I Am Involved

I was a classroom English teacher when the Columbine shooting happened that spring day in 1999.  I was also the newspaper advisor for the school paper, The Lever, at Palmer High School.  We were wrapping up the April edition of the paper when the news broke.  The staff scrambled to put together articles and commentaries about the tragedy, basically in real time.  We worked into the night to finalize the paper.  It is an unforgettable time in my teaching career.

But what is even more memorable is the next day in sophomore English class.  It was an incredibly difficult day.  We were shocked, then, at these mass shootings.  They hadn’t been part of our weekly lives.  And students were scared, confused, saddened;  we all were.  This had an emotional hold on us, in part, because Columbine High School was 60 miles north on I-25 from us.  It had an emotional grip on us, even more so, because these were teens and a teacher that were killed. We may not have known Columbine HS, but we knew school.  We looked at our hallways differently.  We looked at our libraries and cafeteria differently.

As the classroom teacher, I looked at my students differently.  And I am guessing they looked at me differently.  What would I say?  What would I do in the aftermath of this tragedy?

I let them talk.

Jesse, a muscular kid, a football player, a kid who wanted to be a boxer, said he knew some of the guys from Columbine because of football.  He didn’t know them well, Jesse said, but he had interactions with them.  I imagined the helmets cracking against each other, the grunts and groans trying to grind out a few more yards.  I imagine him looking eye-to-eye with a Columbine player.  All of a sudden, 60 miles didn’t seem so far away.

I let them talk as long as they needed to.

And then I shared that I didn’t even know what to say, really.  I said that any emotion they were feeling was legitimate.  Confusion.  Sadness.  Anger.  All appropriate.  I didn’t have anything profound to say.  We were all raw.

But I did have something to share with them,  a piece of literature.  I may have distributed it to them or I may have just read it aloud.

No man is an island entire of itself; every man

is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;

if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe

is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as

well as any manner of thy friends or of thine

own were; any man’s death diminishes me,

because I am involved in mankind.

And therefore never send to know for whom

the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.


I re-read a part not so much for them, but for me:

    any man’s death diminishes me,

    because I am involved in mankind.


I shared with them that in all the shock, all the sorrow, all the emotions too tangled together to even make sense, I felt, we did, the loss because I am, we are, involved in mankind.

As classroom teachers, putting together a newspaper or holding together a classroom community, we need to show up every day.  Our students need to see us deal with the same loss they are experiencing.  Need to hear us talk about our emotions, get choked up, listen attentively.  Stumble through no answers.

And, sadly, we have had to do that repeatedly.  It doesn’t get easier.  We don’t get better at it.

60 miles isn’t so far, after all.  Columbine’s right up the road.  And so is Sutherland Springs.  So is Newtown.  Names of places so familiar we don’t even need to identify the state.

They’re our neighbors.


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