School shootings hit differently when I was a teacher. I didn’t process them the same. Shit, I didn’t process them at all. I thought about a possible school shooting at least once a day while working in my classroom…a loud door slam, a noise from a large truck on Route 1…
Even if I wasn’t triggered by a noise, I thought about them more and more as the years went on, for obvious reasons.
But there was something about being in the classroom that made me feel like I had some sense of control. Or maybe I was repressing so much fear and trauma that I couldn’t really stop to think about it actually happening. You can’t stop to question in war. You just have to follow orders and keep moving forward. Tend to the wounded and keep fighting.
I had a family member tell me, “that could never happen here.” That’s when I politely brought up Colleen Ritzer, a tragedy that occurred miles from my school building. But I understand why a family member would have to say that out loud. Because they also thought about me dying in a classroom. It’s way easier to repress, deflect, delude. I knew, as they did, deep down, I would jump in front of my kids. And that was a reality I had to accept. Every. Fucking. Morning.
When my school told us we would be participating in ALICE training, something I actually agreed with in my first years of teaching, my emotional response shifted. It became a hard no. For those who don’t know, ALICE is active shooter training, where you’re taught to fight back in various ways. Part of the training is listening to gun shots, car back firings, etc. Hard no. I refused. I am not a soldier, nor am I a police officer, and never will be.
Two different administrators came to my room. We talked about it. The answer was still no. It was the reason I started up my therapy sessions again because I would fight this all the way to court if I had to. I started telling my therapist things I’ve never told anyone. I figured if I could get it all out, I could get a note as a way out of this training. However, that note wouldn’t get me out of an active shooter situation.
I’ve been out of the classroom for over a year now, and I know various shootings have taken place, but there is something about Uvalde that just feels different. There is something about this incident, for various reasons we can all describe and define, that I know I’ll never be able to shake. This one is sitting heavy in my heart.
At first I thought the blow felt so massive because I’m working from home now, away from the real-life experience of reading the headlines in my own classroom. I don’t think that’s it. I know that’s not it. Here, at home, I can self-soothe in all the ways I never could working on location. Here, I don’t have to hide my tears. Here, I can take breaks and real days off without trying to figure out sub work. (I think that last one is comic relief for the teachers out there.)
Then I thought about how deep I slipped into depression this winter. How severely the despair overtook me in March and April specifically, and how exacerbated it all became between Ukraine, Israel/Palestine, Roe v. Wade, the list goes on. How I kept slipping and slipping into an intense sadness I hadn’t felt since my drug days. A feeling I didn’t think could dive any fucking deeper into the pit. That pit, man. The depths of my abyss doesn’t stare back.
Put all of these things together and you have such a nasty casserole of inedible swill that aims to choke us all, one by one.
I think what frustrates me most about myself is my undying will. This ridiculous speck of undying optimism that has kept me going through my darkest days, through the world’s darkest days. That speck told me (and still does) that people only know what they know, and a good teacher can change the world. I still believe all that, but my ability to teach 9th grade English left on a jet plane one fine day and crashed into the sea. That aspect of me is so truly gone, and yet, there is this deep, deep need to help, to share, to educate, to soothe, to heal, to hold space. However, I don’t have the energy or the space to actually do any of it. Thus, we find internal conflict.
I remember reading Fahrenheit 451 for the first time and promising myself I would NEVER be a Faber. Ever. Yet…here I am, feeling like one, every single day I wake up. And honestly, I’m happier, truly and deeply happier than I’ve ever been. It’s a conflict I cannot explain anymore clearly than I’m attempting to do right now. I’m still working through it all.
So, what does one do with an old dream and new feelings? Or maybe old feelings and no new dream?
Let me tell you a story…
Last week, I heard a weird flapping noise outside of my kitchen window. My cat, Kylo, was scratching at the screen, a behavior he’s never exhibited in his 4+ years in our home. I ended up shutting the window because I was afraid he’d push out the screen and fall.
That night, I went out on my roof deck to smoke a cigarette. I heard the flapping noise again. I followed the sound to the corner of my house. On the side, there is some kind of round overhang that houses electrical wires. I’d seen a bird’s nest in there months prior. Dangling upside down from the wires was a bird. One of its legs was stuck, and it was unable to free itself. My stomach turned, as I reached for my phone to call my landlord. I can’t believe I let that bird dangle there all day. I didn’t know it was a bird, but I immediately blamed myself.
My landlord said there was nothing he could do, so I started Googling and thinking. The roof doesn’t reach to that electrical outlet. There is a two foot gap between the roof and the side of the house. And I don’t have a ladder. Here I go, “jumping in front of my kids.”
