Thoughts and Prayers, Guns and School

These past few days our social media feeds have been filled with messages of thoughts and prayers for the victims of yet another school shooting. And there are just as many posts that reject what may seem like Pollyanna, feel-good greetings:

thoughts and prayers 2thoughts and prayers

I understand both perspectives. I want to “LIKE” the thoughts and prayers posts and the posts that say prayers are not enough.

I send my thoughts and prayers to all the families who have lost loved ones because I believe in prayer. My heart goes out to the parents who have lost their beloved children, bursting with potential; for the teachers, inspired to share a passion for life-long learning; for the students who survived, the students who saw their friends die, and the students who will have nightmares for weeks, months and years to come from this trauma.

I believe in the power of prayer to change the person praying and to affect the situation being prayed for. When I pray, I am sending my heartfelt condolences and positive energy to a specific person and/or for a situation. And I know it works—I’ve felt it myself when others have prayed for me. I can only hope it makes a difference when I pray for others.

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But I believe that giving only lip-service to prayer can be a cop-out, a way for some to avoid the responsibility of facing real issues. “Thoughts and prayers” can sound hollow without action, effort, or work towards change.

Prayer must be accompanied with authentic listening and selfless action. St. Benedict refers to this as “ora et labora” or prayer and work. This Benedictine motto has application beyond the monastery.

God empowers us and encourages us to put our prayers to work. Prayer alone is sentimental; work alone lacks heart and soul. It is not either prayer or work, but both prayer and work that can make an impact on those we love and for situations that need healing. We need both prayer and work.

This either/or thinking is what has brought our country to be divided on more issues than I can name here (besides, it just exhausts me.) There is not one single reason that America has found itself the leader in gun murders; there are many.

gun murders

A teacher colleague, Alan Holdorf, wrote, “We have a gun problem. Or we have a mental health problem. Or a discipline problem with our children. Can we have all of the problems? Then again, how silly would that be to have a multi-faceted problem that can’t be tackled by a single hot-button issue.”

Of course, America’s problems are multi-layered. There is something Americans are doing differently than other countries. There is something we are doing wrong. It is undeniable, but there isn’t one simple solution to our complex problems. The solution is not one thing or another, it is a both/and situation. There are layers of possibilities for addressing what ails our country, but for God’s sake let’s do something.

This crisis of gun violence in America is an opportunity to be open-minded listeners and to be leaders sans political agenda; to be compassionate and to detach from our own opinions long enough to realize that we all want the same thing—for our children to be safe in their learning environment.

It’s being humble enough as people, as a country, to say that we aren’t getting it right yet. We aren’t great and we never were. We have a long way to go to make all of America feel safe, let alone great.

But America and my classroom are two different things.

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My heart belongs to the classroom. I look out my window at the flag flying half-staff, and I am reminded how much I love my students and want them to succeed. I want them to become their best self, to reach their fullest potential. I grieve when I see that a student comes from an environment that doesn’t encourage or support that.

Students have so many more issues than they did when I started my career in education 21 years ago—there are m­ore broken homes, mental illness, learning disabilities, poverty, personal and family trauma. Teaching has become much more than delivering curriculum, it is about connecting to the heart, soul, and mind of my student.

But this does not require me to carry a gun—that’s too easy. An eye for an eye makes everyone blind. Instead, some policy decisions need to be made to prevent school violence. Some decisions need to be made to give teachers the tools they need to connect with and help our most vulnerable students. I will continue to PRAY and WORK towards this goal. 

“I’m a teacher and you want to arm me? Then arm me with a school psychologist who has time to do more than test and sit in meetings about testing. Arm me with enough counselors so we can build skills to prevent violence, and have meaningful discussions with students about their future. Arm me with social workers who can thoughtfully attend to students and their family’s needs. Arm me with enough school nurses so that they are accessible to every child. Arm me with more days on the calendar for teaching and learning and fewer days for standardized testing. Arm me with smaller class sizes that allow my colleagues and I to get to know our students and their families better. Arm me with community schools that are hubs of educational, cultural, health and civic partnerships, improving the entire community. Until you arm me to the hilt with what it takes to meet the needs of our school and students, I respectfully request you keep your guns out of my school.” Source: UTLA, video below.

Where Were You When The World Stopped Turning?

Where were you when the world stopped turnin’
That September day?­
Teachin’ a class full of innocent children
Or drivin’ on some cold interstate?

We remember when the world stopped turning because, for most of us, it felt as if it did. Time stood still. We remember where we were, who we were with, and how we felt. And, since then, we feel compelled to share our experience with others. I don’t think it’s about reliving tragedy, working through stages of grief or some kind of talk therapy, I think it’s more about remembering the connectedness we felt with the people we were with. We felt something together, a soul experience that goes beyond words—perhaps fear faith hope and loveand despair, likely sadness and shock, but also a collective yearning for faith, hope, and love.

