Teaching Children(,) Grazed by Bullets

Sarah DeBacher | May 13, 2013

This weekend was intense in ways expected and not. The expected territory came on Saturday, when GNOWP welcomed ten of the twelve teachers who will be joining us during this year’s Summer Institute. We gathered in the Liberal Arts building on the campus of the University of New Orleans to write together, to build some community.

Early on, two of our teachers—Jeanne Patrick and Allison Lowe—shared a standout moment from the written conversation they’d just had. Jeanne had written about the importance of finding ways to make her students feel safe so they could then take brave risks in their writing. We all nodded in agreement. For risky writing to take place, there must be safety.

Risky writing is the brave, truth-telling stuff through which we do more than poke dead things with sticks—we wrestle with why they died; we take a good, close look at the effed-up fact that we will all, someday, (today, maybe,) die too; we lay them to rest, eulogizing worms and birds, and the dark stuff bubbling up in the children who abuse them, with an empathy achievable only through deep consideration and an acknowledgement that the First Thought might not be the right one. Risky writing does not pose easy questions or provide simple answers. It plows past platitudes and kisses complexity. It dives right into the depths of “I don’t know,” the only sure thing being that some discovery will be made, that the heart of the writer will be changed.

In New Orleans classrooms, we regularly encounter students whose lives are not safe in very real and immediate ways. Yesterday’s shooting at a second line was a reminder of that. Today there’s an image being circulated on the Internet of the shooter, and within it is a child of maybe four running for his life. He will be in someone’s class this fall, as will the two ten-year-old children who were grazed by bullets—“grazed” being far too impotent a word for it, as the writer of this piece on the shooting points out. (Note the question the writer poses—one with no easy answer: What kind of animal shoots up a Mother’s Day parade? It’s one we have to take seriously if we are to have any hope of building safety for our children. It may require a second thought, too—that ‘though he may be an animal, he is also a son.)

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I’ve gotten many dear messages in the past twenty-four hours—inquiries from friends who know that I love me a second line, that I could have been there. I wasn’t. I was at Tickfaw State Park with my son and his maternal grandparents. I was encouraging him to climb on the back of a giant plastic frog, to play with the girl who’d invited him to join her in the fountain, in spite of the fact that his first thought was “I don’t like her.” I was walking along a boardwalk through a cypress swamp, bristling after a nod from a man in a fluorescent yellow T-shirt that read “My Guns, My Country.” His kids pounded the planks with their feet. His youngest son told me he wanted to find some animals. I said he’d need to be quiet for that to happen. Animals get scared when we’re loud. I didn’t yet know about the shooting.

Today I’ve been reading other voices and looking at that picture again and again. The first thing I notice is the shooter—the first thing I feel is a version of WTF. The second is that boy, and then WTF becomes a kind of despair. I want to wail. My third thought and feeling is more complex—tangled, really. It wonders what kind of animal shoots up a Mother’s Day parade. It wonders whose were the loud voices in that son’s ear as he grew up, and on this Mother’s Day morning, and just before he made this choice on this day. It worries that we teachers can’t simply write it on the boards, whisper it in the ears of our beloved students, you are safe here, you are safe, if the whole world isn’t outside screaming the same at the top of its lungs, and meaning it, and making it true: YOU ARE SAFE HERE! YOU ARE SAFE! YOU ARE SAFE!