Sunday, December 23, 2012

Undone by the Faces of Newtown

Like the rest of the nation, I've found the tragedy at Newtown to be numbing, overwhelming, beyond imagination.

It has also left me speechless.  And, until Friday, uncomprehending.

Though I could point to about sixteen policy mis-steps that have combined to make a Newtown possible, to harp on these at this juncture seems cheap.

As the week unfolded, I found myself in active avoidance of news about the victims: children the age of my grandchildren.  I could not bring myself to see their images.

Monday morning I listened to reports of the first of the funerals.

The town is the same size as mine.  It is easy to understand how the adults keep reaching for each other in a hug, a collective gut-wrenching sob, a tight circle of disbelief, grief, disorientation.

It would be that way here, a place where we all raised our children together and are linked to each other through through the years we sat side-by-side at concerts, parent conferences, PTO meetings, and stood together at bus stops, on field trips, in doctor's offices.  A community is built around the care of its children.  In my town, the school system is the beating heart of our purpose.

On Wednesday night I was ambushed.  A commentator put up the photos of three of the victims, the first I've seen.

It stopped my breathing.  I could not bear it.  I have not looked for others. It is too much.

I teach in a high school.  My peers often wonder: "How do you do it?"  They are referring to the fact that teens, by their very nature, are often cutting, insensitive, hurtful to the adults who reared them.  They sulk and sometimes go out of their way to reject what we hope to accomplish.  Of course, not all of them do this but enough to make other adults wonder how one could willingly subject oneself to a daily torture.

Rejecting adult demands is a part of the developmental process, and to succeed in a high school one must be prepared to confront the very large two-year-olds--as teens are sometimes described--and to avoid, as often is humanly possible, to take it personally.

For the toughest of my customers I've cultivated a deliberate tactic for getting around the worst behaviors.  I go to guidance and look up their file.   School pictures are attached on the front of every file.  Inevitably there is one from kindergarten.  These pictures are similar.  There is a bright-eyed, happy, completely unselfconscious five-year-old smiling into the future. Who couldn't love that kid?  This is the image I take back to the classroom with me.

That child is in there somewhere.  It helps me see how they started the journey.  (It also makes me wonder what happened in between.)  That is the image I attempt to teach for: the smiling, laughing, "isn't life wonderful?" kid that lurks beneath the black t-shirt, the scowl, the apathy.  It is the child that a parent still sees, loves, and remembers.  When the teen won't let us in any other way, I connect with that.

And so I cannot look at those faces now, because they are my kids.

On Friday, the dam broke.

A teacher friend put up one of her relentlessly positive posts about her students.  It is her effort to counteract all the negative press about schools and schooling.  Her Christmas present to each was a magazine cover based on her prompt to write about their plans for the future.  The magazine features an open, engaged eight-year-old face and the lifetime ambition already accomplished.

Here is what these third-graders hope to achieve:

I will be a marine dolphin trainer and I will also be famous for stopping bullying.
I will be a world famous comic book artist and stop all the ugly wars.
I will be a teacher and write songs...maybe about love. 
Oh, Lord help us.

What have we done?