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Messages from Tragedy: Thoughts After the Robb Elementary School Shooting

Not long ago, I wrote about the mourning of parents who have lost their children. I failed to write about school shootings, even though it would have been an obvious thing to mention seeing as how the rate of school shootings in the U.S. are astronomical compared to any other country in the world.

I received a text from my husband, breaking the news to me via an article about the Robb Elementary school shooting, which I didn’t have time to read as I was cleaning up after the boys and multi-tasking as if I were back on the floor of a busy restaurant. I felt bad, then, that something tragic had happened and I couldn’t even take a moment to let it sink. Later on, I went upstairs and saw my husband who I’m guessing just wanted to share his disgust when he decided to describe graphic details with me about the lives that were lost in that classroom. I reminded him that I’m a mom and that I can’t handle graphic images in my head that involve the murder of children. Anyway, I sprinted back downstairs to check on the boys while trying to delete the heart-wrenchingly macabre scene from my head. Otherwise, the boys would have had to witness their mom sobbing and trying to refrain from breaking something in the kitchen while making their lunch.

That night, after a very busy (and very menstrual) day, the boys were finally sound asleep and there was peace and the air was still. The silence was beautifully heavy. Asa woke up crying for “mama milkies,” but strangely enough, even his sounds weren’t enough to break the tranquility. I got into bed with him, cradled my little boy and nursed him back to sleep. When I looked down at his face to adore him, no longer was the scene serene. I had to look away because instead of seeing the angelic beauty of a sleeping child, I saw what those parents had to see from the results of the 79 minutes of horror their children had to endure: their child’s lifeless face, so mutilated to the point of being unidentifiable. The only way they would have known which child was theirs was if they remembered what clothes they had dressed them in earlier that morning. In that moment, I quickly grasped the fleeting stillness and, finally, had the chance to take a moment of silence for those parents.

If you haven’t already, I encourage you to take a pause from reading this and have your own moment of silence for the parents who lost their children that day, the children who survived the bloodshed but might never be able to transcend it in one lifetime, and for yourself. It wasn’t easy for anyone to hear of such a tragedy, especially with the added tension in the air from the collective just being done with hearing about yet another crushing school shooting.

After my moment of silence, prayer and shedding some tears while containing most of them in fear of my son absorbing the grief, my thoughts went down the path of Action. Raise your hand if, after hearing about this last school shooting, you considered homeschooling your child. After all, the problem isn’t going to get better in this country, so how do we work with it while averting the problem from hurting us at all costs?

Referencing a bit of history never hurt; though, some may disagree in this exceptionally history-phobic climate. Alas, here’s my attempt at a 2-second history lesson. The US Constitution was established as a f*ck you/never-again response to the very monarchy the founders of the Constitution were in opposition. The Second Amendment - the right to bear arms - was put into place for the American people to overthrow the government just in case it stepped out of line and started heading in the direction of tyranny. Unfortunately, I don’t think the Founders of the US Constitution predicted that the Second Amendment would be exploited by a movement of people who supported a tyrannical leader in the White House.

That is the foundation - the living core - of the Second Amendment. Do we actually think it would ever be repealed? Absolutely not. No way in hell. And if you think it’s supported by only one political party, think twice. So, how do we embody sophistication and responsibility around firearms?

A contributing writer for The Atlantic, Andrew Exum, wrote a succinct and important piece called, “We Need to Learn to Live with Guns.” A title like that would make most of my liberal friends shudder, and understandably so. A lot of us were not raised with firearms the way Andrew Exum was. Consequentially, we have zero understanding of them which, inevitably, makes them taboo. We all know that anything taboo draws potentiality for fetishism. In his piece he writes, “I want my children to treat firearms as objects of respect, not of lust. I do not want them to fetishize these tools.”

Andrew’s message puts the responsibility of gun-ownership into the hands of our government. It’s a national responsibility, he says, to provide firearm education to our kids. If you see a gun, don’t touch it. Find an adult. Older kids should know how to unload a firearm and render it safe. I feel just as squeamish writing this as you might be feeling reading it. It’s, indeed, a harsh reality we all have to face given the circumstances of America’s state of consciousness.

There’s my two cents on gun control in relation to mass shootings. Still, my mind continues searching for more answers…

Before I laid my sleeping son down in the bed, my husband came in the room and I told him about my experience of finally letting the breaking news sink in. One of the things he said was that in case we had any doubt about whether to homeschool or not, at least we know the answer. I’m well aware that the chances of our children being killed or witnessing a school shooting are still extremely slim; that the chances of them dying in a car crash or drowning are significantly higher. (I’m not Catholic, but I just had to cross myself after typing out the dreaded thought). However, I’m also well aware that school shootings aren’t going away. In fact, they may even increase for years to come. (See Malcolm Gladwell's thesis on the rise of mass shootings resembling a slow-motion riot).

My following points about choosing homeschool for my children do not reflect, whatsoever, any criticism towards other parents who choose otherwise; especially those whose children were victims of a school shooting. And there is certainly no criticism towards parents who have no other choice but to send their kids to a place where their children are watched and educated. My hope for those parents is that they’re at least able to put their kids in a school that reassures them of their children’s safety. (Personally, I’m in favor of an abundance of doors and no locks.) Parents have the right to their own convictions about how they bring up their own children. If, by sharing my own convictions on this blog, I can inspire a parent towards a direction they were already headed, then I’m happy to share.

