It is my favorite question to ask: why do you do what you do?
As an educator, artist and ethnographer I am interested in the intersections of communication, education and resilience. I am also interested in what inspires those within academia to do what they have chosen to do, day after day. I have asked this question to hundreds of students, faculty and staff within varied educational settings. No one answers with similar reasoning, and their answers are as unique and vivid as the fresh faces that pack our classrooms each new semester and school year. But recently I have started to wonder if I am asking the wrong question. After the recent mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, perhaps I should be asking how – how do we do what we do especially in response to difficulty and tragedy? How do we pick up the pieces? How do we persevere? Is everything really, truly, a teachable moment?
We gave thanks.
This year’s Thanksgiving holiday was to initiate a season of firsts for our family. It was to be the first time that my parents Christine and Frank were able to spend Thanksgiving at my home. For the last 14 years my parents were the sole caregivers to my mother’s parents, my grandparents Paul and Charlotte. My grandparents lived wonderful long lives, free of major illness and disease. My parents were able to fulfill my grandparents’ wish that they be allowed to live out their final years and days in the home they had worked all their lives to establish. “Mija, I don’t want to die in the hospital,” my grandfather would repeatedly say. My parents helped my grandparents pass in peace, free from pain and fear. This meant daily, 24-hour care provided by my parents with little room for anything else, including taking care of themselves. As you can imagine this type of care is usually quite overwhelming and exhausting for the caregiver, but it was something my parents both wanted to do. I still don’t know how they survived.
This Thanksgiving was to be the first time in 14 years that my parents would be allowed to exhale and relax without a care in the world. The idea was that they would travel from their home in East Los Angeles to ours in San Francisco so that we might spoil them beyond their heart’s content. And we did just that. We giggled, talked, gave thanks, cried, ate and drank together during a massive feast that lasted over 10 hours. In this way, I thought, I could begin to sufficiently honor my parents and the legacy of my grandparents. We had a truly beautiful day together, that is for sure. But the next day, things changed.
At approximately 5:03 p.m. the day after Thanksgiving we receive the call. My sister-in-law has died. Diabetes. She was 41. She leaves behind her husband, my big brother Franklin, and their two young girls. And then a few days later, Franklin’s mother-in-law dies. My sister-in-law and her mother were inseparable, of course. Many joked they seemed partners in crime. Over a period of time our family gingerly discussed what some of us had started to realize but could not voice. Franklin’s mother-in-law suffered from advanced diabetes as well, but things we discovered began to point to a potential suicide in response to her overwhelming grief.
Words fail at sufficiently describing these last few weeks. The confusion, the weight of it all, but also a celebration as during this very same time my mother successfully defended her dissertation, thus demonstrating what her father had always announced, “My mija is smart!” The severe simultaneity of emotions seem meant for other, more robust creations than I. When unimaginable grief visits with such accumulation there is nowhere to escape and even sleep becomes only an easily entered into regret, as you will soon have to wake and remember and remind yourself once more.
I still cannot fathom from where my big brother draws his gentle-strength and capacity for tenderness. We speak on the phone alternating between tears, laughter and silence. I am not an optimistic person and I speak honestly with him about pain and loss and he does the same with me: we are brothers. But when I find myself lacking in words he takes hold of the conversation and of me and says:
This is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to deal with. I see her everywhere I go and I don’t know what I’m going to do. But my girls – I need to make it ok for them. I have to get up and put one foot in front of the other and keep doing what I’m doing so that my girls will know that mom is always with them: she will never leave them and I will never leave them. To be honest I just have to make sure they are taken care of and that they are close to me. Nothing else matters. I see that. I want them to feel what they are ready to feel. And when they are ready, I want them to talk about whatever they want to talk about. And I want them to be back in school, because that’s what their mother would want for them. Their friends and teachers know what happened and they are asking for my girls. They want to be together because they want to help.
“We're going to be safe, because we're sitting over here and we're all together."
As information pours out from Sandy Hook Elementary I learn more about the teachers that acted quickly, locked down their classrooms and gathered their kids in a safe space as they all had been trained to do. "If they started crying, I would take their face and tell them, 'It's going to be ok.' I wanted that to be the last thing they heard, not the gunfire in the hall," said first-grade teacher Kaitlin Roig. Roig’s comments illustrate the most basic tenet of teaching, to the best of your abilities keep your kids safe and prevent harm. Many are calling these teachers heroes (and they are) but many of these teachers are clear to say through tears that they were only doing what a teacher is supposed to do for their kids.
It is not an easy thing to be a teacher, no matter the grade level, even in lesser trying times. Politics, policies and people seem to increasingly encroach upon and threaten any holistic approach to educating and education for reasons that we are not always meant to understand. Sometimes we aren’t listened to when it matters most. And even as many of us are asked to do exponentially more with significantly less, we do it. We show up. We do what we do not because it is easy but because it is fundamental, necessary work. Being present and facilitating a classroom when all things are attempting to pull us apart is what makes the teacher necessary in a time of doubt, disagreement and danger. Violence, power, privilege and access intersect with all things and suppressing these conversations leaves us all in peril. The teacher is a facilitator, not a saint. Moreover, I believe they are something better. Teachers are wonderful, fallible, capable human beings and at their best they are weavers of critical thought, comprehension and reasoned action. Simply put, teachers help people to help themselves. And sometimes when things become too dark to comprehend, they may even hold a hand or two.
Where do we go from here?
Sadly, there is a national script for what to do after a mass shooting. Televised news and social media repeats itself with similar calls to action, arguments and posturing. I needed a break.
This past weekend my partner and I stood in line for two hours to secure the best seats in the house at an IMAX 3D showing of The Hobbit. I was giddy with anticipation at the thought of revisiting this franchised-fantasy. As the crowd swelled in a minuscule holding area and as the indoor temperature increased, I began to panic. My mind replayed the news and I began to (for lack of a better phrase) freak out. The teacher in me emerged and I began to talk to myself. I took myself through a series of questions meant to ground and alleviate my immediate apprehension; Where are you? Who are you with? What do you know about your surroundings? What do you feel? What do you know for certain? Are you deep breathing right now? After a few minutes my pulse slowed and my apprehension lessened. My partner asked if I was ok, “I can’t stop thinking about things.” He offered a loving smile and nod, absent of any words because we both knew there was absolutely nothing that could be said.
We stood silently as I thought to myself how I would get through this, all of it. What happens next? I have absolutely no idea. Then the doors to the massive theatre opened and everyone turned and faced the same direction. No one pushed and no one yelled. Instead, everyone was giddy, too. The line began to move and as I slowly began to walk the thoughts of my brother popped into my head – just put one foot in front of the other and keep doing what you’re doing.
We go on, together. We go on together because we must.
Vincent Chandler is a doctoral candidate in international and multicultural education at The University of San Francisco. He is a lecturer in composition and communication studies and has taught at San Francisco State University, Berkeley City College and at The University of San Francisco. He has also taught at the charter high school level and for programs in Upward Bound. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org