Sometime around 2005 in a Congolese village, a little girl watched as men burst into her family’s home, pulled her grandparents outside, and brutally murdered them. On July 20, 2012, that same girl, then a teenager spending summer vacation in Colorado with her sister, went to the movies. Five months later, seated in a small desk in a cramped classroom trailer, she began her school day, like any other, by watching an excerpt from the morning news. But on this day, she learned of the 26 people, mostly children, killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. As pictures of the smiling children transitioned from Sandy Hook to the larger national horror story of mass shootings, scenes of the past summer’s terror at the Aurora, Colorado movie theater filled the screen, and she remembered.
But not in the way you might imagine.
She wasn’t tentative or shaky; she wasn’t tearing up, nor did she go on the offensive. She simply yelled out, as other eleventh graders might yell an answer to a friend sitting across the room, “Oh yeah, I was there!” And then she walked over to the pencil sharpener and stuck her pencil in.
The teenagers I teach are no strangers to trauma. They arrive in the US already survivors of being smuggled across international borders, of police raids on their neighborhoods, of having dropped out of school and taken jobs in factories, shops, and on the streets, of having been born in the middle of the jungle to mothers with no country to call home. They arrive in debt to the State Department for the cost of their international plane tickets, and quickly begin to discover that American poverty, though decorated with flatscreen TVs and two hundred dollar sneakers, is no less desperate than the circumstances from which they fled.
A sixth grader goes to the dumpster to take out the trash and finds a dead body.
A girl and her cousin are sitting on the stoop of their apartment building when some boys they don’t know walk up, flash guns, and demand their cell phones.
A grandmother is terrified in the middle of the night by a gang of young men pounding on doors throughout the building, making threats and rattling doorknobs. Her teenage granddaughter calls the police but doubts they will come.
A middle schooler shooting hoops in the parking lot is shot in the face in a driveby gone wrong. It doesn’t make the evening news, but everyone knows about it anyways.
The boys begin carrying knives and traveling in groups for protection. They don’t know it, but in the eyes of the law, they have just become a gang.
Others, desperate for a sense of family, join well-established gangs, skip school, get picked up for possession or robbery, and begin their American adulthood a statistic.
But most buckle down. They study harder than they ever dreamed possible, mastering a new language so they can earn top grades in subjects like Anatomy and British Literature; they apply to the most competitive scholarship programs in the nation. They worry about their little brothers and sisters, who are more easily influenced by American culture. They help their parents save to buy a house on a quiet street in a peaceful neighborhood. The kind of place they imagined America would be.
But therein lies the problem, for America is not the place of our imaginations. Those quiet streets are more and more frequently encircled by yellow police tape, the silence broken by the whir of news choppers lingering after tragedy. Teachers and students even in the most seemingly idyllic communities rehearse for disaster, and suburban parents lament that these drills are themselves traumatic for young children.
A week ago, my school was ordered into a series of Level 3 Lockdowns over the course of a school day, totaling two hours spent with 20 teenage students in a locked, darkened classroom, crouched under tables and crammed into the corner of the room. Intuition and experience told me that this time it was not a drill, and as that realization sunk in and the minutes ticked by (10 – Surely this will end soon; 23 – What is going on???; 35 – I just hope our security and front office staff are okay; 52 – How will this end?) my mind wandered. I shushed students, played bored and told them to “just take a nap.” I checked in via text with colleagues locked and huddled in other classrooms. I read articles on Huffington Post, checked and re-checked Facebook. I watched the kids. I watched them for signs of fear that could be triggered by past trauma. I was most concerned for the Iraqi students, many of whom were little kids when they experienced bombings and gun violence in their schools and homes. For much of that day, I was simultaneously bored out of my mind and ready for imminent panic.
When it was over, when we pulled each other off the floor and brushed off our pants, when the bell rang and we navigated the unchanged hallways, I understood the meaning of the word “shellshocked.”
In the hours after the lockdown ended, I felt an acute sense of connection with every teacher everywhere who has huddled with their kids and wondered if they are equipped to handle whatever might happen next, with every teacher who has worried that our colleagues and friends are confronting danger while we are safe. And in the days after, I mourned the mass shooting in that famous Connecticut elementary school in a way that I had never before felt for far-away tragedy.
But I also mourned for the three boys (now called “suspects”) who were the reason for our seemingly endless lockdown, who committed some kind of horrible act of violence and then ran towards or into our building, boys who are the victims of, the products of, and the causes of gun-related trauma, caught in an unyielding cycle of community violence.
Now, not even two weeks after our local incident, the tragic shooting in Oregon has prompted President Obama to make his fifteenth statement on US shootings. Op-eds are filling with calls for gun control, while the NRA puffs up its mighty chest and walks confidently into conference rooms, business as usual. While suburban moms are lamenting the loss of their children’s innocence, the nation’s lawmakers are effectively huddling in a darkened corner telling themselves that if they’re quiet enough, the bad guys will just go away.
Perhaps now is the time for me to join my fellow liberals in a loud cry for gun control. But more laws that will be unevenly enforced, that will add more years to prison sentences for a disproportionate number of Black, Brown, Latino, and poor men and women isn’t something I feel moved to rally behind.
Instead I find myself thinking about Syria, and about our nation’s promise to shelter 10,000 Syrian war refugees in the coming year. The events of the last few weeks, both local and national, beg the question, What can we offer these Syrians if not peace and a respite from trauma?
I marvel at our ability to close our eyes to the fact that although it is mass shootings that bring national attention to the matter of gun violence, the neighborhoods in which these Syrian refugees will be placed for their first few years in America (and where it will be left up to them to “pull themselves up by their bootstraps” if they wish for something different) are places where gun violence in the form of armed robberies, threats, carjackings, break-ins, and family violence are a normal part of life.
America has not been a place of refuge for the Congolese teenager who found herself surrounded by carnage in a Colorado movie theater. It is not a place of refuge for the parents of children who have stopped coming home at night. It is not a place of refuge for teens who, skipping school one day, get picked up and, when found with weapons, charged with a violent crime they did not commit.
In this community where families are impacted by gun violence more often than makes the news, I am constantly reminded that resilience is trauma’s cousin. Hope lingers in the air long after the sirens have passed.
In this community, education is the embodiment of that hope, yet children are escorted out of the schools in handcuffs. In a community where trauma is par for the course, we accept the horrors of policing instead of teaching, of humiliation, of crime and of criminalization inside our school buildings. We claim powerlessness to intervene in cycles of violence, choosing instead to focus on the inspirational stories of the young people who have excelled despite desperate circumstances. We tell and re-tell their stories, we deem them “mentors,” we hold them up as examples to troubled youth: See her over there…? She maintained a 4.0 GPA, got a full scholarship to an out-of-state college, all while navigating family violence, moving four times, and watching her younger brother barely survive a gang-related attack that left him brain-damaged…. Just be more like her. We marvel at the ways the children inspire each other, at their unceasing commitment to education, but we aren’t surprised that we loose a lot of them. We tell ourselves it’s a personal choice, not a symptom of a badly broken system.
If we are to welcome ten thousand war refugees to our cities, neighborhoods, and schools, we must acknowledge that mass shootings and the terror that their randomness brings to the American psyche is not unlike war. Moreover, we must acknowledge that the tens of thousands of people living in American poverty have experienced generations of traumatic violence akin to war. And we must begin to search for a way out of the cycle, for trauma-informed practices, for ways of facilitating healing.