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Tomgram: Belle Chesler, Will an AR-15 Succeed Where the American Dream Failed?

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In the wake of the Parkland massacre, in a land whose citizens own an estimated 265 million guns, half of them in the hands of just 3% of the population, and with mass shootings (four or more people) taking place, on average, nine out of every 10 days, this country is unique among developed nations when it comes to guns and gun violence. There's no other place where civilians are quite so weaponized, nor any other country whose weaponized politicians (backed to the hilt by the NRA) are quite so sophisticated and sophistic when it comes to explaining why all this couldn't be more normal in a "free" land. (The satirical publication the Onion caught the spirit of the moment perfectly in 2014 with this headline: "'No Way to Prevent This,' Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens.")

Unfortunately, as is clear from the responses to the Parkland, Florida, slaughter, our children don't feel quite so "free" as they perform grim lockdown drills at their schools. My 5 -year-old grandson came home recently after just such a drill and asked his mother, "Why would angry dogs try to break into my school?" Okay, he doesn't quite have the details straight yet, but he will all too soon while huddled in the corner of some darkened classroom. It's a hell of a way to go to school.

There was, of course, an equivalent in my own 1950s childhood: the "duck and cover" drills we schoolchildren took part in regularly in our classrooms, while outside sirens wailed their test warnings for a nuclear apocalypse. As you might imagine, that, too, was frightening at the time, even if not in quite the same way. To the extent that we kids could take in the idea of a nuclear attack, we knew, at least, that those Soviet missiles weren't aimed specifically at our school or meant specifically to slaughter us; they were aimed, after a fashion, at everything, at slaughtering everybody. They were horrifying, but also strangely impersonal.

In the intervening years, in the school context, death has become so much more personal. No wonder that, led by inspired and inspiring high school students who have been in the line of fire or fear that they will be, something is actually happening in this country when it comes to guns -- a transformation of public opinion, a growing business boycott of the NRA, a chain of sporting goods stores that will no longer sell military-style semi-automatic rifles like the one Nikolas Cruz carried into Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, and even a few politicians who are beginning to rethink their positions on parts of American gun culture. In that context, let a high school teacher, Belle Chesler, take you inside an all-American school-cum-shooting-gallery of our era and clue you in as to what a grown-up thinks about the nature of American life while locked down in the dark with her students. Tom

High School Students
The Canaries in the Coal Mine of American Disaster
By Belle Chesler

"It was no surprise to anyone who knew him to hear that he was the shooter."
-- Emma Gonzalez, Senior, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School

Over the past three weeks, the impassioned voices and steadfast demands of the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School have resounded across social media and through the halls of the large suburban high school where I teach visual arts. A group of senior girls, spurred to action by the horrors of the Parkland massacre and emboldened by watching videos of its protesting students, organized a walkout of their own. Though it was an uncharacteristically cold, snowy day in our part of Oregon, hundreds of students marched out of school, engaging in what was certainly, for many of them, their first act of civil disobedience. I positioned myself near the back of the crowd, listening as they shouted their demands for safer schools and an end to fear in the classroom. Standing on that icy sidewalk, I was overcome by waves of conflicting emotions. Though deeply proud of them for raising their voices and insisting on being heard, I was also forced to confront a stark and brutal reality: neither my students nor I feel safe in our school.

I still remember the cold December morning in 2012 when I first heard about the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. A colleague walked up to my desk, tears streaming down her face. She then recounted the grisly details of those shootings: a classroom of first graders and their teachers murdered on what should have been just another routine school day.

At the time, my daughter was a preschooler. In those school pictures that began appearing in the media of gap-toothed Sandy Hook first graders I saw her face. I began to think about her future in such a world and it looked bleak. From that moment on, I couldn't bear reading the stories of what had transpired within those school walls and so found myself avoiding the impassioned, anguished speeches of the brave parents and teachers of those senselessly slaughtered children. It hit too close to home. It was horror on a level I had previously thought unimaginable and in a school not that different from mine. Naively, I assumed things would have to change, that nobody could look at those tiny little people and callously advocate for the status quo. How wrong I was. And as we all know, the shootings just kept happening.

So what was it about the Parkland killings that tipped the scale? Why hadn't this happened after Columbine or Newtown? These are among the questions we teachers have been asking one another at my school recently. Perhaps what's driving this moment is fear of the seeming inevitability, the not-if-but-when of it all. As teachers, we are forced to wonder: When will it be our turn? When will we bar the doors, fight, run, or hide? When will despair be given a physical form in the shape of a teenager with a gun and our school turned into a shooting gallery for the deranged?

At this point, we've been practicing lockdown drills for years. We lock and block the doors, then huddle on the floor in the darkest corners of our classroom, 36 teenagers and one adult trying to be as quiet as possible. No phones, no talking, no movement. We wait for the rattle of the door handle, at least one of us cries, and then it's over. The all-clear.

We turn on the lights, stretch our cramped limbs, and return to our seats. I tell a joke, try to lighten the mood a bit, and resume class. One grim effect of these drills and procedures, though, is to normalize the threat of an act so heinous, so abnormal it's hard to take in. We've essentially desensitized our entire school community to the true horror of what we're playing out -- a fight for our lives. We expect the routines of the classroom to resume once the lights come back on, hoping that the students will have grasped the seriousness of the drill but won't have internalized the fear. That none of us will. When my students voice the fear that sits inside them in that darkened room, when they give the despair space to breathe in the light, we're all forced to confront the twisted reality of what we're doing.

At the beginning of the semester, I gave my new students a questionnaire about their lives. One of them answered the question "What is one thing that really stresses you out?" by writing: "What really stresses me out is the fact that I might die in this building."

I had no idea how to respond because, honestly, I feel the same way. How do I convey what it feels like to walk into your workplace every morning wondering if today is the day you'll die there? How do I explain the trepidation I feel when I have to confront that student -- the one who's been making the disturbing art, doesn't smile or interact with his peers, and whose parents won't return my emails or calls -- to tell him that he needs to tone down the violence in his work? How do I share my deepest fear that this is the kid who will come back for me later, armed and ready to exact his revenge?

How do I express the complexity of the emotions I feel when I'm huddling in the dark with my students, thinking about what it would take for all of us to make it out of the building alive in a real version of the same situation? And how do I begin to think about the worst possible scenario, that the sixteen-year-old kid crouched next to me in the dark is the next school shooter? In the heightened paranoia of my classroom, my students are now suspects.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)

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