Were Presidential Tears Over Sandy Hook in Vain


“Tears shed for self are tears of weakness, but tears shed for others are a sign of  strength.” - Billy Graham

On January 5, 2016 at the White House, President Obama shed tears over the mass shooting in Newtown, and admitted: "Every Time I Think About Those Kids It Gets Me Mad." He further added as tears rolled down his face: “And by the way, it happens on the streets of Chicago every day.” It was clear that he is still shaken by the tragic events of December 14, 2012 at Sandy Hook Elementary School where 20 students ages 5-10 and six female educators were brutally murdered. Some of the media started to analyze if the tears were real or fake, some critics focused on the trivial gun-control actions he announced in that speech, and some were wondering if the president of a superpower should cry in public at all. Of note, public tears have been shed by Vladimir Putin, George W. Bush, Aung San Suu Kyi, and even Justin Trudeau to name a few.

Whenever I am reminded about those 20 children and six female pedagogues from Sandy Hook, I, too, lose composure and choke back tears. News about violence saturates our lives in contemporary society. Every morning news sections start the day with negative or violent reports. As a result, I fear we are numbed to violence and robbed of the much-needed period for reflective mourning as one tragedy supersedes another. Having visited Auschwitz, where life was terminated with industrial efficiency, one would think nothing could be more disturbing to the human consciousness, but I am equally traumatized by the Newtown shooting. Tears are not the best solution, but they perfectly illustrate the state of emotion and temporary feelings of helplessness that follow such events.

In my professional teaching career I have been privileged to teach in the elementary and high school levels and now at the college and university settings. Although I never taught at the primary level, I was able to observe and visit the classrooms of colleagues who taught first graders, and I even had the opportunity to observe preschool and kindergarten classes. From a time perspective, these moments were very crucial in my professional maturing as an educator, parent, and human being.

A classroom full of first graders is a sacred place due to the unconditional trust required of both teacher and student. The atmosphere has no corollary; it is impossible to find a student-teacher bond like this in middle or high school, let alone college. For many primary students the teacher replaces the parent, mostly the mother. These beautiful and curious tiny people are engaged by teachers (the vast majority of whom are females) who in many cases care as much or more about their little students than they do their own kids. It takes complete devotion to be a primary school teacher, and most have huge hearts. They simply love their students and dedicate themselves to their care and nurture although they are not the parents. It requires a great amount of time and energy to be a primary teacher before, during, and after class.

As a preschool or kindergarten classroom is a place full of innocent little angels - they are funny, a bit lost, but very trusting. When you look at their faces you can understand Aristotle’s fascination with tabula rasa. The most enjoyable moment is to watch these students during recess where they learn social life skills and have a moment for their favorite snack. Nelson Mandela once said: "We have the obligation to put sunshine into the hearts of our little ones. They are our precious possessions. They deserve what happiness life can offer" few words ring truer.

Is this perhaps, why I sympathize with Obama’s emotional reactions to the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School, having still in my mind the images and experiences of sheer innocence, to which I was exposed to as an elementary school teacher? The gunman in the Connecticut shooting blasted his way into the school and then sprayed the children with bullets, first from a distance and then at close range. He shot some of them as many as 11 times, as he fired a semiautomatic rifle loaded with ammunition designed for maximum damage. What an inhumane act, yet perpetrated by a human!

Nowadays, soft targets are frequently objects of heinous crimes all over the world. We are not safe in houses of worship, theaters, rock concerts, sport venues, airports, metro stations, fairgrounds or even shopping centers. After the shootings at Virginia Tech, Columbine, and now Sandy Hook, schools are no longer sanctuaries of peace. Our global society now has to deal with the evils of terrorism and waves of domestic violence on a daily bases in developing and developed nations - nobody is immune. It is a phenomenon that is taking place on every inhabited continent. Undeniably, security within all the educational systems at all levels is part of the ongoing development debate - this is a reality.

This brief deliberation is not intended to argue for gun control or proliferation of any kind – it is simply to raise awareness for the safety of our most vulnerable citizens and their dedicated heroes in educational process. According to Samarth Gupta’s article School Shootings: An American Problem? at Harvard Political Review: “Between November 1, 1991 and July 16, 2013, there were 55 school shootings in America with at least one fatality and more than one intended victim. During the same time period, no other country had more than three such shootings. Why are school shootings so much more common in America? More puzzlingly, why are they happening so frequently even when overall gun violence in the United States has plummeted by nearly 50 percent from 1993 to 2011? Common arguments point to a lack of gun control, mental health issues, and the media’s glorification of shooters. But none of these explanations tell the full story. The underlying reason appears to be a combination of these factors and others that form a unique American culture and one that perpetuates mass school violence.”