Teachin’ a class full of innocent children
As a high school teacher, I sometimes forget that my students are really children, but there was never a day when I felt that more than September 11, 2001. Together, we witnessed the second hijacked airplane fly into the World Trade Center, watching both buildings crumble to the ground. The day the world stopped turning, I was profoundly aware that I was the adult and responsible for the children in my classroom. I felt an obligation to hold it together, to remain calm, to comfort, to help them process difficult feelings and to find a reflective, intelligent way to answer their questions with as much of a knowing “I don’t know” that I could muster.

United Flight 175 Impacting Two World Trade Center
Image by © Sean Adair/Reuters/CORBIS

We know how the morning ended, but when my Business Management students asked to turn on the news, we had only heard that an airplane had flown into one of the World Trade Center towers. We had no idea that we weren’t just watching the news; we were watching a tragedy unfold, a real-life horror movie. When that 110-story building collapsed like a rambunctious toddler crashing into toy building blocks, time stood still. This split second, the most poignant moment of that September day, is also one of the most memorable of my twenty-year teaching career. It remains with me as a moment of Divine accompaniment and connectedness with my students.

Scanning the faces of my students, my eyes connected with Grant’s, a student sitting in the front row. I saw the disbelief in his eyes, the pain on his face, and watched him drop his head onto the desk. How long his head stayed cradled in his own hands, I don’t know, but it is a moment that has never left me. It was a moment of mutual grief for humanity, a oneness.


When we resumed classes as best we could, we went through the motions of school, adults trying to be adults—attempting to stay calm, our minds preoccupied with thoughts of our own children, our parents, our lives, our country, our future. As the details of the hijacking unfolded, I remember thinking that I could never take students on a trip again. As the sponsor of a student organization, travel with students was an important part of my duties, but it was heartbreaking to hear there had been a teacher with a class of young children on one of the planes. I felt the enormous responsibility of taking students outside the classroom.

But as the days, turned into weeks and months, the trauma of that day became more distant. We found ways to manage our fears and plan for potential tragedies that helped us all feel better. And despite my knee-jerk reaction resolving not to travel with students again, that following spring I took eight students to the DECA National Conference in Salt Lake City. Traveling was different from that point on, but I realized over the months that even if there were some fearful and challenging moments, I still wanted to have this special relationship with my students. Fear passes, faith, hope, and love win, and the world starts turning again. We heal. 

Serendipity, eight years later

It was an ordinary school morning. Students were researching how business and marketing plans are impacted by economic conditions and world events, such as the tragedy of 9/11. We reminisced about where we were that day, and I shared the powerful moment of making eye contact with Grant. We talked about the song, “Where Were You When The World Stopped Turning” and how we will never forget the people we were with that day.

After class, I learned that I had a visitor–unusual for an ordinary day. When I arrived in our office, Grant, from the front row of my 2001 Business Management class, was standing there.

Stunned, I say, “You are not going to believe this, but I was just talking about you! I was telling the story of how our eyes met when the towers came down.”

His response: “You’re not going to believe this. I was on my way to see a client when the song, “Where Were You When The World Stopped Turning” came on the radio. I knew I needed to see you, so I turned around and drove to school.”

 There really aren’t words to describe how touching that moment was. But this I know and deeply felt–that God works in beautiful ways through the events and people in our lives, a divine reminder that we are held by a hand that unites us all.

And more God-moments, eleven years later

In 2012, eight students and I had the opportunity to travel to New York City for a DECA conference. Visiting the 9/11 Memorial to honor Jennifer Dorsey-Howley, a graduate from our high school that died in the WTC, was a must-see on our itinerary. Jennifer was able to get all of her co-workers out of Tower One, but she and her unborn child perished.1

Our school’s Performing Arts Center bears her name and we honor her memory each September 11th. My students and I shared a time of silence when we found her name at the reflecting pools, located exactly where the Twin Towers once stood. As we shared our memories of that day, I told them about the special connection with Grant and his unexpected visit after hearing the song on the radio. Now, at the 9/11 Memorial, I was having another miraculous moment with students, yet another experience that reminds me how essential my students are to my life and my spirit.DSC_0245

The experiences I have shared with students are the golden thread woven into the tapestry of my life. The responsibilities of teaching and adulting are tremendous, but the gifts are priceless, my heart is full, and as the song says,

I know Jesus and I talk to God
And I remember this from when I was young
Faith, hope and love are some good things He gave us
And the greatest is love.

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