I played President Obama's speech for one of my classes on Friday. The kids hadn't seen it, hadn't heard about it, even. They didn't know what had happened in Arizona.
Before I started the address, I explained what led up to it. I found myself backing up, and backing up. A Congresswoman went home to her state... A Congresswoman is a Senator or Representative... Senators and Representatives make laws in Washington, D.C... Our capitol... Our country's capitol... On the east coast, that way... And so it went.
There is a lot that they do not know. I played the speech. What these 13-year-olds did seem to understand, sitting around my desk, eyes fixed on the computer screen, was that people were killed, shot dead. Shot dead with a gun. They wanted to know what happened to the guy.
Afterwards, I asked them to write about how they felt, what they might be inspired to do. They all wrote about the little girl. They said they felt sad. They said she died too soon, as if she succumbed to an illness. None seemed terribly outraged that she died because a disturbed man took a gun to a supermarket. They were fascinated to hear that people their grandparents' age tackled the man, and swiped the bullets from his hand, but they just weren't horrified that he had the gun. I wanted to make them horrified that he had the gun.
Later that day, a child in another class came in with news. "That kid who shot the other kid, it was at my apartments. I think he goes to this school." A 7-year-old went to play with two kids he knew, the student continued, and the 12-year-old killed him. He ran away and the younger sibling was picked up by Child Protective Services. "The mother of the dead kid was drunk, on TV, screaming."
I had intended to play President Obama's speech to these kids, too. Instead, we had a conversation. I suggested that had there been no gun in the apartment, the 12-year-old might have kicked the 7-year-old, or punched him, or done some other angry thing besides kill him.
"He could have hit him in the head and killed him," said the student with the story.
What if, I asked, no one had guns, except for policemen and soldiers. They looked at me as if I were a loon.
"You need them in case someone comes in and steals something, like your television."
"It's just a television," I said. "Would you kill somebody for a television?"
"It costs money, you know."
Earlier in the year, this same child told me that he was shot in the leg when he was 6, in a drive-by shooting. His mother moved the family to a safer neighborhood. It is where they live now. I would have thought that he'd be leading a gun control campaign. I wonder, would he have led a campaign at age 7? 8, maybe? At what tick on the clock did the sentiment change, did fear and horror turn to acquiescence? When did the expected human response flip to the aberrant one? Is 13 too late?
"Why wouldn't you just let him have the TV?" I persisted. "It's just a TV. It's a machine."
"Ms. Kripke, why are you getting so mad?" he asked.
Not everyone who grows up amidst violence accepts it, or repeats it. We should figure out what protects them, and when. Like some gene that fends off disease, we should isolate it, and then inject it, when it can have an effect. Without it, the security checks at school each morning, the regulation see-through backpacks, the shuttering of the lockers, the real life citations for middle school behavior... The trappings of crime... Have an insidious way of seeping in and not feeling strange.
Tomorrow, I will play the President's speech for this child and his classmates. The day after that, I will do something else.
"I slept with a gun in my room," another student says, quietly. "It was my uncle's. He slept in my room with me."
"Would you rather it not have been there?"
And the day after that, I will do something else.
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