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Words That Should Not Be

It’s taken me a large chunk of a day to come to terms with what I want to write here, but like many people right now, I have to talk about it in some way just to deal with it.

Everyone has heard by now of the murders of 20 children and more adults and teachers in Connecticut. Everyone is equally horrified, from the President of the United States, to our Canadian Prime Minister, to the oldest grandparent in the most isolated of our rural Canadian villages. I share all of that horror.

As a teacher, of course, I have a particular terror, disgust, and sorrow at this sort of event. My administrator actually was the one who first alerted staff members at my school that this terrible event had happened. It was particularly fresh in his and our minds because we had just had a lockdown drill the day before.

The scary thing when I was reading the news reports was the fact that, based on what little information was there, most teachers at the school had reacted fairly well and professionally like you are supposed to in a lockdown situation. They had gathered students in corners and away from windows and doors as soon as the emergency became clear. And yet, 20 children lie dead today.

I don’t care to talk about the person who decided to murder more than 20 people, most of them children. I also don’t want to intrude on the grief of anyone who is particularly close to a senseless tragedy like this one. I finally decided that what I wanted to talk about was words. What a particular set of them mean about the situation we find ourselves in today. These are a set of words that should not exist.

School shooting.

I know that those two words are normal, everyday English terms. A noun indicating a place of learning for young people, and a verb meaning the act of firing some sort of projectile at high speeds. But their strict, literal meanings pale beside the terrifying reality of the expression entire.

The fact that in our society, we have a two-word term explicitly designed to express a single reality of a person or persons walking into a school and using firearms to injure or kill defenseless children and teachers is horrific. The mere substance of this expression would tell the most skeptical alien observer that in our society, the act of someone committing murder by firearms in a school is common enough to warrant its own expression. I can think of no worse indictment of the way we handle weapons or the way in which humans are capable of violence.

Now, some might argue that the term is merely descriptive, but if we were searching for a descriptive term, we would probably say something like “the shooting that occurred in a school”. Of course, in proper English grammar, the term ‘school shooting’ should mean that someone was shooting an entire school (building), not the innocents within. But we all know that that is not the meaning, that those two words conjure up a nightmare scenario of pain and fear.

My anger and sorrow are all twisted up with each other right now as I hear more and more on the news. There are many news pundits and politicians and special interest groups all talking about what sort of action needs to be taken. Some people continue to say that today, when the grief is still fresh, is not a time to open debates on gun control or related matters. I echo the sentiments I’ve heard from several corners: today is not the day. The day for that was after Virginia Tech, after Colombine, after Taber, after any of the numerous tragedies with this disgusting label of ‘school shooting’. It’s already too late for the children murdered in Connecticut, and it’s too late for that argument; what matters is stopping it from happening again, not posturing over rights and legal intricacies. What matters is making sure that we have done our best to eliminate the need for parents to lose children to a murderer in a school, to eliminate the expression ‘school shooting’ from its necessary niche.

I wish profoundly that there was no need in our language for that particular expression. I wish that 20 children who now will never get their Christmas with the family or grow up to change the world did not have to die at the hands of a killer. Mostly, I just… wish.

I’d like to finish by relating a story that helps me articulate how I feel about my students if anything like this were to happen to me. It’s human nature to imagine yourself in this situation, and my imagination quails at the task, so I latch on to other experiences to help me work it out. It isn’t my story, just one that a friend of mine who also is a teacher told me about a lockdown at their school (obviously, all identities and locations are not mentioned here):

The school goes into lockdown. As it transpires, there is a question of whether or not there is an actual threat to the school, so this is not a drill. The students are all gathered and hidden, the doors locked, and the lights turned off. No one is quite sure what is going on.

Then, a young girl says to my friend, “Miss, if they break in here, I’m going to die.”

My friend looks at her and says, now quite emotional, “Honey, they have to get through me first.”

Thankfully, within an hour or so, it was resolved, and everyone got their happy ending, but the situation and conversation stuck with my friend, and it resonates deeply with how I feel about my job.

As sad as yesterday’s events were, let us also remember today the courage and swift action of the teachers in the school, as well as the police, that saved the lives of children. Because when it comes right down to it, they made the same choice and affirmation that my friend did, and that I would in that situation.

I love these kids, and if something ever happens, it’s not going to happen without me doing everything that I can to make them safe. Because I want a world where there doesn’t have to be a term of ‘school shooting’. I want that for any kids that I will have, and I want that for every single student that walks into my classroom.

All of my thoughts and prayers are with the people of Newtown, Connecticut. I cannot imagine the depth of their agony.

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