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A critical discussion

Talk to children about school shootings

The Monday after the assassination of Martin Luther King, my American History teacher did something that astounded his class of 12th-graders. He essentially threw away the standard curriculum, regarded us with a face set in stone and announced, “Today, we’re going to have a conversation about violence in America.” And so we did. Forty-five years afterward, it’s the only class I remember from my years at the Fieldston School.

Even considering the progressive nature of that institution, it was a radical decision for 1968. It became even more so when Mr. Clemens, one of the few African-American instructors on the staff, shared Malcolm X’s more controversial observations that “Violence was as American as apple pie.” This was being voiced in an era before blood-soaked video games and easy access to military-style assault rifles. However, the murder of President Kennedy earlier in the decade, coupled with the escalating war in Vietnam, made many aware of the bloodshed consuming the United States. Had he been prescient enough to see who would fall victim a mere two months later, Mr. Clemens’ appraisal would have been even more passionate.

To his further credit, our teacher did not merely lecture. He invited us to contribute our thoughts and feelings, as youthfully naive as they were. And so the discourse explored the issues of hatred, bigotry, guns, war and how a culture of paranoia could easily descend into murder. Chances are some parents and our school principal would have been horrified to know such an event was taking place within the confines of the school. Mr. Clemens did not care and, in retrospect, neither did we.

One wonders if the bravery exhibited by Mr. Clemens could happen in a contemporary American classroom. It would be difficult seeing that teachers nowadays are too cowed by political correctness and overwhelmed by teaching to the test. At a vigil on the afternoon of Sept. 11, 2001, I encountered a group of area high school kids and was shocked to learn that their teachers had been forbidden to discuss the day’s events with them. Apparently, the administrators didn’t want the kids to become upset or feared the teachers would veer off the national script and voice their own opinions. Either way, it was a decision of the utmost disregard for these young people. What else was there to talk about on that terrible day?

Were I still teaching, how would I discuss the recent school massacre in Newtown, Conn., to my class of fifth-graders? There is a delicate balance between informing them and presenting the world as a dangerous, soul-destroying arena.

There were times when I refused to study current events because the news was so depressing. However, while reading “Number the Stars,” Lois Lowry’s award-winning fictional account of the Danish rescue of its Jewish population during World War II, I became aware that none of my kids understand why the Jews needed rescuing in the first place.

As I tentatively improvised a Holocaust unit, the Temple Israel synagogue here was desecrated with swastikas. A week later, I was invited to attend a week-long conference at the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland. I decided that my students needed to have a sense of ownership of this perfect storm of events so that they felt a measure of control. And so, they wrote heart-breaking letters to the 1,500,000 children who were murdered by the Nazis which were placed on display at the Auschwitz State Museum.

They also kept a weekly journal, pretending to be youthful inmates there and doing their best to survive. All did.

Obviously, I deleted the more gruesome aspects of the death camps but still monitored the emotional temperature of the class. After time, they collectively told me, “Mr. Brown, we’ve had enough.” I agreed. Therefore, we ended by mutual and respectful consent.

I believe that every school in America should engage their students in conversation about the atrocity at Sandy Hook Elementary School. The children of our nation deserve this chance and need to be listened to, but not lectured. And it should with the teachers they know and trust, not some faceless “grief counselor.” While it is a natural desire to want to shield children from traumatic events, they will rise to the occasion if given the chance. Kids know what’s happening around them and being stifled will not help them process or heal.

Despite the horror of this tragedy, I hope, too, that it elevates how we collectively regard the profession of teaching. The principal and teachers in Newtown who gave their lives to protect their students, did so without hesitation. As would the rest of the staff. As would every conscientious teacher in this country.

Despite their laughable salaries, daily challenges and having to a deal with a society that holds them in low regard, teachers are, in fact, true American heroes. It’s way past time for them to be honored as such.

Daniel A. Brown has lived in Franklin County since 1970 as an artist, writer, amateur historian, and photographer. He is a frequent contributor to The Recorder and welcomes feedback at dbrown1793@gmail.com .

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