#Walkup? Not Walkout?

It’s complicated. Remember when I said that? I thought I explained it. The simple solutions have not and will not solve a complex problem.

Should teachers and parents teach students to be nice to people, not to bully or harass others? Yes, yes, and yes.

Should adults, teens, and children reach out to make friends? Yes, yes, and absolutely.

Should a student who is socially awkward, disliked, and perhaps emotionally disabled suddenly find himself surrounded by “friends”? No, no, and no.

Kids, whether children or teens, know true interactions from false. They know when someone’s being sincere and when someone is just condescending. They recognize the patronizing metaphorical pat on the head. They can sense when a teacher pushes kids to approach them, pretending the interaction is spontaneous.

Kids, and most adults, too, for that matter, have a built-in BS detector. “Sit by that kid at lunch and he won’t become the next school shooter.” Um, no. No. Not effective.

I saw a social skills activity taking place at a middle school that actually made sense. Each student received 17 sticky notes – one for each death at Stoneman-Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. On each sticky note, they were instructed to write something positive. A compliment, perhaps, or a kind word. They were assigned to place the sticky notes on the lockers of seventeen different students in the building.

On the positive side: Not a locker was untouched. Every single student received at least one positive affirmation sticky note. I presume the lockers were labeled, and students knew where to find their friends’ and acquaintances’ lockers.

On the negative side: These were anonymous affirmations. The recipients didn’t know who wrote them, why they wrote them, or if they really meant what they said.

And there’s the rub. Writing 17 sticky notes is symbolic and can be part of the healing process. But if the intention is to prevent someone from becoming violent, to reach out and touch someone before it’s too late, this activity won’t do it. If the sticky note affirmations are for the writers, then yes, it’s an effective social skills lesson. If the aim is to build up the angry loner, well, sorry folks, this kind of act is meaningless.

Damn, I wish I were wrong.

Kitchen Planning, sequel.

Have I mentioned that we’re remodeling the kitchen at the O.K. Chorale? It’s all consuming, and we haven’t even started demo. We’re still planning. Details, details, details!

Chuck and I made a trip to Lowe’s – again. We have wandered the aisles in search of wisdom in cabinet design, color (paint or stain?), handles and knobs, under-cabinet lighting, and more. I didn’t know that so many decisions were involved.

Add to the sheer number of decisions the fact that Chuck and I work opposite shifts. We communicate a lot by text message and email, but any true conversation and discussion have to happen on a weekend. This is dragging out the process longer and longer.

We’re close, though. We’re close to calling the designer and telling her, “We’re ready! Here are the details! Let’s make an order!” And then the real work begins.

Due to the age of our house (built 1890), every single element has to be custom. We’ll place the order, and then we’ll wait for the cabinets to be built. Meanwhile, we have a long to-do list to prepare for this project.

  • Empty the cupboards, upper and lower
  • Store the contents of the cupboards somewhere – anywhere.
  • Set up a temporary “kitchen” in another room.
  • Set up coffeemaker in another room.
  • Invest in disposable dishes OR make a plan for washing dishes without a sink.
  • Empty the refrigerator and freezer to prepare for moving this appliance.
  • Make room for computer desk and bookshelf currently in dining room
  • Find temporary storage for dining room table and chairs
  • Cancel cleaning service until project is done
  • Remind selves that we will enjoy the new kitchen for many years before selling even comes on the radar, at which time the lovely kitchen will be a major advantage.

Meanwhile, life as we know it continues.

Violence is Here, too

When Sandy Hook School was attacked, 20 children slaughtered, 6 staff members murdered along with them, I wanted to huddle inside my own house. My little bubble was okay, no matter how awful the scene was in Newtown, Connecticut.

That fragile circle around my world didn’t stay whole, though. My bubble, the bubble that includes my students, was breached.

A man shot and killed three on a walking trail near my town in May of 2015 – just three years ago. A fourth person was wounded, but made it to safety. The shooter turned the gun on himself, and he died on the way to the hospital.

The next day, I learned that the 10 year old girl killed on the trail was a close friend of one of my students. Ten years old! With a close friend lost to gun violence! My bubble, like theirs, exploded.

About a year later, in a small Wisconsin town, a young man approached the high school prom and shot two students as they exited the dance. The two prom-goers survived; the shooter was shot by a police liaison officer and died on the scene.

Days later, I spent time listening to one of my students and her mother, both of whom knew the shooter well. The girl schooled online through my school, so she wasn’t in classes with the young people involved, but it’s a small town. Everyone knew him, everyone knew his mother. By extension, as a teacher, I was part of their bubble.