Education in through one ear and out the other. Whenever I talk with anyone about their experience of school, they usually say the same thing: “I hardly remember anything I learned!” Of course, we retain basic math and reading skills, but that’s because those skills have remained relevant in our adult lives. Anything else we’ve retained, it’s because we were passionate about the subject or activity and perhaps we even kept it relevant by continuing to study it after graduating high school which would hopefully result in some related profession. Children can learn basic arithmetic and reading skills at home, and probably with more ease without the pressure of teachers and soaring Grade A classmates. As for the rest, why not let them lead their own education and take whatever classes available in their community? My husband has pegged me as “erudite” on numerous occasions which I am always greatly flattered considering I’m a high school drop-out and started Independent Studies in 7th grade. However, it wasn’t until Independent Studies when I tasted a bit of freedom and started my education in autodidacticism, whereby “the school of life” and jobs such as working in retail at TASCHEN and filing papers for a big restaurant in Beverly Hills actually played a pivotal role in my high school education. I had mediocre grades in Independent Studies, yet I dropped myself out in my junior year and opted for a GED. High School, for me, was adventurous and filled with memories of conversing with old-timers at the famous Farmer’s Market on 3rd; an institution for obscure Hollywood veterans. I’m sure they had a hunch that I was collecting their wit, humor and opinions on politics and foreign affairs. After sipping coffee with them and picking their well-evolved brains, my high school contemporaries would get out of school and I would take the bus and hang out with them until they or their parents were sick of me. They might have been envious of my freedom, but they were mainly invested in their school politics and popularity. Their interest in their grades were tertiary and so was mine. The key difference between me and them, however, was that after graduating (or not graduating) high school, it was a lot easier for me to get a job than it was for them. As for college education, I was just happy I wouldn’t have to deal with student loan debt until I absolutely knew for what a degree would be necessary in this lifetime.

Quality over quantity. Every parent’s dream is that their child goes to a school with as little students and teachers possible, and that’s because we know that the quality of their relationships with their teachers and peers will be reinforced; at best, happy and healthy. Unfortunately, there’s no such thing as a small public school unless you live out in the boondocks. Only private schools and the little charter schools that are left can offer small classrooms. Even though my husband and I can afford it, I don’t like the idea of my children solely being surrounded by other privileged kids. We do have a lovely, little Waldorf-inspired charter school nearby, but I don’t believe that’s where my children will meet their mentors when they’re a bit older. Quality friends can be made anywhere - dance class, tae kwon do, the park, our favorite coffee shop - and the process of finding a quality mentor is just as serendipitous as meeting our soulmate. As far as education goes, I’ll most likely be the one to teach them basic reading skills and arithmetic. The rest is up to them.

Averting Danger, Bullies and Creeps. Boundary-crossing between students, teachers, janitors or anyone in the school setting is way too common. The scary part is that children are more than likely to keep it to themselves. I certainly did. As we all know, the chances of a school shooting are extremely slim and molestation falls in the category of boundary-crossing. Bullies are inevitable. (My son had one the first day of preschool). And now, thanks to social media, kids are being pressured more than ever by their peers to commit suicide. How are us, parents, supposed to feel okay with these possibilities? When my son was only three, he poked me with a toy stick as I cooked dinner and loudly proclaimed, “Mama! Mama! I’m too young to go to school!” Not only did every thing in me instantly grant his wish to pull him out; it made me think more deeply about what school actually is…

Which brings me to a brilliant thesis called “Against School,” by John Taylor Gatto. Not written by a drop-out like myself, but written by a man who was awarded the New York City Teacher of the Year. It’s equally upsetting and enlightening to read about the seedy origin of the school system of which we continue to subscribe and, at times, try our best to alter and reshape no matter how much of a fundamentally oppressive system it was designed to be. Believe it or not, our school system has roots in the military state of Prussia.

I’m sure John Taylor Gatto is looked at as the Anti-Christ of School. And for those who agree with his thesis yet are still utterly devoted to the idea of school, I’ll bet they will fight tooth and nail trying to reform school to be a place of self-discovery and liberation for each student's education. But how could we possibly honor each individual’s educational process in a classroom of others who have a unique process of their own? It’s not possible. The most liberal, free-thinking private schools are not immune to cliques, conformity and indoctrination. The only difference is flavor.

As Gatto plainly puts in his controversial thesis, “School trains children to be employees and consumers; teach your own to be leaders and adventurers. School trains children to obey reflexively; teach your own to think critically and independently.”

Unfortunately, homeschool just isn’t a choice for most families. I do wonder, however, if part of that is because we’re looking at it through the wrong, rigid lens. Perhaps if more of us start exploring the idea of micro-schools in people’s homes, we can manifest a more personable educational system through a tribal lens which would result in a more caring and flexible environment for each student.

I know this post quite hastily turned into a “pro-homeschool/anti-school” piece. But after many hours of crying and bewilderment that parents all over the country have put in due to such a sinister tragedy, eventually, we all have to ask ourselves, “What can I personally do to fix it?”

Every person and every family has their own path and it will all make sense in the end like a magnificent spider web. We know that the children who were killed that day aren’t suffering; that the suffering is for the living who have to endure such a loss. There’s a story of a great rishi named Vasishta whose one-hundred sons were all killed by a rakshasa (demon). Even he, the wisest and most evolved on his land, couldn’t handle the loss and tried to kill himself numerous times, but Nature wouldn’t let him. The grief of losing one’s child is real. But it’s not insurmountable. No matter what direction we choose in life, Nature always has an unforeseeable plan to use us for the greater good.


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