I was extremely pleased to learn that President Obama awarded the 2012 Presidential Citizens Medal (the second-highest honor the President can bestow upon a U.S. citizen) to the six female educators who tragically lost their lives on December 14, 2012. In the citation remarks President Obama stated: “The Presidential Citizens Medal is awarded to Rachel D’Avino, Dawn Hochsprung, Anne Marie Murphy, Lauren Rousseau, Mary Sherlach, and Victoria Soto for dedicating themselves to their students and to the community of Newtown, Connecticut.  Some had been at Sandy Hook Elementary School for only weeks; others were preparing to retire after decades of service.  All worked long past the school bell to give the children in their care a future worth their talents.  On December 14, 2012, unthinkable tragedy swept through Newtown, etching the names of these six courageous women into the heart of our nation forever.  The United States honors Rachel D’Avino, Dawn Hochsprung, Anne Marie Murphy, Lauren Rousseau, Mary Sherlach, and Victoria Soto for their extraordinary commitment to the students of Sandy Hook Elementary School.”

A few years ago, I taught a college course at a high school in the Washington, DC metropolitan area. I observed that there were a higher number of security and police personnel in halls than traditional school personnel. Is this a sign of a new era in education? Just recently, Fairfax County High School proposed body-cameras for principles. Schools are becoming internal and external fortresses, instead of sanctuaries for curiosity, knowledge, and free speech for young and inquisitive minds. To our fear and heartbreaking challenge we are adding more security personnel and building higher walls topped with barbed wire around the schools of the twenty first century. Sadly, this effort is not unique to America.

The most intriguing development in campus security comes from the University of Texas at Austin , where students and faculty members will soon be allowed to carry handguns on campus including classrooms. The University of Texas at Austin President Gregory L. Fenves already approved the new campus policy. “I do not believe handguns belong on a university campus, so this decision has been the greatest challenge of my presidency to date,” Fenves wrote to the campus community. “I empathize with the many faculty, staff, students and parents of students who signed petitions, sent emails and letters, and organized to ban guns from campus and especially classrooms. As a professor, I understand the deep concerns raised by so many. However, as president, I have an obligation to uphold the law.” In 2015, the Republican-led Texas Legislature voted to allow guns within buildings on public college campuses throughout the state, but most campuses have decided they would not allow guns to be carried. According to the University of Texas at Austin, the law says you have to be 21 before applying for a concealed carry license. Fewer than 1% of their students will be eligible.

It’s time to approach global education in a holistic and collective manner where institutions of education are not the only entities responsible for teaching future generations. Love, acceptance, and caring for our neighbors whoever they may be needs to be taught as well. What happened to the institution known as family? What is available in the faith-based community that can help to heal brokenness? Are librarians and publishers being excluded from this conversation? Physicians and the health care community need to join in this conversation as well and realize that simply prescribing pills for complex human problems is not the whole answer. Traditional and social media can share in the burden of education, but most importantly, Main Street, and strengthened neighborhoods where good behavior is recognized, and bad behavior is no longer ignored. I am not too old to have forgotten the times when a pregnant women or elderly citizen would get a seat on public transportation due to the kindness of a young passenger. I hope that the increased and recognized role of women in our global society might also work to bring peace and common sense solutions to rebuild a secure educational environment all over the world.

After finishing this blog, I was so emotionally drained that I had no energy to adequately promote it within the blogging community. However, that changed at 12 o’clock noon on Friday, May 6. On this date, which was ironically the last day of Teacher Appreciation Week in the United States, I received a call from my wife, who informed me that her school was on lockdown because of an active shooter in the area. She was in fact sheltering with her fourth grade math students in her classroom. Undoubtedly, this incident shifted my determination to share my thoughts with a broader audience.

If the Nobel Prize Laureate in Literature Henryk Sienkiewicz were still around, he would most likely ask: “Quo vadis Americae?” … but again, is school violence only an American headache and reason for tears?