The Heart of the Matter

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My entire life has been devoted to parenting, grandmothering and teaching. My greatest joy each day is hearing the children in my neighborhood talking and laughing as they await the school buses that will take them to elementary, middle, and high school classrooms. I still teach ten students even in my retirement and they have gifted me with purpose and feelings of great happiness. I keep in touch with my former students just to know that they are doing okay. I never forget them or how important they are to me. I think of the teachers who were my peers and those whom I mentored or directed in my final years as a Dean of Faculty. I suspect that none of the individuals that I encountered in the different schools where I worked have any idea of the extent to which I carry them in my heart each and every day. They are as much a part of my story and my concern as my children and grandchildren. They are more important to me than all of the luxuries, possessions, titles, awards, or bank accounts that we humans so often seek. Their value is immeasurable and when anything happens to them I grieve the way a mother would do. 

I know that I am not alone in feeling this way. Being a teacher is a vocation in the deepest sense of that word. Those who cannot deal with the never ending work, the privations, the frustrations of doing one of the most important jobs in the world usually leave the profession rather quickly. Those who stay are devoted to their work and most especially to their students. They would literally take a bullet to save a child and sadly all too often they do. When I speak for them I do so from decades of experience, being one of them and sharing both the trials and tribulations that are part of the work that they do. They are my people and the students are my children. I am the old woman who still sees thousands of faces that once looked to me to guide them and care for them. They come to me in my waking thoughts and in my dreams. 

I have worked with babies and toddlers, pre-schoolers, elementary aged kids, middle schoolers trying to find themselves, and high school students on the cusp of becoming adults. My students have been residents of River Oaks, the home of millionaires, and others who lived in mobile homes without working plumbing or electricity. I have known their dreams and their fears. I have loved every moment of being with them. 

I remember my student teaching experience at Pearl Hall Elementary. A quiet little girl who had special needs took a liking to me as I did to her. At Christmas time she crocheted a little pink bell and gave it to me as a gift. I still hang it on my tree every year and wonder how she is doing and hope that she is well. I wish I had a way of letting her know that I have never forgotten her and that she is family to me. 

I say these things because my heart is broken over the most recent school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, a nice little town that I have visited and enjoyed. I see photos of the children killed in that monstrous attack and they remind me of my own students. I see the personalities in their faces, the innocence. I imagine the two murdered teachers giving their lives to save their students. I viscerally feel the pain of the parents who have lost a beloved child. I personally know the fears and concerns that they all must be feeling and I do pray that they will somehow find comfort and understand how much we all deeply care about what has happened to them. Then I think of how many times this scenario has played out in schools, churches, supermarkets, concerts, movie theaters, synagogues, offices and I wonder why we keep looking away from what needs to be done to address the carnage that has become so uniquely American. I wonder why we keep electing lawmakers whose only response to the violence in our country is to pray and think comforting thoughts all while planning to speak at NRA conferences or create laws that make it incredibly easy to own and use guns. 

I believe in God with all of my heart and I do not think that he expects us to just lie down and accept violence when he has given us brains to solve problems. Of all the creatures he has created we have the best abilities to bring about change and to create a better world. Somehow when it comes to mass shootings and even crime in our streets we fear trying the kind of solutions that may lead to more safety in our lives. While we put things off the problems only grow more and more complex and seemingly unsolvable, but much like needed repairs on a house, if we neglect them eventually the structure will collapse in a heap. We are well past time to be honest about the kind of things that must be done and they will indeed require a willingness to sacrifice from each and every one of us, but in the end nothing is more important than the life of a single individual.

The issue of gun violence is complex and will not go away with only a few cosmetic changes. We have to get really serious about mental health, something that only President Obama and then Vice President Biden have attempted to tackle in recent times. Even their efforts were not enough, but they at least tried. I have traveled down the bumpy road of seeking help for my mother and I know that it is often almost impossible to get the needed therapies for those suffering from mental illnesses. The Texas legislature has slashed funding for state programs that once were a lifesaver for seniors and indigents. There are long waiting periods for even getting an appointment with a counselor or psychiatrist. There is often no room in hospitals for psychiatric patients. Insurance pays so little for such services that many cannot afford to even consider attempting to get help. We must make mental health a top priority with funding that makes it available to anyone who needs it. We must begin to have open conversations that help people to understand that mental illness is as real as diabetes or heart disease. We need athletes and celebrities to wear ribbons to remember those who suffer from mental illnesses. We must have huge fundraisers that make therapies and research affordable.

Our schools need to be equipped to keep out intruders. That may mean installing man traps on every campus where the only way in is through a bullet proof glass hallway that is locked from both sides upon entry and does not open until the person has been deemed to be safe. We need steel doors on classrooms with heavy duty locks. What we do not need are teachers toting guns and being trained to use them when needed. 

Most of all we have to look at our present day gun laws. Nobody under the age of twenty one should ever be able to purchase them. Background checks must be more thorough and take longer than they presently do. Open carry should be limited to those who have undergone strict training and permitting. In fact we need to consider whether or not we even need open carry at all. Assault weapons that fire multiple rounds of bullets need to be banned. Even some shooting ranges do not allow such weapons on their premises, so why do ordinary citizens need them? The government should consider a generous buy back system by which private citizens can surrender their AR-15s to the police. Bump stocks should be illegal. It should be illegal to have more than five rounds in rifles and detachable mechanisms for increasing rounds should be against the law. We have to crack down on purchases of guns in parking lots at gun shows without any form of background check. We must be on the lookout for ghost guns and confiscate them when we find them. We must ask our city governments not to sign contracts for NRA conventions in the future. Mostly we must act with our votes, denying our voices to those who refuse to address these issues.

People can keep their pistols and their hunting rifles if they wish, but there is seriously no need for the proliferation of guns that has led us to have the equivalent of one gun for every man, woman and child in the country. We literally lead the world in gun ownership and gun deaths and that is not something to crow about. 

The young man who carried out this most recent attack had been struggling for years according to some of his friends. He had a mom with a drug problem which is yet another difficulty that we seem unable to control. Other students bullied him for a speech impediment that somehow seemed to be ignored by the adults in his life. He was very poor. While none of these are excuses for his vile behavior, I can’t help but wonder how differently things might have turned out if his mother had been able to get rehabilitation for her addiction, his family had been provided with enough income to live decently, the young man had received early intervention for his speech problems, the schools had been staffed with enough counselors to spend time addressing bullying, the elementary school had been built with a man catcher at the entrance, the shooter had been under the care of mental health professionals, the eighteen year old had not been able to purchase two assault weapons or guns of any kind. The “might have beens” all at the heart of the matter. They all point to the places where the solutions might begin if we use our God given brains.

There are no doubt many other ancillary issues that we must address if we are to stop this heinous trend that is sending our country into spasms of grief more and more often. We have to take a hard look at ourselves and ask what has gone so very wrong and then honestly devote our time, our talent, and our funding to actually making our country a place where we no longer fear carrying out our normal daily routines. Right now the nation’s rules or lack of them are dangerous to our health. 

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