Back to School After a Shooting

Between a conversation with a Marshall teacher last week and another with a mental health care worker in Parkland, it’s clear that teachers in schools recently affected by gun violence are thinking about going back to school. Some are contemplating that first year back after the summer.

The summer after a shooting is a mixed bag. You miss your colleagues and have been worried about your students. You feel a little like a lifeline was severed, even as you are so relieved to have some of the pressure off. A colleague of mine put it best in May of 1999: “I just want to come have breakfast with you all every morning this summer. We can just be together, eat breakfast, and go home.” That would have been perfect.

I could write pages and pages about the first year, but instead, I’m going to condense to the most important things I can think of off-the-cuff:

  • You know that “new normal” everyone tells you is coming? It ain’t coming this year. And that’s a good thing, because this is going to be a hard, hard year. We kept stopping and looking at each other and asking, “My God, is this the new normal? Because if it is, I want off the ride. Now.” It is not the new normal. Give it a few years.
  • Personally, I recommend finding a good therapist. My husband was an awesome support system, and I was sure I could make it without a lot of outside help. (I didn’t really gel with the therapist I tried; I should have kept looking). The thing is, I didn’t really take into account what supporting me was costing my husband. Turns out it was a hell of a lot.
  • On that note: Form support groups for partners and spouses. The teachers are going to be hard to deal with, especially at home after giving everything they have at school all day. Partners need a place to vent where everyone gets it and no one judges because they are sick and tired of their messed-up partner/spouse.
  • You won’t be messed-up forever. I’ll say it again: You won’t be messed-up forever. Say it with me: We won’t be messed-up forever.
  • You will mostly be a basket case this year. It is not your new normal, and you won’t be messed-up forever.
  • You and the kids will hug and cry a lot. It’s OK. One time I was crying in the girls’ bathroom with a student while two other girls put on makeup and barely seemed to notice us. It was our temporary normal. We all got each other through.
  • While you can’t fall apart in front of your students, it’s OK to get weepy, and it’s OK to be honest about your own feelings. It’s vital to be honest. When they see you acknowledge and express your feelings, you give them permission to acknowledge and express theirs. If this makes outsiders (i.e. anyone who wasn’t there with you) uncomfortable, tough shit for them. Do NOT let anyone tell you that you have to be Iron Man in front of the kids.
  • Cut back on the workload for you and the kids. Don’t dumb-down, but do strip down to the most essential learning. Everyone’s attention span is at a low. New learning is difficult for traumatized brains, and you won’t have energy for the usual grading and planning load. If anyone tells you that you must continue to deliver instruction as you always have, tell them to take a hike.
  • You’re going to struggle in a tug-of-war between compassion and standards, knowing that the kids need all the skills they need for college and career. This year, err on the side of compassion. Next year, up the expectations. If you go too long on the compassion thing, it’s hard to come back. It’s complicated.
  • High schools need to remember that freshmen are in a weird place. They may be traumatized by proximity and family connections. They may not. It’s hard for them to blend into high school already, but one bound by tragedy? Even harder. Help them out. Admin needs to facilitate this with great attention and intention.
  • Don’t let anyone give you a timeline to “get over it.” There’s no schedule. Besides, you’ll never get over it. In time, you will be OKI absolutely promise that—but you will never “get over it.”
  • Hug each other. Love each other. Forgive each other and yourselves. Forgive it all—the times you bite each other’s heads off, or you think someone did something inappropriate, or you don’t get someone’s feelings or they don’t get yours. Breathe in the pain, feel it, acknowledge it, don’t judge, and breathe out love.

If you are an educator who has survived a shooting, and you have other questions, leave it in the comments, email me (use the contact button above), or ask on Facebook. BTW, if you haven’t joined The Rebels Project and The Rebels Project for Educators on Facebook, look into it. The groups are nothing but support for survivors.

Posted in Columbine | 8 Comments

What’s Good About Facebook?

We have a love/hate relationship with this social media giant, don’t we? I see friends post about cleaning out their own friends list or unfriending because Facebook has made relationships toxic.  The news is rife with stories of data mining, privacy violations, and fake news. There is clickbait and cyberstalking. No wonder people check out for Lent or a host of other reasons.

