On the morning of my 33rd birthday I peeled my eyes open not to a slew of happy birthday messages or notifications about successfully making this trip around the sun but rather to news headlines about the school shooting in Texas. That’s OK. I mean it’s not OK for the school shooting to happen but it’s OK that I’m 33 and I can handle waking up without an onslaught of birthday messages. I mean I live in Europe. I’m 33. There’s a nine hour time difference, it’s all good.
But after reading the headline I would’ve thought that I would’ve had more of a reaction, but instead I was empty. I’ve grown up with school shootings. I was in sixth grade when the columbine shooting happened and since then it just seems to have been a part of my life. From drills, to scares to real lockdown and headlines. There has been an increasing escalation of mass shootings and school shootings since then, so the news isn’t news anymore. It’s not OK. It’s not normal. But are we surprised? No.
This inability to react really triggered a bigger response, which was a reflection. I had a lot of moments of absolute relief. These moments of relief aren’t because of any thing having to do with gun control or safety or anything changing inside the US. This moment of relief was because I got to experience freedom from school shootings by leaving the United States of America.
The secondary reaction to the relief is guilt because I know how many people don’t have the privilege to leave. I know that there is not a single teacher inside the United States who hasn’t evaluated how safe their classroom is. Who hasn’t wished that that window in their classroom which provides a fresh breeze of air also was bulletproof and maybe he didn’t even exist because having it is a security risk. There’s not a single teacher who looked at their tall standing cabinets and thought how many students can I put in there and what do I do if the shooter comes. It’s not if, it’s when. There’s not a single teacher who hasn’t come up with an exit plan for how to get students outside their classroom are they going to hide, or are you going to crawl out the second-story space and shuffle down the palm tree and run away from school? There’s not a single teacher who hasn’t thought about when they were told in training that when a student is locked out during a lockdown drill and is pounding on your door that you’re not supposed to answer that door. You’re supposed to allow that student to stand out there and scream. Because my God what if the shooters out there with them and using them to come in and kill your entire classroom. There’s not a single teacher who hasn’t heard a little bit of a longer bell or an unplanned fire alarm or some unplanned alert happened at school without having their heart skip a beat because maybe, maybe it’s happening now.
It wasn’t until I left. It wasn’t until I was at the American school in Poland and we had to explain to students while we’re doing a lockdown drill because even though school shootings don’t happen in Poland we’re still at an American school. Kids would cry. Because this wasn’t normal. It wasn’t until I was in Poland and realized that I no longer needed to count how many windows were in the classroom and where the door was and where I would hide my students. Because now that I left the US, I was safe.
No one really ever talks about the trauma. And I’m not just talking about the trauma of living through a mass shooting. But I’m talking about the trauma of living within a country of where this is the norm. The way your heart drops when a text comes through about “this is not a drill”, how you look for exits in crowded places and jump out of your skin at any loud noises. This does not have to be the norm. You can demand better from the country that you live in. You can demand that something is to be done to keep people safe. Because no one else no other country in the entire world has this amount of school shootings or mass shootings on a regular basis.
There’s always an interesting question that comes when you live abroad and it’s usually about what some thing that you realize from living outside your home country. A lot of countries have funny answers, maybe light hearted. But for Americans it’s almost unanimously about one of three things and one is that in a group of people walking down the street when you hear fireworks or a car backfiring you can always identify the American because we are the one who is looking for cover. It’s our automatic instinct and our automatic response to expect that maybe there’s a shooting. I have not seen anyone from a different country have that same reaction that hasn’t been through war or PTSD of some kind. Another response usually has to do about healthcare and that you don’t have to pay the doctor when you go and visit them for a Healthcare check up. And the third is usually something about the fact that Americans are taught one language and one language only, English. Sure foreign language happens but like it takes effort and experiencing success whilst learning a foreign language is extremely difficult or about the metric system. We should use it but we don’t so, whatever. The fourth is specially reserved for teachers where they no longer have to survey the scene of the school or the classroom when I walk in for safety. They don’t have to think about it what I would do what they would throw how they would intervene would they fight or what would fly and when will it be them?
That question doesn’t cross my mind anymore. And there’s a guilt to that because a large majority of people that due to a failing system are placed in danger every day. Not everyone has the privilege or desire to leave. And you know what you shouldn’t have to leave America to be free from gun violence. You shouldn’t have to. But once again, media will erupt for a couple of weeks, people will move on and the tik tok of the countdown will be the only sound. A haunting melody between people, time and tragedy. Once again the eyes of the world will watch as the dance towards reform will cease to begin and there’s nothing more heartbreaking that.