Teachers find themselves discovering all manner of things about their students, sometimes, things they would rather not know. Occasionally, students reveal evidence of abuse by their parents, which the law requires them to report to proper authorities. Sometimes students reveal information about their hobbies or interests, as in the case of a college teacher, one Myrtle Lynn Payne (a pseudonym):
Since I started teaching six years ago, I’ve become more interested in gray areas. Maybe it’s because dealing with students seems to highlight all the complex ways in which a simple plan can break down. I sometimes have fantasies about what it’s like to be that teacher who’s seen it all — the dude who came to the final exam inebriated, the student who offered sex for a grade change. What would it be like to take all of that in stride?
A recent incident in my classroom has me thinking about the ways in which the randomness of the universe is always sort of poking at us as educators.
This sounds pretty innocuous thus far. Read on:
Sarah’ was a very nice young woman who turned up in one of my classes a year or so ago. Her academic abilities were not strong but she had great energy and was a class leader. Definitely a process, and not a content, type of gal. I did take special notice of her on the first day during a sharing activity we typically do at the beginning of my science lecture courses. Sarah shared that the most notable experience of her winter break was a visit to a gun range where she had fired an AK-47. I gave the usual ‘very good, moving on’ response but was thinking, ‘Whoa, that’s disturbing.
Why would that be disturbing? “Payne” explains that she grew up in a gun-owning family, but her mother got rid of all the guns because her father was bi-polar. Payne explains that her father eventually died of natural causes, but she seems certain that if her mother had not disposed of the family guns—apparently common long guns—he would surely have killed himself, depriving her of the years she had with him. How can I consider this revealing of Payne’s psyche? She certainly does. Who am I to deny the reality of her perceptions?
When I was in college, we had this thing called the Santa Shoot. At the end of the semester you could bring your old books and tests to the firing range and ‘take out your frustration.’ The Massachusetts Institute of Technology had a championship shooting team at the time (late ‘90s) and the Santa Shoot was a great fund raiser. MIT had to stop it, though, because people were starting to bring pictures of their professors (and their girlfriends) on which to take out their frustrations. Like many things at MIT, it got a little weird — and dark. (I just checked though — now it’s a video game.)
Other students in my classes have mentioned machine guns and firing ranges. I work in what you might call a red-meat type of area. The National Rifle Association puts up a big billboard advertising its annual pancake breakfast in a lot just a block from our campus. Other billboards advertise local shooting ranges. In our small city, we have three different gun shops (not counting chain stores) and seven gun ranges all within a 20-minute drive from the campus. This is what people do in their free time here: guns and pancakes. Welcome to America, professor.
Ms. Payne apparently feels surrounded, even outnumbered, by “gun culture.”
Last year at some point, Sarah said she was applying to a teacher-credential program and asked me for a recommendation. Initially I said yes because I usually do. I don’t know the exact date she asked, but I am thinking it must have been before the Umpqua Community College shooting last October because that’s when I really started thinking about students and guns. After Umpqua, colleagues and others specifically asked me if I felt safe on the campus and I had to think about that question. Our college’s ‘shelter-in-place’ drills — in which whole buildings practice for an active-shooter situation — have not made me feel safe. I also did not feel safe during a visit to the campus police station where I was offered a free gun-safety lock.
Payne’s colleagues should well have asked if she felt safe on campus, considering her campus—like most—is a victim disarmament zone, a situation that will not be helped by gun-safety locks or “shelter-in-place’ drills.” Payne does not reveal whether she is a gun owner, which would be the most logical reason for the campus police to offer her a ”gun-safety lock,” but she certainly does not sound like one.
How can I say that I don’t want to support students who are gun enthusiasts, without getting put on some sort of list?
For a long time, Sarah didn’t follow up about the recommendation. Recently, however — with at least 14 more people dead and 17 more injured in college campus shootings — she emailed me again, updating me on her plans and repeating her request.
I lay all of this out here now because I don’t know what to do about the recommendation.
Does Payne think Sarah was keeping track, should be keeping track, of the numbers of people shot in campus shootings? Payne certainly is. How dare Sarah ask for a teacher education program recommendation if she is not keeping a running total of such things at the forefront of her mind? How dare she demonstrate the wrong group-think on this topic?