But I see something else more often. I see people post their vulnerabilities. Expressions of depression or failure or pain. I’ve watched names shift as young people struggle with their identity and gender expression. And I know some see this as TMI, too much sharing, all that. But when I see these posts, I hear, “I am fundamentally flawed. Does anyone love me anyway?” And I see comments that express love and support. I see numbers ticking up next to tiny hearts and thumbs up. I see little round faces shedding sympathetic tears.

I suppose I could be all cynical and say that support isn’t real, but I’m not cynical, and while I know the depth of those responses is varied, I also know each one is a whispered, “I do. I love you anyway. Like you, I am fundamentally flawed, but I can offer some small measure of comfort, and so I will.”

There’s not a damned thing wrong with that. I know it does a lot of good sometimes.

To all my friends who have found themselves calling out into the wilderness of social media, “I am fundamentally flawed. Does anyone love me anyway?” I offer this poem, which was read in church this morning:

The Guest House

This being human is a guest house.

Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,

some momentary awareness comes

as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!

Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,

who violently sweep your house

empty of its furniture,

still, treat each guest honorably.

He may be clearing you out

for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice.

meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.

Be grateful for whatever comes.

because each has been sent

as a guide from beyond.

— Jellaludin Rumi,

translation by Coleman Barks


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Red for Ed

After a weekend at a Labor Notes conference, I sit here in contract negotiations and reflect upon the fact that I have never done the most important things in my life alone. Having and raising kids was a team effort, not just between my husband and me, but other friends and family, as well. My classroom is synergy between my students and me, and my colleagues have made a huge impact, too. Of course, there was the recall in 2015. There are bigger things on the horizon, and for me, they start with wearing red to school tomorrow.

In 2013, when I joined a fairly small group of people who were determined to keep three people from taking over our schools and undermining our kids, I knew a lot of people thought we were taking on a Sisyphean task. “What’s the point of wearing blue on Thursdays?” they asked. “That won’t make any difference.” Actually, blue Thursdays was the start of something big. Red Tuesdays are even bigger.

Red for Ed Tuesdays began in West Virginia. I had the opportunity to hear a number of West Virginia’s teachers last weekend. You know about West Virginia, right? The lowest paid educators from some of the most poorly funded schools in the country, when the state decided to make major incursions into their health insurance, the educators decided to do something. They started with Red for Ed.

Why? What difference could a bunch of red shirts make? Well, for one thing, it built solidarity. It told every educator who was frustrated and scared, both of losing health insurance they could afford and of getting in trouble for making a fuss, that they were not alone. Later, it let their leaders know how many people were prepared to take action.

Teachers don’t usually do things that will impact their classrooms unless they think the impact will ultimately be positive. The state legislature of West Virginia may have thought a bunch of educators in red shirts was no problem, but they soon learned differently. For one thing, it wasn’t just licensed staff. It was bus drivers, food service workers, paraprofessionals–you know, the people who make the everyday operations of a school possible.

Eventually, a bunch of harmless red shirts escalated into a strike from February 22-March 7. Health insurance is a work in progress, but the strike brought the legislature to the table prepared to offer a 5% raise. As I write this, the Oklahoma teachers (after following the Red for Ed Tuesday message set by West Virginia) are in their second week of striking.

Do you really think red shirts on Tuesdays won’t deliver a powerful message to Colorado elected leaders? I think at this point those shirts could make leaders sweat on sight.

Colorado is in the bottom 5 states for educator salaries. If you think that the Colorado State legislature should make education a budget priority, if you think Jeffco’s school board should raise teacher salaries before they fund new positions in the Ed Center, then you know what to do tomorrow and every Tuesday after until we see action. Will one red shirt make a difference? Probably not. Thousands of red shirts? That’s power.

And while I’m talking about power, if you want attracting and retaining quality teachers to be a priority in Jeffco, let’s start seeing more of us at negotiations on Mondays.

