Blog Entry: Columbine Suite Future
by Gary Natriello — September 13, 2000
In this third of three reactions to the Columbine High School shootings, TCR’s editor considers the impact of such tragedies on the way we treat our children and our students.
I was annoyed as I tried to reach up to the kitchen cabinet to retrieve a glass. I was annoyed because my way was blocked by a full size body reaching in the same direction, a body that a mere twelve years earlier I had held along the length of my forearm with head cupped in one hand. I grabbed my son with a glancing hug and moved him aside, joking that I would not be stopped from my quest by the rising competitor for the contents of the kitchen.
Confronting the growing stature and power of one’s own children is both unsettling and rewarding. It is gratifying to contemplate the energy and force of youth when they are engaged in the service of positive goals. It is equally troubling to consider how such powers might be used in destructive ways.
The tragedies that have plagued too many schools over the last year resulting in the deaths of too many sons and daughters have served to remind us that our students, our children, have enormous capacities that can be used in radically different ways. This point is made all the more strikingly by the fact that the Columbine shooters would be considered successful students by most of us.
With so many school shootings now seared into our memories, it is difficult to forget such possibilities as we deal with students on a daily basis. Indeed, it is difficult to dismiss such possibilities as we go about our tasks of empowering young people with food, and clothing, and shelter in our role as parents as well as with knowledge, and skills, and values as part of the educational process.
It is not just that we as parents and educators may fear our children or, more precisely, their potential for destruction. It is more than that. It is the realization that we are surely developing within our students capacities that we cannot ultimately control. The present environment of school violence has the potential to generate a fear that can in due course cripple our work.
The danger of unleashing the capacities of the young has always been present. Our realization of the potential uses of student powers has always been with us. The English teacher who arms students with a capacity for powerful language cannot avoid thinking about the many ways, both constructive and destructive, that such language might be used. The social studies teacher who equips students with a complete understanding of the passion and force of the revolutionary actions that began the modern era cannot help wondering if one or more students will be moved to a new era of revolutionary action. Those who teach in science and mathematics and technology cannot keep themselves from worrying about how the might locked within those content areas will be let loose.
There are a number of ways in which we might react in the face of school violence. We might become more wary of the conditions in the schools in our communities. When my older son returned home late from middle school one day without his backpack, I questioned him and discovered that a student had called in a threat that caused the evacuation of the school and dismissal without an opportunity to retrieve belongings left in the building. This left me counting the days until the end of the school year.
We might become more vigilant with our own students and children hoping to see early signs of developing danger. In the days and weeks following Columbine I found myself watching my own sons more closely and asking them what they were doing, what their friends were doing, and what kinds of things were going on in their schools and their heads. Our conversations, always plentiful, became more pointed as we discussed the wave of shootings and what they thought of them.
Perhaps the worst outcome of the violence in our schools would be that we shy away from students out of fear or unease, seeking to avoid interaction to minimize the chance of confrontation. If this happens, we will diminish our effectiveness as educators and weaken the educational experience for students. Nevertheless, this is a likely outcome of school violence as educators slowly and silently withdraw from students in an attempt to protect themselves. It is not simply that we may avoid certain students, but that we may distance ourselves for all students and from our mission of empowering them. Some worry that we will be too frightened to approach our troubled students before it is too late. I worry that we will be too hesitant to empower our students, all of our students, when it is still early. That would add tragedy to tragedy.
To avoid the tendency to withdraw from students we must redouble our efforts to work with them. We must seek to overcome not only our fears of what they might do, but also of what we might enable them to do. We must not allow our fears of how they may use their growing powers to deter us from helping them to develop those very powers.
The next time I reach for a glass and find my way blocked, perhaps I will make sure that the hug I give is more than glancing.