When I started my career in education as a Teach For America corps member in East Oakland, California, I led community circles every day for my second graders to talk about their feelings and resolve any playground conflicts. One little seven-year-old raised his hand and said that he heard gunshots the night before. He felt scared and worried that the bad guys were going to come to school. I paused and asked who else had heard the gunshots. Every one of my 30 second-graders raised their tiny hands. That was what they heard at night -- gunshots. And, I couldn't honestly calm their fears. We had lockdowns almost every month -- due to drive-by shootings or gang activity on the corner. The security guard chained the downstairs doors from the inside. We were prisoners in our own public school.
My first personal experience with gun violence came a few years later when I was in Houston, Texas, interviewing for a KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) urban principal fellowship. While there, I got mugged in broad daylight, at gunpoint, by two young men. One pointed a sawed-off shotgun at me. It looked like a rifle as I stared down the barrel. The other, apparently tweaking from drug withdrawal, held a pistol pointed at my face. So imminent was death, I saw my life flash before my eyes. It looked like a filmstrip rushing by. I felt surrounded by people whom I'd loved. I thought about my parents and brother finding out I'd been shot in the street. It was the most terrified I have ever been, and continues to cause a strong "flight or fight" response in me to this day.
My twentieth, and last, year as an elementary school educator, two gunmen came on my school campus in Berkeley, California. They robbed a home across from the school then ran onto the schoolyard to mix into the crowds of students. The police notified us to go on lockdown. I was the teacher designated to go classroom to classroom, telling other teachers to shelter in place until further notice. Students spent all day locked inside as police searched the school thoroughly. The secretary and I could only shout to panicked parents through the mail slot, "No one is allowed on campus or off campus until further notice." I wrote notes in Spanish and English and posted them at every entrance. Police moved worried parents onto the other side of the street, to safety, which (ironically) meant keeping a distance from their child's public school.
After several hours, when we'd been given the all clear, I read each child's name aloud and released five and six-year-olds to their sobbing parents. News crews surrounded, helicopters hovered and I fought back tears while children embraced their mothers and fathers, finally safe.
That incident prompted me to leave teaching. I loved the kids, and the parents, but risking my life to go to work just didn't seem worth it. I can't imagine how the teachers at Sandy Hook or Columbine managed to return to work after those horrific massacres.
A professor I had at The University of Michigan taught us the concept of NIMBY -- or Not in My Backyard. As in -- we feel empathy and outrage when the San Bernardino or Oregon shooting rampages happen but won't actually take action until it is in our neighborhood, at our local school.
Nowadays, the proliferation of gun violence has, unfortunately, made it more like six degrees of separation. I grew up in the safe suburbs of Detroit and never saw a gun out of a police holster until Houston. And, yet, one of my best friend's parents were brutally murdered during an armed robbery at their store in Detroit when we were 14. Another friend accidentally shot his brother in his own backyard with his father's gun. Just last week, I heard on the news that a former teacher colleague got shot by a stray bullet while driving her car through what is known as Richmond, California's Iron Triangle. She is still in critical condition. Can we not run errands anymore without risking driving through a war zone?
Students everywhere across this country -- even in the wealthiest of communities -- have regular shelter in place drills to prepare for a potential gunman on campus or as a result of bomb threats. What is our country coming to? Children and teachers in classrooms across the country huddling together, shaking in fear, sheltering in place, locked down on a regular basis? How are our children's right to safety of less value than the right to own a gun? Just within the last ten years, a staggering 280,024 Americans were killed by guns. Not overseas, fighting a war, but struggling to survive on the streets of U.S. cities and while studying or teaching in our schools.
I am in no way relieved by the many mass shootings currently on the rise, with the painful exception that gun control is now making headlines. Face it: the daily prevalence of gun violence on the streets of Oakland, LA, Chicago, NYC, Detroit or Houston, will not get everyone standing up and stopping this madness. That's NIMBY -- it's poor kids of color who are in gangs -- but the fact that any suburban school, movie theater, church, mosque, synagogue or mall is a potential soft target for an angry assailant with easy access to weapons, well... that is getting people talking. Let's take back our schools, our streets and our sense of safety with stricter gun laws, background checks and more modern technology like the fingerprint unlocking device that is standard on cell phones now. Enough is enough. Isn't this supposed to be the home of the brave and the land of the free? Don't we get to pursue life, liberty, and happiness without fearing being shot on our way to work or while teaching a class of second graders? Let's not shelter in place anymore.