On Guns in My Classroom
"Well, things haven’t gone totally to hell," I told my friend through the phone, trying to put a good spin on a needlessly bad situation of mostly my own creation. "Maybe I’m getting wiser."
"Wiser?" he asked, disbelieving. "You’re not wiser. You’re just making bad decisions more slowly and deliberately than you used to."
He was right. We laughed at me. I thanked him for talking me through yet another episode of my own stupidity, we said our goodbyes, and I went to bed.
The next morning I woke up at 4:30, the way I always do. But at 5:00 I didn’t get out of bed, the way I always do. Instead I lay on my back, staring up, thinking very hard, and occasionally pushing away the cat, "the Boarder," I call him, who kept trying to interfere with the thinking. He can be needy.
I got up and made coffee, the way I always do. Then I sat down to write for a while, because the morning is the only time my head is clear and undistracted enough to write anything. But my head
I worked on an article for a journal that I suspect might be silly, trying to write on a topic I stopped caring about long ago. The going was tough. I decided that maybe I should cut my losses and give up on any article I don’t believe in.
Just the day before, several hours before my unrelated phone conversation with my friend, I had visited at the home of two of my other friends. Deeply troubled by the recent events at Sandy Hook, and the chronically unproductive national conversations that have followed that preventable tragedy, they had hosted a forum of friends to talk about the events, about our culture of violence and what, if anything, might be done, actually done. There were several veterans in the room, men who have used guns to separate the earth and the lives of other men from one another. They were quiet and grim for long spells during the conversation. I don’t know their experience, but in a prior, thankfully brief career in intelligence work, I saw much of the carnage they did, even though I didn’t suffer or inflict it directly myself. I think we were all glad to have talked, but I, at least, left their home sad.
Meanwhile, my state legislature, in its infinite wisdom, considers various proposals to allow concealed weapons on university campuses. It is the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction come to our classrooms, reduced to the interpersonal scale. I don’t think a bill has been introduced yet. I have heard these rumblings before. I hope it is only bluster again.
As I tried to write that morning too many disparate and dark things were swirling in my head, my own habitual stupidity, the gut-churning violence taking place in schools, as well as plenty of other places (including several colleges), and our systematic inability to talk productively about our problems. Our personal problems, our public problems. I knew that continuing to sit at the computer would be a losing proposition. I still needed to think. It was too cold to fish, and I was too mentally confused to endure the rigors of a mountain bike ride. There were about 18 days left in grouse season. I would go walk the forest road and hunt grouse. That would help me think, clear my head.
I quit writing for the morning. I took my shotgun, my funny orange jacket and orange stocking cap, and drove five minutes up to the top of the mountain. I let myself through my neighbor’s gate with the key he and his partner gave me and was at the edge of the 830-square-mile Nantahala National Forest. I walked a road along a ridge and the frost was still hard and crunched audibly with each step. The shotgun was very cold, even through my thin but warm gloves.
For the first 30 minutes I thought about what I always do for the first 30 minutes of grouse hunting, about how I really need a dog. He could flush the grouse for me, get me more and better shots. And I would get to have a dog.
Then, among many other things, I wondered what I would do if the state allows guns on university campuses.
The idle fantasy of quitting one’s job is normal and healthy and sometimes even savory. That’s what I’ll do, I thought. If the state lets students carry guns onto campus I’ll just quit. It’s that simple. I’ll just quit. The hell with it. I’m not living that way. I could quit and feel principled and self-righteous.
Nobody depends on me. I don’t even have a dog. I could just quit. The Boarder would be fine, and any number of ex-girlfriends have made clear that while I am no longer welcome, they would be happy to have him back in their lives at any time. He is the more charming of our pair, and he and I both know it. I could pawn him off, sell what little I own, and live on nothing. I could drift.
I have no delusions. It won’t matter if I quit. A hundred applicants will line up for my job. And there is nothing easier for a politician to ignore or dismiss than the principled stand of a nobody constituent. But I will quit.
Every decision I have made in my career has been about quality of life. I’m proud of that. I abandoned a career that was secure and lucrative but morally bankrupt. I left money on the table at one grad school to attend the grad school in the city I liked and in the program I liked. I left money on the table at one job to take a job in the mountains I love, among people I love. Those were all good decisions.
Maybe, like many of my other decisions, the lousy ones, this idea of quitting is a bad decision made slowly and deliberately. I think I’m O.K. with that. I hope my legislature doesn’t send guns into the sacred space of the classroom. But if they do, I hope I have the guts to stick to my decision. We all have a breaking point, a threshold to not cross. Other than being in the woods, the classroom is the closest thing I have to religion and the closest thing I have to faith, and once that particular sacred space is profaned by the presence of a weapon, I don’t want to inhabit it anymore. Teaching is righteous work. The gun doesn’t ever need to go off in order to ruin everything for me. Everything is ruined the moment the gun arrives. At least for me.
I know it is a contradiction that as I thought all of this I carried a gun through the woods.
I don’t fear guns. I fear the person who wants, for any reason, lawful or otherwise, to bring one into my classroom.
I don’t fear the person who carries a gun through the woods. Under certain circumstances, guns belong in the woods. They never belong in a classroom.
I first shot a gun when I was in kindergarten, under the supervision of my father and grandfather and great-uncle. I’m not sure I was even old enough to spell my own last name at the time. I am comfortable with guns, which is why I could carry one through the woods at the time I contemplated what I would do if my state condones sending them into my classroom. Many of the advocates of pro-gun legislation repeat the platitude that it is people who kill people, not guns. They are exactly right. I fear the kind of person, the kind of barely-not-a-child-anymore-student, who would want to carry a gun on campus, legally or otherwise. I fear that kid, and I don’t want to be around him. It isn’t his gun that scares me. What scares me is his brain, which controls the hand that controls the gun that can kill.
I will quit. I hope I will quit.
What makes me angriest is that nothing I or anyone else says will have any bearing on the state or national conversations. Everything in the political system is broken and no politician will really listen to the people who gathered in a living room to talk about a real and terrifying and problem.
I hope I would just quit. I doubt I would actually have the courage to take a stand, to really quit. Maybe that makes me a part of the problem that is more solvable than some want us to believe that it is. An 18- or 21-year-old with a gun — legally or not — in my classroom, in our sanctuary?
I hope I would just quit.
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