It’s the concentric circle theory, like dropping a pebble in water, but it’s a gunshot, not a pebble, spreading its impact. I hate the idea that someday it will be commonplace, not unique, to have a bubble burst by a shooting. I haven’t experienced a shooting, thank God, but I’ve been close enough to people who have.

Unfortunately, I feel all too far away from those who could make change and stop mass shootings from becoming everyday, all too common events. Those in Congress, in the Senate, and in the White House need to pass meaningful legislation, and pass it now.

Remember When – This Shooting Happened

When Sandy Hook School was attacked, 20 children slaughtered, 6 staff members murdered along with them, I wanted to stay home. I wanted to hold onto my own children, even though they were no longer children.

I had promised to attend a piano recital, though. One of my students was playing, and I didn’t want to let her down. What to do?

I took a deep breath and went to the recital, and I’m glad I did. By leaving the house, I could tell myself that life was normal and all was well – even if it wasn’t, might never be all well in the world. My little bubble was okay, no matter how awful the scene was in Newtown, Connecticut.

My colleague was substitute teaching in a first grade class that day. She will forever remember looking into those children’s faces and realizing that those who died were just like them.

We teachers view school shootings like that. It could have been my school. Those children were just like my students. The teachers did everything right, followed all the safety procedures. And still, they died. They died violently, in a tragedy that made no sense.

My message today is this: The Sandy Hook tragedy made no sense then, and Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School’s tragedy makes no sense now. The inaction of our elected officials made no sense then, and makes no sense now.

In conclusion? There will be no conclusion until Congress takes action and bans weapons and ammunition that have only one purpose: to kill.

In December 2012, I called it Unthinkable.

An encore post that is all too timely.

This post changed titles three times already. I’ve drafted two rough starts and deleted both. There’s no making sense of the news from Newtown, CT. In its place, a flashback that hits me every time one of these unbelievable tragedies occurs.

Long ago – well, not really all that long ago. It was eight or nine years ago (now, in 2018, it’s a long time ago). I taught in an elementary school with a go-get-em principal, a woman who will remain at the top of my list for elementary principals forever. She was contacted by the local police department who wanted to train and practice the new recommended procedure to neutralize shooters or other dangerous intruders in a school, mall, or other public place

She said yes, of course. When she asked for teachers to volunteer, I joined up.

Along with most of the city’s liaison officers, several higher-up district administrators, and all the school principals in town, we teachers filed into a high school auditorium to watch an analysis of the Columbine High School tragedy. The officer in charge pointed out the main things that went wrong and then used that to tell us the rationale for the new training.

The method that was new then is now the norm for mass shooting scenes. CBS News interviewed one who helped put the philosophy into practice. “Go toward the shots,” he said repeatedly. “Neutralize the shooter or shooters.” It’s what we practiced, and it’s what they still do.

Sandy Hook Elementary School had staff who knew what to do. The principal’s last act may have been turning on her PA microphone in an attempt to inform the rest of the school that there was danger. Children told of calm teachers who pulled them to safety, hid them in corners and in closets and in cubbies, and evacuated them swiftly to the gathering place, a nearby firehouse.

Press conferences and news releases were, so far, compassionate and respectful. Grieving parents photographed from a distance, parents of surviving children showing support and empathy for those who lost theirs. But – there were no bodies, no blood, no attempts to show or suggest the carnage that remained in the school building the television cameras. For this thoughtfulness, I’m grateful. I hope members of the media continue to respect those touched by this tragedy.

But did this mass murderer show signs beforehand? We hear too many stories after the fact. Red flags, as we call them in education, fly up and grab our attention. Then files are filed and the students drop out or move out of town, out of state, out of range. The medical files remain sealed, and the only public statements come from the distant memories of people on the periphery, not close enough to have intervened.

Our public safety forces know how to get in and stop mass attacks like this. But so far, too few people know how to prevent them.

And that still scares me.

Remember when – before school safety drills?

Almost twenty years ago, it was. I taught in our neighborhood school, a relatively small building with a student population of, oh, maybe 300, max. In a tornado drill, we could fit the entire student body in the maintenance engineer’s basement storage room. In a fire drill, we could exit the building quickly and get back inside before the lessons were forgotten.

