This is how I felt, when an early-morning text alerted me to the terror in Orlando. This is how I feel, as the story unfolds and 49 beautiful lives are gone. As I watch Anderson Cooper struggle to say the names of the victims, as I read about their lives and families and see their pictures, as I think about how we all have gone out dancing until dawn, or to a restaurant, or a movie theater, or a school, or a church–to safe spaces where we feel at home. How do you even breathe?
The news immediately took me back to April 16, 2007. I was home on spring break when my sister called, saying there had been a shooting at Virginia Tech, where my brother was a freshman, but she talked to him, he was safe, he expected the lockdown to lift soon. We decided to not even tell my mom until she got home from work that day; no need for her to worry when the situation seemed relatively minor. Then came another phone call from my sister–all the sudden, it became clear that the situation was just unfolding, the casualty count climbing, and we could no longer get ahold of my brother. The horror of that day comes back as if no time has passed, each time another one of these tragedies occurs (why on earth do I have to write that sentence? Why is there always another one? How do you even breathe?).
Where do we go from here? So clearly, gun control–assault rifles have no place in civilian hands, it in no way makes our society safer to allow this, I just don’t know what the problem is in making this happen, there can’t be many of us left that don’t have a personal connection to a tragic shooting. And, as Virginia Tech showed us, we need a more comprehensive approach to mental health in this country. These are enormous topics, ones that I’m not an expert on, but I know we can do better.
Since Sandy Hook, I’ve learned new school safety procedures. I’ve endured simulations in classrooms with the local police department firing blanks as I barricade doors. I’ve learned, along with my colleagues, how to evacuate a school in a shooter situation, or in the worst case scenarios, strategies for distracting or confronting an attacker. Yes, I feel more empowered to act in these imagined situations. I believe this training, were I ever to have to put it to use, would give me and my students an advantage. Live, or die trying–it makes sense. But how do you even breathe?
Coming back to those 49 lives lost, and the 53 more injured–somebody’s child, somebody’s partner, taken way too early. The fact that it was Latin Night at a gay club during Pride. The shooter, as more information surfaces–an extremist, a terrorist, homophobic, perhaps even a member of the LGBTQ community he tried to terrorize. The varied responses by political figures, some calling for even more hate and intolerance. What gives me hope is the multitude of responses, from communities around the world, that embrace love, inclusion, understanding and empathy in the wake of such terror. People from all backgrounds and experiences have come together over the last few days to demonstrate their conviction that we are strongest when we acknowledge and respect our diverse perspectives, and treat all humans with love and respect regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity, race, or religion. This is how I breathe.
This is how I breathe, knowing that each day I can go to work and teach, model, and practice with students the work of understanding, of kindness. I can teach them about those who are different from themselves, who have experiences they haven’t been exposed to yet, and I can show them the underlying strands of humanity that keep us all connected despite differences of opinion and experience. It’s not something I can do alone; these are lessons that need to be echoed throughout the home, school, community and country not just when we’re facing a crisis of terror, but every day. But for now, today, when the tears come every time I’m alone in the car, or in my classroom, or in a public space that should be safe, this is how I breathe.