The Learning Curve
Welcome to The Learning Curve - insightful educational commentary from Dr. Bob Bowman, Assistant Head of School for Upper School.
This is Their World
Today (Jan. 29, 2019) I spoke to the entire Upper School in the PAC about the introduction of more realistic lockdown procedures in case of an intruder or school shooting. At about the same time, our Head of School, Andy Webster, shared some thoughts and details with the entire community. As I described our reasoning and reviewed the procedures of the move to unannounced lockdown drills (the same approach we use for fire drills), I was struck with an almost overwhelming sense of melancholy and a little déja vu. Let me address the latter first.
I remember sitting in my grade school auditorium almost five decades ago getting an explanation of why and how we perform duck and cover drills under our desk or in our hallways as a response to a nearby detonation of a nuclear device. I even remember Bert the Turtle as the star of the 1951 video of the same name: Duck and Cover, a short film that has been satirized and dismissed as wholly ineffective as a protective measure for an actual nuclear explosion. As an elementary school student in the late 1960s, the concept of nuclear bombs landing nearby was abstract and almost never on the minds of students. Not since World War II had nuclear weapons been used; we children all felt safe. The war in Vietnam cast a much larger shadow on our daily lives than the threat of nuclear weaponry being deployed by the USSR. While we religiously practiced all the required drills, thoughts of our demise through fire or nuclear attack were not part of our daily thoughts or in the national news. It just was not a big deal.
My talk today focused on a very different story in a very different time in the history of our country. As I looked into the audience during my explanation, I saw discomfort and distress and in some cases, fear. There was a palpable reaction of grave concern amongst the students and the faculty, several of whom spoke with me later in the day. An aching sadness overcame me as I thought of what kind of world my generation, the tail end of the baby boomers, has created for our children. The idea of getting shot in a school, a place where we should all celebrate learning and be joyful and feel safe, is a reality that every single student deals with every single day. While the logical part of our brain tells us the odds are astronomically small that this will happen, the anxiety is real. We are inundated with the stories of shooting tragedies, and our minds all go there. What if…? This is their world.
As tragic as burdening our children with dealing with this new normal is, there is an equally challenging part to all of this, epitomized by the ubiquitous “If you see something, say something.” Not only are the concerns of school safety an everyday issue, we are asking our students (and really every community member) to be vigilant in their observations of other students’ actions, social media and habits. Our teenagers are presented with a series of potentially life-altering ethical dilemmas. Was that student serious in their threatening comments? Was that meme a joke? Are they okay? Should I talk to them? Would they actually do something? Should I tell someone? Am I just overreacting? The level of analysis and nuanced thinking required to decipher accurately the thoughts and activities of others is extremely challenging for folks with substantial training, let alone the teenage mind. Yet we preach this to all students: tell an adult and let us deal with how serious it is. And their reporting of concerns to adults around the country has saved lives. The threat of nuclear attacks with which I grew up was a fairy tale completely out of my control as compared to the concerns of school violence of today’s teens. This is their world.
Yet we should not be all doom and gloom. Our kids are resilient and their unconstrained thinking allows them to move away from perseverating on the stark reality of unannounced lockdown drills and move onto other more immediate facets of their lives. This distractibility which accompanies our children’s incomplete brain development is often a gift when it comes to dealing with overwhelming issues. And as hard as it is to believe, over time, our students will become inured to these lockdown drills as they do to fire drills. It will seem commonplace. More is the sadness. This is their world.
I ended my talk with an apology: “I am sorry that you live in a world where this is something we need to deal with, but this is the right thing to do. We do it because we care about you all very, very much.” I walked off the podium and back into the school day, just as all the students went off to their classes, thoughts of lockdowns and lunch and life rattling around in their heads. This is their world.
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