I was working on a blog entry, a tortured affair that was probably too much of something or other for its own good, when the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School took place. After the killing of so many children and their teachers, I just don’t have it in me to comment on anything but our collective dis ease. The primal feelings evoked by such evil are beyond anything I can adequately do justice to in a blog. If you were like me, the sight of our president struggling to hold his emotions in check, speaking the unspeakable, was a mirror of the anger-grief churning inside as the enormity of the tragedy was further revealed. And once again, I felt the despair that our human journey is at a crossroads where our intentions – beautiful and transcendent, compassionate and caring, loving and forgiving, intelligent and thoughtful – continue to retreat in confusion and horror from the enormous evil we can and will inflict upon one another.

Who needs ALS to speak dis ease when horribly afflicted men-children perpetrate such heinous acts? For me Sandy Hook is personal.

I love a woman who teaches music to little children. I gaze at her as our understanding of the full horror continues to unfold, and I realize that it was teachers like my Ev, locking down classrooms, telling the children they were loved so that if the killer came to them, love would still be their final moment, holding the horrific sights at bay for as long as they could, asking the children to close their eyes, to perhaps keep one last vestige of any innocence their 5- and 6- and 7- and 8-year-old lives deserved. I cannot imagine the haunting, terrifying dreams these incredibly strong and caring and competent teachers, women, will know in the coming years. We now know that the six women killed did everything they could to stop the killer. They were brave, and they were professional, and they placed themselves between children and evil in an attempt to save them.

As a newly retired dean of a school of education, I cannot help but see the faces of the young pre-service teachers we prepared for teaching careers. For them, this is a life choice, not a steppingstone. It is a calling, a voice that says to them that a commitment to children is a far greater thing than the salary and esteem of another profession. Each of them will receive training, information, practice in how to mitigate horror if it should come knocking. And with that in mind, they will commit to creating a loving environment where all children learn. While not mutually exclusive, the skill and artistry required is enormous.

And let me share that there were a few times in my life as a principal where I felt my own safety threatened. Dawn Hochsprung was the principal of a K-4 school, and if you have seen her Twitter account, you see a principal who believed in projecting her entire being in support of her kids and teachers, underscoring their successes, bucking them up to the next challenge, urging them to see the joy in learning, defining her work with passion and love. I feel I know this remarkable woman for I have been privileged to work with so many like her, educators who skillfully bring teachers and kids and parents into a fold where school is opportunity after opportunity, an engaging world of wonder, a place where hard work is appreciated. She gave her life on a day when I am sure that the challenge of the upcoming holidays and keeping the kids somehow engaged was foremost on her mind. Not in her wildest dreams would she have predicted the terrible events to transpire and what would be required of her.

The faith required of parents to trust the safety of their schools cannot help but be tested. To send your 6 year old off to school on a Friday, to never see her alive again would crush your soul. Anyone who is a parent knows the normal safety fears that we carry for our children. The loss of so many children is so unfathomable, so overwhelming, so undefinable, so wrong, so wrong. My sons are grown, and I still fear for them and their lovely women. To lose your young child in such horrible circumstances would be harder than anything. I cannot help it. The grief swirls through my soul.

I cannot leave the above without considering some very preliminary thoughts about what we should do. I am sure others will have far better ideas than me, but here is a beginning.

Remember the saying, “Guns don’t kill people, people do?” Let’s agree with the point and start a discussion about responsibility. When do we begin to take responsibility for the fact that there is no meaningful way to intervene on behalf of an “adult” with serious mental health issues that could lead to violence? I recognize the possibility of abuse here, but common sense and logic would lead us to conclude that there must be better ways. An 18 to 20 year old, troubled to the point of homicide, is not going to seek out help on his own. We need better ways to provide meaningful interventions.

The temptation will be to forget, to find ease in the blessed amnesia of denial. We will find ourselves wanting to blame, to marginalize, to distance ourselves from the perpetrator and the illness he manifested. We will never find resolution this way. It is time we embrace the reality that the mix of guns and mental illness is too complex for a single, once and for all solution. It is immature to think otherwise. We need dialogue about mental illness that is decidedly different. The ease of collective amnesia will only allow more and more manifestation of such events as Sandy Hook. We need the adults to show up.

And in the name of responsibility, whether you like it or not, we need an educator’s sense of propriety. That means we don’t get to marginalize others due to their challenges. They are our children, and we need to take responsibility for them, not distance ourselves as if it couldn’t happen to us. This means that all our children need us to claim them, not just the easy ones. Educators do not get to be selective, and neither should our society at large.

Only when we have this dialogue on mental health, can we begin to have a meaningful discussion about guns.

It will be tempting to go after the gun laws. For whatever reason, Americans own so many guns that the effect can only be cosmetic. I am not saying that we should not talk about what we want gun laws to do, but as an old dyed in the wool liberal, I already know it will be a lot of energy expended for little return. Gun ownership is legitimated by our laws. The estimate is that there are over 300 million guns in the US. The horse is out of the barn. But, we can certainly have much more meaningful requirements for owning a gun.

A Honda Civic can also be a lethal weapon in the wrong hands. Why don’t we require licenses for everyone, much like we do for driving, with background checks, and periodic refresher courses and checkups on safe storage and whether one still meets the licensing requirements of gun ownership? I am an adult with disabilities that preclude my driving safely. Just as my eligibility for a driver’s license should be re-evaluated against my ability, so too should we ask the same of gun owners.

And everyone – buyers and sellers – needs to meet the standards over and over again.

Finally, we need to recognize that many of the best solutions to guns and mental illness will be local. What works in Wyoming might not work in Minneapolis, and vice versa. This also means we need ongoing dialogue, constantly holding ourselves responsible to work the tensions between safety and security, individual freedom and social responsibility.

My heart is broken by the events in Newtown. I take this so personally as a teacher, a principal, a preparer of new teachers and principals, a father, a citizen. Platitudes will not help, and the only inappropriate response is to not engage in the dialogue with respect and truthfulness.

I will return to my blog next week with a seasonal thought, but today, I hug my wife and sons and daughters-in-law a little more tightly and thank God they are here and safe.

Bruce Kramer recently retired as the Dean of the College of Education, Leadership and Counseling. You can read his weekly reflections on living life with ALS at Dis Ease blog.

Resources are available to students, faculty and staff who want or need to talk about the tragedy.

4 Responses

  1. Becca Swiler

    Thank you Bruce, for your thoughtful and thought-provoking words. I share your anger, your grief and your desire to see meaningful change. Most meaningful change will take years to accomplish, but we can all have an immediate impact by teaching the children in our lives that emotions are part of the human condition, and there are healthy, safe ways to express emotions (even unpleasant ones). We can teach them that no matter what the media tells us, interacting with someone face-to-face is always preferable to interacting with an electronic device. And most importantly, we can teach them that violence , even in cartoons or video games, is not funny or entertaining. It is always a problem and never a solution.

  2. Shelley Neilsen Gatti

    Bruce,
    Thank you for writing this piece and sharing it with UST and broader community. I so appreciate your leadership and eloquence in helping us to cope and heal with this. I too can relate to taking this personally as four of the six teachers were involved in special education in some way. The principal was a former special education teacher and two of the teachers were working on special education licensure.
    It’s comforting to hear your words during this time.
    Shelley