Every morning, in the frenzied rush to get my son fed, clothed and out the door in time for the bus, I make him give me an uncomfortably long hug. He squirms and sighs and complains, but ultimately he wraps both mitten-clad hands around my neck and squeezes me almost as hard as I’m squeezing him.
Each bus-stop good-bye is filled with a moment of dread and sadness. Not because I’m pining wistfully because he’s no longer a baby, but because, in the back of my mind, I say good-bye to him every day as if I may never see him again.
I was teaching 10th grade in a suburb outside Baltimore on Dec. 14, 2012, when a group of first-graders were gunned down in their classroom at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. I didn’t have my own children yet, but I loved my students as if they were my own. I remember the story of Victoria Leigh Soto, the young teacher who sacrificed herself for the sake of her students, and I remember the realization that I would have done the same for any of the roughly 125 teenagers who were entrusted to me each day. I am positive that every teacher in every classroom in America would do the same. And I am sure I am far from the only parent who squeezes my first-grader a little too tightly each morning.
In one of the moments of quiet contemplation that follows my son’s departure each day, I wondered aloud if there would ever be a time when I wouldn’t have reason to worry about his safety at school. Or at least if there might be a time when my fears became more theoretical and less grounded in statistical truth. Like the fear that makes me freak out and inspect my children for visible wounds every time one of them plays with a scarf. Or when I hear myself saying any of the countless other parenting tropes I swore I would never say:
“Don’t go into that pool! You just ate.”
“Tie those shoelaces! You’ll crack your head open.”
“That’s enough bath water! You’ll slip and drown.”
But all our parenting fears enter our minds in the first place because somewhere in there, there’s at least a tiny nugget of truth. They really could get a cramp and die. They could definitely fall on loose laces and sustain a serious head injury. And it takes just a few moments to drown in even a few inches of water. And kids really do seriously hurt themselves when fiddling with things around their necks. When a young Canadian child accidentally choked herself when her scarf became entangled in some monkey bars, officials questioned whether such attire should be outlawed from playgrounds altogether.
And yet, even after more than 26,000 children have died at the hands of guns, our own lawmakers refuse to take even the most common-sense gun measures.
An estimated 87 children die each year from accidental drownings in bathtubs and pools, but no one cries for a Constitutional right to liberty and personal property when local municipalities insist on regulations that require fences around pools.
The proportion here seems wildly out of whack: 26,000 children die, and lawmakers do nothing; 87 children die—two thirds of those in bathtubs and not even in a pool—and we all agree that it makes sense to require that pool owners install a fence.
This insane imbalance—and the resulting loss of thousands of lives and daily anguish for millions of parents—comes at the hand of one organization: the National Rifle Association.
When I was a classroom teacher, I was active in our local bargaining group, so I’m keenly aware of the role that outside money and lobbying efforts play in all spheres of public life. Certainly, the National Education Association also spends money on public lobbying efforts, though it spent half of what the NRA spent in 2018 and reaped significantly fewer benefits.
While universal background checks for gun owners remains a hot-button issue, universal background checks for public school teachers is an industry standard. In fact, when I transferred my teaching license from Maryland to Minnesota, I was required to undergo a second background check before I would be allowed to teach in my new state. Even though I was already a licensed teacher, I had to take a new series of tests and provide the state with various forms of paperwork, all at a personal expense of many hundreds of dollars and several hours.
My husband moved to Minnesota with a shotgun. There was no permit, license, or registration requirement.
Mass shootings are written off as the product of isolated individuals with mental health issues, while every teacher is held personally responsible for each student’s success, regardless of the dozens of outstanding factors that may impact that child’s learning. The NRA continues to blind its members against the dangers of guns and bribe members of Congress to look the other way, all while American school teachers are held to impossible standards related to high-stakes testing and achievement standards that are beyond their control.
Growing up in a house with two public school teachers, I know that the angst surrounding the burden of teachers and underfunded schools is nothing new. I remember my mom opining every time her school’s cheer team or band boosters or drama club held a fundraiser (to which every teacher donated): “What a day it will be,” she’d say each time, “when every school has all the money it needs, and the Air Force needs to have a bake sale to buy a bomber.”
What a day it will be, indeed, when the life of my first-grader and his teachers are treated with dignity, and the NRA has no power left to get in the way.