The day after the Parkland massacre, one of my high school students asked me if I would take a bullet for him. We’d been discussing the shooting — I offered a freewheeling, no judging, no holds barred discussion — and someone brought up the excruciating heroics of Scott Beigel and Aaron Feis, a teacher and a coach who’d given their lives for their students. Would I do that?
He was joking, sort of, with a fond, teasing tone. He’d asked with a smile. I was about to respond with my own smart-alecky comment when I noticed the atmosphere in the room had changed. Suddenly, it was no joke. Whether it was morbid curiosity or fear or longing for reassurance — they wanted to know. I took a breath, nodded, and answered, honestly, “I don’t know any teacher in this school who wouldn’t.” I thought of Beigel’s grieving mother and fiance, of Feis’ bereaved family, of my wife, my sons. Then I quickly changed the subject.
Who are we to these children? It’s a question I’ve often asked myself this year, during this odd, late-career transformation, when I spend more than half my time teaching high school. I’m an authority figure, with some limited control of the classroom, and the power to bestow a bad grade (a power I haven’t used yet). In this sense, I’m something of an adversary, though it doesn’t feel like it, at least to me. I’m also a mentor, someone they occasionally turn to for advice, or comfort, or just friendly conversation. I’m a friend in a rather narrow definition of the term; I like them, wish them the best. I’m an educator, with knowledge to share, and sometimes wisdom. There are teachers in my school who blend these roles with a perfect harmony, but I don’t. Like many of the students, I muddle through this confusing relationship, growing, and enjoying the journey.
Do I now add bodyguard as the final, perhaps defining element of the relationship? I think of secret service agents, sworn to sacrifice their lives to keep their charges alive. Of Janusz Korzak, who marched with his students into the gas chambers. What a mad world we live in, that these thoughts even come to mind, that the words guns and teachers suddenly find their way into the same headlines, the same tweets, the same policy paragraphs! There are many ways I imagined I might spend the twilight years of my career. Carrying a gun never entered my imagination. It does now. Last night I even dreamed about it.
In one of my favorite stories from the Talmud, a teacher attempts to visit the grave of a former student (he wants to bring the student back to life — maybe another role for a teacher?). A snake guards the grave. The teacher proclaims, “Snake, snake, let the teacher in to see the student.” The snake refuses. “Let the friend in to see the friend,” the teacher says. Again, the snake refuses. “Let the student in to see the teacher,” the teacher says, and the snake lets him pass.
I thought of that story, of how students become teachers, when I watched the inspiring gang from Parkland and other places demand solutions to gun violence. My first thought, like many of us, was — don’t they know? This happens after every mass shooting. A wave of activism, and then nothing. Why bother?
But, almost against my will, the cynicism passed. Maybe it’s the blessed spirit of naivete that informs every high school teacher, but I sense something new in these kids, something steadfast and real. Their anger seems colored with determination. Their sadness isn’t burdened by despair. In any case, I’m paying attention, and if they ask me to march, or walk out, or just shut up and sit down, I will.
“I’ve learned some from my teachers, much from my colleagues, but most from my students.” Another wildly wise message from the rabbis about education. They seemed magically to have our precise moment in mind when they examined the endlessly complex teacher-student dynamic. Honestly, I don’t really know who I am to these kids at anyone time, or, for that matter, what to do about gun violence, or school shootings, or campus security, or even how to keep them safe and sane. Maybe they know better than I. Anyway, I’m listening.