When I Die

“Ms. Z, did you see that dude who killed all those people in Florida?” my student greeted me at the door.

“Yes,” I replied grimly. “I hope you know I’m not taking a bullet for any of you guys!” I joked, trying to relieve the tension.

But they know better. They know I would.

You can joke about it in junior high; you have to deflect fear the with humor. Many schools live in oblivion, believing it can never happen, or won’t happen, to them. But as the statistics climb higher, with 291 school shootings in America since 2013, the odds of it actually happening to someone we know are rising.

How is this even possible?

The first one was a tragedy. The second, an anomaly.

The 291st? Just another blip in the news.

They wring their hands, they send their love. But stuffed bears and cards of condolences won’t repair the lives of the students, parents, teachers & families that have been destroyed. Literally, destroyed.

Let it sink in for a minute. What if your child wasn’t coming home today?

I would go home to find a messy room, Hershey’s wrappers tucked in between the daybed mattress and the wall. A teal record player with a Hamilton record would sit silent on a desk, next to Instax pictures of friends, pets and family. A pile of stuffed animals, the pale, rainbow pastel llama that “needs a home,” would wait patiently on the bed for its owner, who would never return. A bright blue, furry, handmade muppet would sit on the nightstand next to the bed, never to speak in its distinctive, tiny little voice again. The silence, something I used to long for while my daughter talked incessantly,  would be unbearable.

Is it morbid to imagine my daughter gone? Everyone with a child should practice this exercise just once; it was the first thing I thought of when the news of the shooter began to ping the news notifications on my phone. And yet I know I cannot begin to imagine the grief of the people affected. I went home and hugged my daughter tightly. We were lucky today.

It fills me with absolute rage that we are here again, making excuses, deflecting the obvious problems. Rage for the parents who have to endure an unspeakable pain. Rage for the broken families who lost someone who SELFLESSLY sacrificed their life for someone else’s children. Let’s call them heroes, because they are…. but that’s not why they were there. They were there because they CARE, and neglectful legislation forced them to take a bullet to protect the lives they were entrusted with.

It’s about damn time someone else cared about THEM.

Some of these shootings we never saw coming, but in many cases, there were warning signs. Many of them could have been prevented with mental health interventions or stricter gun laws. I know this sets off a firestorm of controversy, but we can no longer ignore the rising instances of mass shootings in general, and school shootings specifically. This is the most egregious waste of innocence; we are supposed to be a civilized society. We have to move the conversation forward. We have to change SOMETHING. The status quo is not just broken, but deteriorating.

When I die protecting my students, don’t you dare wring your hands and lament over what a “hero” I was. Don’t you dare send your thoughts and prayers to my daughter, whose entire world will be shattered. Don’t you put a stuffed bear where I fell to honor my sacrifice. Don’t put my name on the news and list my accomplishments, or my hopes and dreams for the future.

When I die, know that I blame you for being complicit in this continued slaughter of innocent lives. I will die with contempt for the legislature that refused to come together and discuss a solution to this rising epidemic. I will die with antipathy in my heart for an apathetic society, and a profound sadness that it all could have been avoided.

When I die, channel your grief into rage, and channel that rage into change.

Because without that change, it won’t matter when I die. I will quickly be forgotten as the next tragedy unfolds.

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