Then one day the fire alarm went off – in the rain, and during the lunch period. No one knew who pulled it or if something had malfunctioned. There was chaos at first as kids tried to figure out which exit was closest. Then there were moans and groans of “It’s raining! Hard! I’m getting soaked!” Principal and police liaison swept the school as quickly as they could and sent us all back inside.

And then the alarm went off again. This time, teachers grabbed their umbrellas and cell phones. We checked in with each other, brought the kids around to the same side of the building, and actually took shelter in a neighbor’s (thankfully large) garage. And then, someone started to whisper.

“Someone could have shot us all. Like in Arkansas, right?” “Or in Colorado. That place with the kids in trench coats.” Jonesboro, Arkansas: March, 1998. Littleton, Colorado: April, 1999. Suddenly the cold spring rain didn’t matter quite as much. All of us, teachers and students, were cold and wet and scared – but no one was shooting. It was okay, sorta kinda okay.

Today, many years later, schools often drill during the lunch period “just in case.” Many schools have an alternate location set up in case of rain or bitter cold. All of these are good signs, signs of progress in keep our students safe.

Today, many years later, we drill to keep kids away from a potential active shooter. We did lock down drills for years. Now we conduct ALICE drills – Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, Evacuate.  No matter what the name, schools practice getting students out of the way when someone comes into a school with a weapon. No matter what the safety procedure, children and adults still get killed.

And this, my friends, is not good. Not good at all.

Who Are The Next School Shooters?

Who are the next school shooters or mass shooters? How can we recognize them, and how do we stop them?

It’s a complex problem, and stopping the mass shootings that are becoming all too common will require a complex solution.

Activists work to tighten gun laws. They want to outlaw guns like the AR-15, guns with only one purpose: killing. They want to require background checks, thorough background checks, any time a person buys a gun.

Mental health advocates work to help people who might consider carrying out such a shooting. Depression, anxiety, and more can be factors in producing a killer of many.

Not to be forgotten are the National Rifle Association (NRA), those who work to keep gun laws weak and widespread access to weapons strong.

It’s a complex problem. After Sandy Hook, after Columbine, after Parkland, expert and not-so-expert analysts look for red flags, events or ongoing stresses that might have built up the pressure on this individual. After the fact, folks in the know pick through a shooters’ profiles and backgrounds, identifying possible triggers, the proverbial straws that broke the camels’ backs.

It’s a social problem. Was the shooter harassed? Bullied? Excluded and isolated? Did anyone reach out to this person? Did anyone recognize the risk, help this person before the potential for disaster became real?

It’s a medical problem. Mental illness, diagnosed or not, can be a major factor in someone deciding to carry out such a horrific event, taking lives of so many others. Mental health care must be available to all who need it – and mental health coverage must be part of any health plan.

It’s a legal problem, a gun problem. That’s hard for me to say because I know so many responsible gun owners. Hunters, mainly, these friends would never dream of leaving their firearms loaded and accessible to someone – anyone – who might misuse them. That said, no one needs a semi-automatic for hunting game. The AR-15 that’s been in the hands of so many mass shooters doesn’t need to be legal.

It’s an accessibility problem. Felons, domestic abusers, people who have been identified as a danger to others must be prevented from owning guns. License to kill only exists in fiction. In reality, life is precious.

It’s a complex problem, and the solution will not be simple. I wish I had an answer.

Flu memories – let’s not create any new ones

Yesterday Chuck came home from work feeling ill. I was fairly certain it wasn’t influenza, but can I ever be 100% sure? Sometimes. Not always. It wasn’t so long ago that I posted this.

I was searching and sorting and purging a pile of papers and I found this, a predecessor to Monday’s post. It’s on a scrap of yellow legal pad, so it probably rose from the ashes of a school staff meeting or staff development. This piece wasn’t for the CDC. In fact, I’m pretty sure I wrote it pre-blog. To make it current, it would need almost no changes.

You know the flu has taken over when:

  • Chicken soup and cinnamon toast make a meal.
  • The phone rings and the teenager doesn’t move.
  • The blind family member identifies people by their coughs rather than their voices.
  • The dishwasher is full of glasses and bowls because no one is eating real meals.
  • Each sick person carries around his/her own box of tissue.
  • Suddenly the supply of Tylenol and ibuprofen in the medicine cabinet looks woefully under stocked.

The above list was written with a sense of – well, something close to gallows humor, if I remember correctly. Since that year, all of us have stayed up to date on flu shots. Get your own flu vaccine, people. It’s not too late.