It’s so complicated. On one side are all of my ideas about supporting students, honoring their individuality and their journeys, creating a safe space for them (and myself), not taking things out of context, not overinterpreting. On the other side are my memories of growing up in a situation where guns, people, and bullets had to be rigorously kept apart, lest they find each other in a tragic moment of instability.
She seems to be a good kid, Sarah. And I don’t know what she really thinks of gun advocacy and political failures that have cost us all these lives and our sense of safety as educators. I don’t know what she does on the weekends. I also don’t know if she understands emotions, or what real rage feels like. It seems to me no person who has truly experienced the full impact of their own emotions would ever go near a gun.
This sounds suspiciously like projection. How many people experience “the full impact of their own emotions,” yet do not find themselves compelled to commit mass murder? Apparently Payne doesn’t trust herself to deal with her emotions without recourse to murder. Is life really “so complicated,” or can most people manage to navigate the currents of life without doing deadly violence?
So what do I do? Do I write her a recommendation because I originally said yes? Do I say no and explain myself? Do I ignore her email?
Certainly my predicament raises the whole issue of what letters of recommendation mean. But this whole thing just feels so, so … so much like creeping up the attic stairs, unzipping the padded case and running my fingers over the tendrilled grooves etched into the barrel of that old Browning shotgun. Peering down the chamber, I didn’t know how to say it then, but tools for killing will always be sacred.
“Tools for killing will always be sacred”? Kitchen knives? Hammers? Screw drivers? Sacred? Is Payne suggesting that gun owners irrationally, even blasphemously venerate firearms, thus revealing their inherent instability and unfitness for gun ownership, or is she merely confusing the significance of common consumer goods and symbols?
How can I say that I don’t want to support students who are gun enthusiasts, without getting put on some sort of list? You know — Santa Shoot 2.0. I mean, she’s applying to a teacher-credential program, for God’s sake. I wish the way forward was more black and white to me — that I knew what to do in this situation. But I don’t.
I was about to write that I sympathize with Payne’s dilemma, but I don’t. To do that, I would have to be as irrational, in an apparently well-meaning way, as Payne. Payne’s thinking does give one insight into how the faculty and administrators of universities can give credence and support to students who feel “unsafe” because someone wrote Donald Trump’s name on a sidewalk in chalk: they’re all loons, fearful of imaginary dangers, and willing to coddle people as poorly grounded in reality as themselves. Particularly interesting is that Payne obviously believes that an interest in, or appreciation for, firearms should be an absolute disqualifier for admittance to a teacher education program.
Payne need not worry about appearing on a list. There are no lists, to my knowledge, for the unreasonably fearful, the silly, the irrational, or those that have no understanding of or appreciation for the Constitution. The latter category encompasses the contemporary Democrat Party, and surely most members of the faculty directory of most universities.
What should Payne do? She has provided her own answer. Sarah, by her own admission has “energy, is “a class leader,” and is “nice.” She sounds exactly like the right kind of person to be a teacher, someone accepting of others and grounded in the reality of her students and their parents rather than the imaginary utopia of academia. Sarah doesn’t have great intellectual abilities, but Payne would seem to judge such things by criteria having little to do with academic performance and much to do with her admittedly uninformed views of Sarah’s interest in firearms. Such interest would tend to indicate that she is everything Payne is not. For all of Payne’s professed interest in “supporting students, honoring their individuality and their journeys, creating a safe space for them (and myself), not taking things out of context, not overinterpreting,” she is doing exactly that to Sarah, and all because Sarah, who is apparently not a hoplophobe, asked for a recommendation.
Sarah apparently has two failings: she is failing to recognize that Payne is not the kind of person she, as a future teacher, should emulate. And she is asking the wrong person for a recommendation. Fortunately for Sarah, this is so because Payne is fundamentally dishonest; she is unwilling to reveal her true nature to Sarah, or to treat her with sincerity.
Perhaps an appreciation of the Bill of Rights should be a minimal qualification for a teacher education program. Sarah qualifies. Payne does not.