they were my top priority. It’s a mistake I pray I won’t get a do-over on—one I definitely don’t want to have to get right next time.
Did you talk with your students about the Christchurch shooting? Come and share your experiences in our WeAreTeachers HELPLINE group on Facebook.