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There are seven weeks left in the final semester of my classroom career. It’s been a difficult year. Teaching ACE has always been a challenge, and there have been countless rewards. One of them has been the often hard-earned respect of my students.

For well over twenty years of teaching this class, I left the classroom door unlocked so students could find a space in the school that felt like home. They could come use a computer for another class or just get a little peace and quiet. In all of those years, I have never had a single incident of vandalism or theft. This year, I have had to lock my door during lunch because of things being stolen from my office and issues with computers.

It is not uncommon at the beginning of the year to have to teach my students the basics of showing respect. Getting them to understand that promptness is a sign of respect. That owning it when you make a mistake is a strength and a step toward relationship building. One of the incredible rewards come spring has been looking out at kids who get to class on time and take responsibility in ways they didn’t before. There have always been kids who didn’t reach that point, but they were the exception, not the rule.

This year…

Don’t get me wrong. I do have some very respectful kids trying hard to get their lives on track. I often wonder if they get tired of walking into a classroom every day where respect is so undervalued by so many of their classmates.

I don’t know what’s changed. Is it me? Am I just tired and more sensitive than I used to be? Is it the world of adults that kids are modeling? A president who accepts no responsibility for anything? They come from rough backgrounds, and I get that, but I’ve had lots of students from rough backgrounds, and somehow we managed to eke out solid relationships built on mutual respect. Many of my students this year consider themselves disrespected whenever they are corrected. A significant number of them lie and talk back without compunction. Despite a year of trying to build them up, they still don’t understand that expectations are, in themselves, a sign of my respect–respect for their intelligence and potential. I used to be able to convince most kids that this was the case.

The hearts of kids have not changed. One-on-one, I get along well with almost all of my kids. I hear them speak so genuinely of their desire to achieve, to make something of themselves, to be respected by their peers and teachers. Some have figured it out, and they are on their way. Most this year are saying all the right words alone in the ACE office with me or the ACE paraeducator, then going out into the room and intentionally messing up the cooperative games we play or refusing to do any sort of work that is challenging, perfectly happy to take the F, even in an environment where, if you try, you cannot fail.

I’m feeling sad in this last year of my career, and because it is the last, I am sadder still. I am proud of the students who are succeeding. I just wish I had managed to figure how to get more of them to that place.

Addendum (March 22)

I don’t give up. It’s just not in me. Today, my students and I worked together to really dive into the idea of respect, into the specifics of moral values (which are fixed) and rules (which are too often twisted). They seemed engaged. One kid said it was the best lesson all year. Did it make a difference? Tomorrow will tell…

Addendum (March 23): Nada. Sigh.

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To Arms?

Would I want to carry a gun in the classroom? I’ve been giving this some thought lately, in part because I’ve been answering this question for journalists, but more since I talked to my students about it Friday.

With journalists, I have started here: 1) The only way a gun is really of any use in a crisis is if it is loaded and on my person throughout the school day. 2) Given what I (and most teachers) wear, I cannot really conceal a weapon. 3) I am a 5’2”, 55-year-old woman. 4) Teenagers are developmentally impulsive. In a fit of pique, they are mostly just difficult, but a 6-foot, angry, impulsive boy can easily overcome me. 5) If I have a gun, and he takes it, you now have 6-foot, angry, impulsive boy with a gun he would not have otherwise had, and he is dangerous.

The response I often hear is that if I am not comfortable with a gun, I would not be made to carry one. Great. What if I decide that I am comfortable carrying a gun? How does that change any of the above? It doesn’t. It just means I’m armed and I have bad judgment.

That’s been my standard response, until I found myself talking to my students about it.

I looked into all their faces, and this is what I know: If one of my students pulled out a gun, I could not shoot him dead on the spot. Now, before you wonder whether or not I care about my other students, I want to ask you this: If your son or daughter pulled out a gun in the presence of your other children, could you shoot your child dead without hesitation? No? It’s no different for me. I would definitely hesitate. I would say, “Wait, Johnny, don’t make a decision that…”

And then I might well be dead, and that child would have a second loaded weapon that he did not have to begin with. And I’m sorry, but there would probably be other deaths to follow, and I’m even sorrier if they are any other children in that classroom that I love (which means any other child in that classroom, period). But if it’s your child who is holding the gun, and I don’t die, but manage to talk him down, you’ll be damned glad I couldn’t shoot.

