Thomas Ledesma cries during a Mass honoring the victims of the El Paso mass shooting, at El Buen Pastor Mission on the outskirts of El Paso, Texas, on Sunday, Aug. 11, 2019. 
Photo: CALLA KESSLER/NYT
Photo: CALLA KESSLER/NYT

On first day of school, teacher wonders how he will keep students safe

In a country awash in guns and gun violence, are there any safe spaces any more? 

Novelist and local high school teacher Christopher Swann  of Sandy Springs has written a remarkable piece that grew out of his thoughts after school resumed last week in the shadow of back-to-back deadly mass shootings.

When Swann walked into the school where he’s taught for almost 25 years for the first day, he saw the place he loved in a much different light -- as a target-rich environment for an angry man with a gun. 

Swann is the author of the novel “Shadow of the Lions.

By Christopher Swann

This morning, at 7:15, summer officially ended.

I walked up the stairs from the parking lot underneath my classroom building where I work. This will be my 24th year of teaching at this school, my 24th year of walking into an empty classroom, excited and nervous in anticipation of the students who will soon crowd the halls.

It was a beautiful morning in Atlanta, 72 degrees, slightly overcast, the humidity holding off for the moment. The sun was coming up, a rosy glow lighting the sky behind the Baptist church across the street. It’s a sight I have seen hundreds of times, and it usually steadies me, puts me in a good mood as I contemplate the lesson I’m going to teach or the colleagues and students I’m going to meet.

This morning was different. This morning, I didn’t see possibility, or potential, or promise.

This morning, I saw lines of fire.

I saw escape routes.

I saw targets.

Two mass shootings occurred within 13 hours of each other, one in El Paso, Texas, and one in Dayton, Ohio. This morning on NPR, David Greene was speaking with the mayor of El Paso, Dee Margo. Mayor Margo was plain-spoken with a Texas drawl, exactly like you’d expect a movie cowboy to sound. He spoke of resolve, but he also sounded at a bit of a loss. He didn’t know how he was going to prepare for the 22 funerals of shooting victims that would take place in the coming weeks.

When he spoke of meeting the 2-month-old child whose mother had died while reportedly shielding him from gunfire, and then added that this boy had also lost his father in the attack, I had to turn my radio off.

I walked up the stairs from the parking lot with tears in my eyes. And I looked at the space between two classroom buildings and saw it not as a place where students often congregate between classes, or a place I cross at least once a day to go get a cup of coffee or to check my faculty mailbox.

Instead, I saw it as a place where shooters could target students and teachers. Wide open. Vulnerable. I found myself almost unconsciously looking for where I could run, where I could try to hide in case someone opened fire.

Not half an hour earlier, I dropped my youngest son off at the school track for his first middle school cross country practice. “Wait,” he said as he got out of the car. “I don’t know where to go.”

“Go where you see other students,” I said. “A coach.”

He said okay and headed off, water bottle in hand.

What trust. How innocent. Go over with the other students, buddy. There’s a coach over there. It’s fine. You’re safe.

But he’s not.

We’re not.

Not completely.

I know not everyone is completely safe all the time from any possible harm.

But now every time I go to a public gathering, I look for the exits, not for the sake of convenience but because I want to know where I should go if someone starts shooting.

Far too often, when I walk into work I wonder if today is the day some hateful man with a gun decides to vent his frustration and anger at my school.

Christopher Swann

Both I and my sons have experienced school lockdowns that were not drills. When I was on lockdown at my school with a room full of seniors and someone pounded on the door and tried to force it open, I thought for a handful of seconds that I would die in my classroom.

When my oldest son was on lockdown at his school, he texted me and my wife from where he and his classmates were hiding to tell us what was happening, and that he loved us.

This cannot stand.

We can’t allow it to stand.

We are better than this.

We are better than politics.

We defeated the Nazis and cured polio and sent men to the moon half a century ago. We can solve this.

Many of you will be tempted to argue about gun control, to say that the 2nd Amendment is sacrosanct, that it’s not guns that kill but people, that this or that measure wouldn’t have stopped a particular shooter or a specific instance of gun violence, that criminals won’t obey laws so laws about guns are useless. Or you might want to argue that this is about mental health, or violent video games, or a soul-sick society.

But the men who commit these acts of gun violence are not all mentally ill. They are filled with hate. Many are racist. Many express fear about immigrants, or non-whites, or non-Christians. And instead of just posting rants on 8chan or arguing online or attending white supremacist rallies, they buy easily obtainable firearms and set out to commit murder.

This has to stop.

Because we have done nothing substantive to stop it.

And some of our elected representatives have actively stood in the way of doing something substantive to stop it.

Running roughshod over Constitutional rights is not what I’m talking about.

But your individual right to purchase a firearm with little to no regulation should not override my individual right to exist in relative peace and safety.

Let’s talk about how to do this. Let’s talk about how to regulate firearms the way we regulate automobiles, for example. Let’s have our elected representatives actually debate this in public, commission the CDC or some other non-partisan group to study gun violence and ways to stem it.

This really isn’t political. Or it shouldn’t be.

It’s personal.

It’s because I don’t want to hear about thoughts and prayers offered up instead of concrete, deliberate action.

It’s because I don’t want to hear any more stories about shoppers being shot to death at Walmart, about people dying in a hail of bullets at a nightclub, about children being gunned down at school.

It’s because I no longer want to walk into my place of work, a place that I love, and imagine all the ways someone with a gun might kill me, or my students, or my own children.

That is not the America in which I want to live.

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About the Author

Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.
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