Now, it’s in this moment, all I can think about is the Friend’s episode where they poke “ugly naked guy” with chopsticks. There are electrical wires in the way, but if I use a wooden handle to try and free the bird, I won’t electrocute myself right? I didn’t try it, but my neighbor did. To no avail, she couldn’t get the bird free. We called everyone we could think of and all calls said National Grid was the solution. Yeah, like National Grid is going to send someone out to free a fucking bird. I was growing sicker by the minute.
So, what did we do? We watched the fucking bird die. Feet away. With no supports. With nothing to help it. I just sat there smoking cigarettes, telling myself if I was so hopelessly stuck, I’d want someone there with me in my last hours. So that’s what I did, until it was so late, I needed to get to bed.
I took one of my remaining Ativan to sleep because I was so hopelessly devastated over this fucking bird. Because I failed the bird. I should have done more. But I’ve been stuck in my own damn wires for the last few months, desperately trying to free myself…
Is this really about the bird? Yes and no. That entire incident was a metaphor reflecting exactly how it feels to exist in the US right now, or at least how I feel and have been feeling since January. We are all so close to each other, so close to supporting and helping and fixing, but there is literally nothing we can do to stop that damn bird from dying. National Grid could have. There are organizations within this country that can solve a lot of the problems I listed above. But it seems like we’ve been making those calls and nobody is answering the phone…I digress…
When I was in the classroom, I had this false sense of security that I was helping. And that’s not to demean the work I did. I never toot my own horn, and those who know me well, know I struggle to take a compliment. But I was a damn good teacher. It’s the only thing I’ve ever believed I was good at, was put on this Earth to do. But even with the good I did, I was still the girl smoking a cigarette on a roof deck; the illusion of support by making calls and playing a weird version of a piñata game with a broom stick.
I know you want a silver lining. I know you want the moral that will make us all feel better. While I don’t necessarily have that (yet) this time around, here’s what I’ll say: I make sure my roof deck is clean. I have my chairs, and decorative pillows, and solar lights, and umbrella. I have my plants and flowers and fairy gardens. I come outside each morning and attempt to enjoy 20 stupid minutes of Vitamin D. Then I come back out at night with my vampire blood, put on music, and smoke as I watch the stars appear in the sky, wondering what the fuck is going on up there. And smile when the song hits just right. And cry when it hits just wrong. Loving it all because it’s me and the world, alone on my roof.
I can invite people to my roof deck. I can sing from my roof deck. I can make that roof deck beautiful. (Sometimes I scream from my roof deck, too.) And that’s the lesson. That’s all we can do right now. Is focus on making our own roof decks beautiful, with the hope that others who aren’t caring for theirs, or maybe don’t know how, or maybe need someone else’s roof deck for support, will see the example and learn.
But for many of us, we are so worn down from this psychological battle. And that's okay. Because it has to be. I’ve learned it’s okay to tap out. To just sit on that damn roof deck for a minute and remind myself this world is beautiful. That nature is pure magic, that humans have mapped the stars and created scientific genius. That just to be here, whatever this is, is an honor and a blessing, even in the worst of times. (It’d be really cool if we could start working towards the other half of that Dickens novel, though…)
For the last few months, sitting on my roof deck is the only thing I’ve been able to do. And some days, just sitting on it was difficult enough. Sitting with myself. With my trauma. With my past. With an uncertain present. And a future that feels like it will only bring sadness. Sitting, sometimes, is the hardest act of all, and a fucking brave one at that. Don’t let anyone ever tell you differently.
I’ll never give up the fight. Any of them. It’s simply not in my nature, but I’ll tell you this: I’m tired as hell. I’m beaten. I’m broken. And for once, I’m not ashamed to admit it. Any of it. I think we were taught, especially us elder millennials, to “suck it up” too often, to push it down too frequently, and that “it is what it is” as a means to escape. I’m here to say: Fuck you to those who let these atrocities happen, I love you to those who are suffering, and this sucks right now to those trying to tell themselves everything is “fine” because it fucking isn’t.
It’s not my attitude that’s the problem. I do not have a broken perspective. And I don’t need to see the positive in any of this. Because when tragedies happen, there is no silver lining. Stop painting the fucking picture with sunshine and see the trees for what they are. Because until we all sit in that pit, nothing will change. Keep your love and light bullshit away from me.
Here’s the conclusion:
No matter how broken I am. No matter how tired I am. I will never accept the nation and the state of the world in this condition. I will never allow this to be my reality, to look at the country and say, “I’m okay with it.” If that means I live with this existential dread and depression for the rest of my life — so be it. I will not turn away from it. I will not repress it. And I will not accept it. I will allow it to exist next to me as a constant reminder, until we can find a way to change a very broken people, system, nation, and world. I will continue to smoke a cigarette next to the dying birds. Because someone needs to bear witness and not sugar coat the reality.
If you feel the same, you’re welcome to come sit next to me on my roof deck and await the revolution. Bring a song that saved your life, and of course, bring me a fucking Twisted Tea.