If I have a gun, and I just shoot, none of us will ever know whether I could have talked him down, but that child’s parents and I will wonder for the rest of our lives, and honestly, mine would be pretty short, because I just couldn’t live with that. Then again, going through a shooting unarmed was very nearly the end of me anyway.

Now do you understand what you ask of a teacher when you ask her to carry a gun, or if you ask her not to?

This is why we have to do better at keeping guns out of kids’ hands. I don’t have immediate suggestions. Honestly, I don’t feel like I have enough information, but this whole “it’s too soon to talk about it,” and “don’t politicize it,” and our refusal to contextualize the Second Amendment (either in today’s terms or in the terms explicitly stated by the framers of the Constitution) is absurd.

Don’t ask me whether I love my students enough to defend them with a gun or too much to shoot one of them. Ask this country whether we love all of our children enough to get serious about objectively gathering the data we need to make good policy and then making good policy.

Posted in Columbine, Education, Life, the Universe, and Everything, Politics | 5 Comments

My Sometimes Solicited, Sometimes Unsolicited Advice

On Facebook, from friends with children going through the death of a beloved pet to fellow survivors facing the first anniversary of their shooting, I’m seeing all kinds of posts for how to get through the event. There’s lots of advice–breathe, meditate, do something to get your mind off of it–and none of it is bad. It’s just that some things are so bad they just make you feel really shitty, and I’m here to say there’s nothing wrong with feeling shitty about them.

There’s a certain amount of shame that goes with trying out all that good advice and still being miserable:

“What’s wrong with me? I’m trying to breathe, but I can’t because I’m so anxious. Other people just breathe their way through this. Why can’t I?” Look, breathing is important, and it can help, but if you’re dealing with recent trauma or a significant anniversary of trauma, can just be really hard to breathe.

“Go to a movie; get your mind off it.” If everything in the movie, even though it’s a comedy and everyone around you is laughing, makes you think of your pain, it’s because you’re in pain. If you break your leg, no one expects a movie, however funny, to furnish all your pain relief.

But even what I’m writing here can be shaming. If you’re getting through the anniversary or event pretty well, words like mine can make you think, “Why am I not wallowing in agony? Have I become desensitized? Did I ever even really care about the person or people (or pet) I lost? Will I be numb the rest of my life?”

Different brains process this stuff differently. Some people have to burn off the energy of their emotions, so they climb a 14,000 foot mountain or run a marathon. Some people can barely get out of bed.

My advice–listen to yourself. If you need to cry, cry. If you are all cried out and you need to laugh, watch a funny movie and laugh. But don’t worry if you cry in the middle of it, too. If you can’t seem to feel anything, don’t push it. I do some of my best purging of household stuff on days like that because I can be really objective about what to keep and what to cull.

The effects of really profound grief and trauma, like an assault or other act of violence that involved you, the loss of a child, that kind of thing, last a really long time. They just do. You never really get over it, so if people ask you when you’re going to do that–get over it–the answer is never. You’re going to learn to live with it, and that’s a long process. And that process looks different from survivor to survivor. Some of us are an obvious mess. Some of us look like we have our shit together on the outside, while secretly thinking of shoving our hands through a window and grating all the skin off our arms. And you know what–somehow, some way, some people manage this process pretty smoothly. I don’t know how they do it, but I don’t think it makes them insensitive or anyone else weak.

One more thing–it’s totally OK to ask for help. Trust me, the acting like you’re OK while secretly contemplating suicide will eventually bite in you the butt really hard. Think of yourself as a role model. Would you want someone in pain to look at you and say, “So-and-so did this alone, so I have to, too,” or would you rather they said, “If so-and-so got the therapy and/or meds they needed, maybe I should get help, too”?

So anyway, for anyone dealing with tough events and anniversaries, may you find peace–whether for a moment or a day.

