When I walk into work every day now, I look out at a classroom of students in their khaki pants and crew-neck sweaters, and all I can do is think about Newtown. I am staring that town and its tragedy in the face. I am looking it in the eyes as I watch my students’ pencils drag resiliently across paper and their fingers punch across keyboards.
Some of them are sad, and some of them are worried, and many of them are scared. Because there are a lot of scary things in life, and now our kids have one more to add to the list. I am a thousand miles away from Connecticut, and yet my mind is there. And I sit at my desk, looking out at their bright-eyed faces, and I think what a lot of us have probably thought: That will never happen to me. But what if it does? And how do we cope with that fear of it happening again?
As a teacher, I cannot ignore this thought. I cannot push this question into the abyss of the hypothetical, because my career requires me to consider it. I have to wonder: What would we do? What would I do? Would I kneel beneath my desk and gather my 23 13-year-olds around me and pray? Would that be illegal? Would I whisper the words of God and Scripture and comfort and huddle them together?
If someone came into my class with a gun, would I run? Would I throw myself in front of a student? Would I cry along with them? Would I be the first to call for help or fight and stand stronger than I’ve ever stood before? Would I cower in the corner—completely losing my terrified mind to the fear I feel now as a young adult who hopes it will never happen to her?
I don’t know the answer only because I haven’t had to answer it yet, and I hope that I never have to. But it’s still a question we should all be asking ourselves—even if we aren’t teachers. And perhaps we’re all teachers in a way, but those of us within the walls of schools find ourselves often solely responsible for these students during their strongest times and their most vulnerable moments. We are the ones who must guide them through fire drills or teach them to duck in hallways from tornadoes. We must tell them to “stop running,” or to “put your chair down.” We must be there to handle seizures and breakdowns and shouting matches and all of the things we think we’ll never be able to handle as a 25-year-old with three years of real life experience and no children of our own.
Except these are our kids—because in a beautiful way, they become our own. They become the people we cry, laugh, cheer and fight for. We may not be their parents, but perhaps we are meant to love them like they are our own. And it seems that maybe, as teachers, we’re called even more concretely to the task of caring for the world’s children. Our jobs present a crisp and clear picture of something God has asked his people to do again and again. It’s a tall order—and something I feel so unqualified to do without shouting to God on a daily basis, “How?”
And then we hear news of another school shooting. And our question of “how” becomes “why?”
We walk through the doors and are equipped only with our human hearts and trust in God, and we are there to inspire children, to help them live out their passions, dreams and hopes. We are there to direct them, to discipline them and to show them a sort of unconditional love—even in the midst of frustration, impatience, exhaustion and, yes, even tragedy. We get to see the joy of academic success and personal triumph; we witness the exuberance of student athletes and college acceptances, the momentary thrill of conquering a concept or a problem, of finally achieving that “click” that happens only in the eyes and smile of a student who has finally “gotten it.”
Teaching is exhilarating and frustrating and tiring and fulfilling; it is a job unlike any other, and now … well, now it is scary.
It has always been scary for other reasons, but now it is really scary. It is scary because of the possibility in light of the call to protect and serve. And the events of last Friday have reminded us, once again, that we live in a world that can be terrifying—and that we live in a world where the bad guys sometimes win. It reminds me of a scene in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, where father and son travel along a post-apocalyptic road together, questioning the evil in the world. The boy’s father tells him, “You wanted to know what the bad guys looked like. Now you know. It may happen again. My job is to take care of you. I was appointed to do that by God.”
As teachers, as parents, as friends, as people, we have to take care of each other, and we have to take care of our children. And to do this well, we cannot be afraid.
So, what do we do? Do we continue living in fear? Do we love our nation’s children and trust that the love God has given us for them drives out fear? He says that, doesn’t He—that there is no fear in love? But I’m still scared. I don’t think it will happen to me, but it might. It could.
I only know one answer to fearing not—and that is to ask God to help me not live in that fear, to help me trust in His perfect love, in his unconditional goodness and love that drives fear out of our tired minds and broken hearts. Help our nation not to live in fear. Help our principals and our administrators not to live in fear. Help our teachers not to live in fear. And please, God, please help our children to not live in fear.
Liz Riggs is a freelance writer and English teacher in Nashville, Tenn. She eats stories like grapes and has a very serious appreciation for macaroni and cheese. Follow her on Twitter at your own risk @riggser.