Last week, prior to the Sandy Hook Elementary shootings, as part of our discussion of Dr. Frankenstein's "wretch," his "monster," we discussed what I called the "inflection point," that point in the trajectory of the story when everything changes.
My seniors gathered quickly into small groups and began discussing whether the inflection point occured at one point or another. By the period's end, however, we concluded that the inflection point was when, after the monster revealed himself for what he really was to those he had helped and protected, they rejected him; in case Frankenstein's creature was not clear enough about his status, soon after, he rescues a young girl from the river, who would have drowned. Carrying her back towards town, the monster encounters men who draw guns on him as they assume he hurt her.
At this point, feeling no hope of gaining a place within the human community, the wretch (he is never given a name) burns down the cottage of those he had previously helped and commits himself to the destruction of all that would otherwise allow Victor Frankenstein, his creator, to be happy.
When you are a teacher, you see our whole society, for all people pass through our classrooms. Future presidents. Future CEOs. Future movie stars. All races. All ethnicities. All family configurations, religions. Those people born here; those who came here legally--and illegally. Future mechanics. Future business people. Those who will some day be teachers. Thiefs. Rapists. And, as we were reminded again this week, murderers.
Several years ago, a student of mine was taken away one day by the FBI. He had posted terrible threats on a website, saying he was going to essentially do his own Columbine at our school, at a big school rally. This led to many outcomes, the main one being this: he was taken in, put on people's radar. But only thanks to the one anonymous person on the website who chose to contact people. Later in the year, a boy at another high school in our quiet little suburban district came suited up with various weapons and many pipe bombs, but was subdued and arrested before he could harm anyone.
Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, the two boys behind the Columbine shootings (which were supposed to kill nearly everyone through exploding tanks they had set up, but which did not detinate), submitted stories of alarming, graphic nature to their English teachers for creative writing assignments. When the teacher expressed concern about the violent content, the boys smiled and said dismissively, "Oh Mr. J, it's nothing, just based on some ideas we ripped off from a movie we saw last weekend!" And then one or both of them probably grinned. "Thank goodness! I wasn't sure what to think when I read them." Walking away, Klebold and Harris probably winked and smirked to each other.
In the end, we do not want to believe these kids, these events, these problems can be in our midst: they are not consistent with the story we want to tell about our children, our students, our community, our family---our country. Later, of course, there too often appears to be a grim inevitability to the events when viewed in hindsight.
In the mean time, we teachers go into our classes every day, for all our students, and do what we can to help them write the best possible story about the lives they will lead in futures for which we prepare them.
The word education itself comes from the word educare, which means to draw or lead out that which is within. We all have within us many different possible selves, some of which we know, others we do not know---and never will, unless the conditions arise that awaken that other self.
What I know is that all the educators---teachers, administrators, school counselors and others---in our country, who have felt so disrespected and dismissed in recent years by most of our country, were the ones who came every day to do all they could to help the children at Sandy Hook Elementary School live in the world in ways that would make us all proud, even those children who might some day grow up to harm others, as Adam Lanza did this week. And what I know is that it was these fellow educators who died trying to protect those children (and their colleagues who saved others) so they could go on to someday live those lives that were taken this week.
As my class and I discussed Frankenstein last week, in those days before the Sandy Hook shootings, we considered the idea of the abject, an idea often defined as a state of feeling degraded and cast out from the home or community where it feels it belongs. Once the monster in Frankenstein felt it had no place within the Family of Man, it turned on that family, just as Adam Lanza did.
Will I do anything differently tomorrow when I go to school and welcome my students into the classroom where we pass our days? No. I will do as I have always done: Get to know them all, what they are interested in, what they want their lives to look like in the future, what they care about, what they think. When they are in our classrooms, our students are our community, they are our country, our future. And so we see in them only what we hope they will become at their best, then devote ourselves to helping them make that story come true for them, their parents, for all of us.