Posted in Columbine, Life, the Universe, and Everything | 4 Comments


I have to admit, as I watch powerful men in all industries, from entertainment to higher education, tumble from their ivory towers in the #metoo movement, there are moments I have felt bewildered by it, or maybe that’s not the word. I’m not sure there is a word.

Please understand, this is not a justification or apology for anything these men have done. It is not a plea for clemency, as you will see.

I grew up in a world where I knew from a pretty early age that many (not all) men would see me as an object. I knew I had to be able to set firm boundaries and hold them. If those boundaries were breached, the message I consistently received was that the fault would be mine. It was the female condition, and no one seemed to think there was anything wrong with things being this way. Women didn’t like it; they decried being sex objects, but at the same time, we pretty much dealt with it. It was like having to drive somewhere in a blizzard because you had to get there or suffering through colds and fevers throughout life. It kind of sucked, but it was reality.

Am I the only one who thinks it kind of created a certain amount of Stockholm syndrome among women? Didn’t we just sort of reach a point where we felt it was the price of being female?

So I’m …flummoxed? Is that what I am? I’m just so shocked to see so many people of both sexes suddenly caring about what I grew up pretty much accepting as a fact of life. Like, there are real consequences—teeth—behind what used to be mere platitudes about respect for women.

And I guess…God, I know I’m going to get lambasted for saying this…I can imagine that men, especially men of a certain age, are flummoxed, as well. They grew up believing this was their right. It must feel like “suddenly” this once normal behavior is wrong. It feels like standards have shifted. I would argue the moral standard has always been there, but the societal standard was not.

I once had a conversation with a fellow speech coach about utilitarianism—the greatest good for the greatest number. He asserted that its chief weakness appeared when a majority inflicted pain on a minority, and he gave as an example a gang rape, which he asserted allowed the greatest good (sex) to the greatest number (the group of men). He was flummoxed—yes, that is the word—when I asserted that the rape was not good for the men. It may have been pleasurable, it may have imbued them with a sense of power, which they found satisfying, but good is a moral principle, in which case the rape was bad for everyone involved. He tried the attack again using the example of slavery, which I rebutted with the same argument. Slavery is immoral; therefore it cannot be good for anyone, even the apparent beneficiaries.

It is tempting to feel a bit sorry for the men who have been exposed and are being held accountable for what appears on the surface to be shifting standards in behavior, but the existence of so many men of all ages who have not engaged in this behavior speaks to our innate understanding of morality. The fact that society permits certain behaviors does not excuse us from moral responsibility for them.

In a time when so many people are getting away with so much greed and corruption, it is encouraging to see a fight for good going well.

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How Sweet It Is!

I cannot tell you how many times, especially between 2013 and 2015, I heard my colleagues bemoan how much the general public hates teachers. Many refused to participate in actions our union organized, from things as basic as wearing blue on Thursdays to bigger things like attending board meetings and hosting house parties, because they were so sure the public hated us.

A few brave souls, at first, waded into the troubled waters. They wore the blue, went to the meetings, held the parties, and they learned the truth–our students’ parents do trust us! They appreciate what we do and respect our expertise!

Word began to spread. The pictures of staff members in blue on Thursdays included more and more people. Teachers made signs and held them in front of schools, and then again on Wadsworth with all those wonderful, supportive community members. House parties sprang up all over the county. And then community decided to do something.

Remember that recall in 2015? Remember the rush? The joyous feeling that the people of Jeffco really do care about kids and really do understand that teachers only want what’s best for them?

Two years have passed, and last night’s election confirmed it: Our county decided to continue giving a chance to the three new board members to keep Jeffco moving forward. Why? Because educators and others who care about Jeffco kids knocked on doors, made phone calls, and got the word out. As I stood on all those doorsteps on four different Saturdays, nobody told me how much they hate the teachers’ union or teachers themselves. Over and over, they said that if the educators in Jeffco said these were the folks for the job, they’d vote for them, and vote for them they did!

