My heart kept on beating, but the day a gunman entered a school and murdered 26 people

“The only hope you have is to accept the fact that you’re already dead. The sooner you accept that, the sooner you’ll be able to function as a soldier is supposed to function: without mercy, without compassion, without remorse. All war depends upon it.

— Stephen E. Ambrose, Band of Brothers

I died on December 14th, 2012.

My heart kept on beating, but the day a gunman entered a school and murdered 26 people — including a classroom full of six- and seven-year-old children — I died. Actually, that’s not entirely accurate. The precise moment I died happened when, as a nation, a classroom of six- and seven-year-old children were murdered, and we did nothing.

Plenty of people from plenty of political persuasions shed tears, said prayers (or claimed they did), and otherwise flapped their gums in order to occupy a few precious seconds of airtime on CNN. But nothing happened. Those in power played the grim waiting game, they knew the clock was their friend, and in time — a few months of news cycles — even the fury of a classroom of dead six-and-seven-year-olds would be an acceptable price to pay for “defending our freedoms”. That’s when I died.

So, when, on Monday, February 13th at 8:32 pm, I received notice that an active shooter was loose at Michigan State University and multiple injuries, some fatalities, were reported, I was saddened but not shocked. It is our turn. It was an inevitability. And I just kept going, because I am already dead.

My death is essential to my job. You see as a teacher of any sort, from the kindergarten classroom to the doctoral seminar, we have accepted that we must be the first to die. You might think that’s hyperbole. It’s not.

Those of us who have been trained on what to do in an active shooter situation is given the instructions that our first course of action is to run — if it is safe to do so. Then, if we cannot run, we hide. Here’s what hiding looks like in a classroom: First, students are instructed to spread out as much as is possible without being visible from any windows that lead to the exterior of the classroom. The reason we spread out is that if a gunman were to enter a classroom and begin shooting there wouldn’t be a pile of bodies to spray a load of bullets into. Also, we hide in such a way that the instructor, that’s me, is closest to the likeliest point of entry. If hiding will no longer works, we are instructed to fight. If a gunman makes an entrance into my room, I am at the front of the line. I run at him immediately. I have already instructed the strongest people in the room to follow me and use my body as a shield in hopes of minimizing casualties.

It’s not courage, it’s not that I have a big heart, it’s not that I’m special that compels me to act this way. Everyone who teaches would do the same to protect her, his, or their students. We do it because we’re already dead.

To be a teacher is to be a soldier, and to be a soldier you must come to terms with the fact that you’re already dead.

We tend to measure the horror of a mass shooting event in body counts and injuries, and it’s positively true that these losses are incalculably tragic. However, these are not the only losses we suffer. Every mass shooting that happens in America assassinates hope, imagination, and dreams for the future. While we can count the lives we lose, counting the missed discoveries, hampered dreams, and increasing hopelessness is a much more challenging calculus.

Every day my family walks into a school. For my wife and I, it is our place of work. My son, goes to learn. Schools used to be a place where we could dream, where we could make discoveries that would benefit our communities, and where could learn about the world and all of the marvelous plants, animals, and people in it.

We are ALL casualties of every bullet that tears through a school, a church, a mosque, a synagogue, a shopping center, or a crowded park. Some will lose their lives, but all of us lose our innocence each time a mass shooting occurs.

I really just want to be able to dream again. My students deserve to have a professor who is free to dream. My students deserve to be able to hope. And, on days like today, and especially today, I feel pretty hopeless.

Today several congressmen and women will bemoan this senseless tragedy and offer their thoughts and prayers. Next, in a few days, some congressmen and women will begin telling us that if only there were more guns on campus we would have avoided such a tragic loss of life. This event will become just another way to drive a wedge between Americans in the name of campaign donations. And, again, they will do nothing.

But, we still have a reason to hope.

For all their imperfections, my students, MSU students, are amazing people. You should watch the light dance in their eyes when they talk about the things they care about, and the people they care about. You should watch when they call me out for being a little too backward thinking or traditional; it’s inspiring. You should observe what happens when on the rare occasion I challenge them to think in a new way and they thoughtfully consider and sometimes revise their beliefs; it’s humbling. It’s enough to bring an old, dead professor to tears and to breathe a little bit of life back into my lungs.

They give me hope, too, because if you’re in the way, they’re coming for you. If you won’t protect them — and you won’t — they will be taking your jobs. Young people all over this country have already won. You just don’t realize it yet. You can ban all the books, you can jail the teachers, you can criminalize being sensitive, and none of that changes the fact that you’re working on borrowed time. You’ve already lost.

I’ll close with a few lines from my favorite modern prophet:

“Come senators, congressmen
Please heed the call
Don’t stand in the doorway
Don’t block up the hall
For he that gets hurt
Will be he who has stalled
The battle outside ragin’
Will soon shake your windows
And rattle your walls
For the times they are a-changin’

Come mothers and fathers
Throughout the land
And don’t criticize
What you can’t understand
Your sons and your daughters
Are beyond your command
Your old road is rapidly agin’
Please get out of the new one
If you can’t lend your hand
For the times they are a-changin’

— Bob Dylan

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