The entire family has been vaccinated. This year’s vaccine may only be 10% – 30% effective, but at least it’s something. As for Chuck, he felt much better today and went back to work. That’s a relief to all of us!

Prepping for the Flu

Influenza always scares me at least a little. I trained as a public health volunteer when Avian Flu was the big fear, and I was more than a little shocked to realize how close we were to a pandemic. Then H1N1 strain came to my fair state, and my fourth graders were really hard hit. An average day would see anywhere from eight to ten kids absent (out of a class of 26), and those kids were sick for a week or more. The flu season that year lasted four or five weeks – or was it six? Eight, even? I remember slowing down the pace of instruction almost to a standstill. My kiddos needed to rest, to get better, and not worry about missing school. When the first group made it back, the second batch went out, followed by several more. That particular influenza strain hit kids a lot harder that it hit adults. I remember needing two flu shots that year, and I don’t remember missing school myself – not for influenza, anyway.

If that hadn’t been enough to make me nervous, Amigo had a long stretch of ill health that started with influenza when he was 16. A few years ago, Chuck fell victim to a nasty strain of Influenza A that landed him in the ER, barely breathing. If you haven’t yet guessed, each and every one of us at the O.K. Chorale makes a point of getting a flu shot every year. My flu shot was delayed this year due to other problems (hey, vertigo and Prednisone, I’m talking about you), but I finally got one in December.

This kind of worry activates my prepper-style paranoia. Any time we go grocery shopping, I make my list and check it twice for any over-the-counter medicines we might need. The chicken soup section of our pantry is well-stocked, too. Tissues? Check. Juices? Check. Crackers and white soda? Check, check.

I no longer have direct face to face contact with my students, so I’m not breathing their germs  and handling their papers daily. Computer viruses are more likely (Ha! Ha!) in an online school. Chuck works in a large plant, and the people there are conscientious about hand washing and the works. They all touch the same tools, so they’re not willing to spread illness through the line. Amigo doesn’t get out much, so if he brings home a virus, it’ll be one spread through his singing buddies in the barbershop chorus.

Now that the current influenza has reached epidemic status, I’m going to take every precaution I can to avoid bringing it home. At last count, I heard the virus had bloomed and spread its, er, pollen in 49 states. Hawaii is the only state with out an influenza epidemic, and Hawaii has its own issues.

But Hawaii’s troubles are a whole post in themselves.

Concentric Circles of Grief

One morning last week, in a meeting I almost forgot to attend, my coworker was too wired to focus on our meeting agenda. She’d been out walking her dog the night before, chatting with a friend she hadn’t seen in a while. They were about a mile from home when they heard gunshots and a woman screaming.

“I’m calling 911!” She reached for her phone.

“We could call the non-emergency number.”

“Gunshots? Screaming? I’m calling 911.”

The 911 officer heard her report and immediately responded, “Ma’am, I can see where you are located. You need to take shelter. Now!”

They ran to a nearby house and knocked on the door. An elderly couple let them all in – both women and the dog. My friend phoned her husband, explained the situation, and asked him to come get her, her friend, and the dog. He had a hard time getting into the neighborhood, weaving his way in between the cop cars and ambulances and even the SWAT team truck. Their 8 year old, riding along in the back seat, was visibly shook.

There was a terrible tragedy in our community that night – a murder suicide fueled by domestic violence. My friend had not seen the violence, but she heard it. She was touched by it.

Imagine a pebbles dropped in water. The woman’s family, the man’s family, and their surviving children are in the middle circle. My friend, her friend, and their families are in a close circle. They witnessed the action indirectly and felt the violence that disrupted their peaceful evening.

I’m in an outer circle. I listened to her story, held her and listened again when she found out that the couple so violently killed were friends of hers, neighbors down the road until a few months earlier when they’d bought their first house. Her children knew them, knew their children. Her tween-aged daughter had babysat for the youngest children in the family. The near-inner circles were growing now, making room for these three young people facing this unspeakable tragedy.

Once again it’s Brahms. Remember my piano teacher’s wisdom, shared when I was a teen? She never knew what to say at funerals, and she struggled to play Brahms. After her husband died, she learned that there is nothing to say that can help. All you can do it be there. And then she found she understood Brahms.

I can’t take away this grief that sudden and terrible grief my friend has suffered. The memory will stay with her and with her husband and her children forever. All I can do is be there. She is organizing a fundraiser for the surviving children. It won’t replace their awful loss – nothing could. But it gives people a way to show that they care. It gives people a chance to be there.