Relax. Bask in that warm feeling. But remember, we’ll be asked to walk, knock, and talk again. No excuse-making! We know it makes a difference. You know you can make a difference, a difference that will ripple far beyond your life and touch the lives of nearly 85,000 children and the future ahead of them. Ask anyone who did the work for this election: It feels damn good!

Posted in Education, Life, the Universe, and Everything, Politics | Leave a comment

Trans Annos

Right now, understandably, there are a whole lot of shooting survivors asking, “What now? What does the rest of my life look like?” Because right now it looks insurmountable. This is my frustrated attempt to communicate to them via Facebook. When I posted this list on a wall meant for violence survivors, Facebook stuck a big thumbnail for the first post over the list, obliterating the rest of it. People only saw that first post. I wanted to convey what this journey has looked like for me for the last 18 years, not just at first.

Whether you’re a survivor, or the friend or family of a survivor, or just curious, feel free to follow this list around the various blog entries I’ve written. There’s a lot here, so feel free to take your time, especially if you’re still dealing with a high degree of trauma and still have the attention span of a gnat. I remember those days all too well.

My own experience of PTSD (published on the Sandy Hook Columbine Cooperative after the Aurora shooting, but it’s my story):…/story-high-school-teacher-2/

Written six years after for Red Lake after their shooting:

Written eight years after for Virginia Tech:

Written 14 years after for Sandy Hook on their first anniversary:

Written 15 years after for Sandy Hook on their second anniversary:

Written 17 years after, for whomever:

Okay, the good, the bad, the ugly, the honest; written last Monday, venting:

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No Words, Only Sound

Forgive the rambling nature of this entry—the lack of a single, coherent thesis.

I woke up this morning to the image of stricken young people. I didn’t know their faces, but I know that expression. I know that expression.

Then I saw a photo of a blood-spattered girl lying in a parking lot, and I thought, “In The New York Times? Have we gotten so sensational?” Because, you see, I haven’t watched television news in 18 ½ years. I have sheltered myself from those images.

And then I thought “Good for them, God damn it! Make America look at a blood-spattered girl in the denim shorts she put on before the concert, looking for the right combination of cute and comfortable. When she was excited to be going to the music festival. When she was young and had forever in front of her. Good for you, New York Times! Rub everyone’s face in it. Make them a feel a fraction of what I feel!”

I spent the morning on the edge of tears, my stomach churning, my head spinning.

I couldn’t take it anymore, and when classes were over I left school and went shopping for ingredients for chicken noodle soup and cornbread. Comfort food.

On the way home, I had NPR on, and the reporter was interviewing a country music journalist who had been at the concert. He talked about how they thought it was fireworks at first, just like us. Then they realized, and he was in the disabled people’s section, and he told of able-bodied people risking themselves to push wheelchairs and carry people. The reporter asked, “Do you mind if I play a clip?” and he said, “No.”


How could he know whether or not he minded? He’d never been in a situation where, hours after fleeing for his life, carrying people who couldn’t walk and then filling his car with strangers while the woman in the car ahead of him was shot, he might be asked to listen to a video clip of the trauma. What a stupid God damned question!

I turned off my radio and sobbed and wailed, sounds I haven’t heard come out of me in years. Driving down the street filling my car with anguish. No words, only sound.

But good for you NPR. LISTEN TO THOSE PEOPLE, AMERICA! Listen to the shots and the screams. LISTEN!

And fuck you, NRA, for always insisting that now is not the time or place to talk about the issue of guns in America. Look, I get that a woman who has been wailing in her car and is now typing in all caps is not the person who should be making gun legislation, but at some point we have to start caring enough to call bullshit on people who say we can never even talk about the toll guns are taking on our country. Calmer heads than mine can have the conversation about balancing safety and freedom, but that conversation has to happen!

So LOOK, AMERICA at the blood-spattered youth and the vacant, shocked, staring eyes. LISTEN, AMERICA to the shots and the screams.

Me, I’m just going to retreat into Lorazepam and chicken soup. Talk amongst yourselves.

Posted in Columbine, Life, the Universe, and Everything, Politics | 3 Comments