It's been two weeks since my community was shaken by the terrifying events that unfolded outside of a Safeway supermarket in northwest Tucson. In the days immediately following the shootings, I was reminded of the tragic events of September 11th. Although the violence in Tucson didn't exactly match the magnitude of that day in 2001, I was still faced with some of the same questions: How was I suppose to deal with my own anger, fear, and grief while, simultaneously, helping my students do the same?
We gathered as a small school, observed a moment of silence with our president, and then students went on to their classes, where they engaged in discussions about gun control, politics, and their feelings about what had happened. The events of January 8 no doubt spurred a curriculum of sorts. In advisory we talked about freedom of speech, Sarah Palin's infamous map, and what the word "vituperative" meant. Students suddenly had pointed questions about the 2nd amendment, the anatomy of the human brain, and how a troubled young man could have gotten his hands on a semi-automatic weapon.
But there is another curriculum that was, hopefully, inspired that day as well, a "curriculum of caring". As the principal of a small school, I have always understood the importance of students feeling cared about. I know, from firsthand experience, that students who feel safe and cared for are much more likely to stay in school and strive to do the best they can. When students are afraid or feel insecure, they shut down, refuse to learm, and are at higher risk of dropping out of school.
The events of January 8th were, needless to say, harmful and destructive. People were killed, our beloved Gabrielle Giffords will be healing for months, and the wisdom of holding a quintessentially democratic "congress on your corner" event, without tons of security, is now being called into question. Beyond those obvious things, though, is that we are all a little afraid now. I just don't feel right when I see someone walking down the street with both hands tucked into his sweatshirt pockets, or when a stranger off the street comes into my school and asks if we have a bathroom. I'm sure it will pass, but these day I feel, just a little…on edge.
I think our kids feel this way too, they just may not have the words to express it. As educators, we need to understand that although our kids may not be exhibiting the same kinds of outward signs of fear and grief about the events of January 8th as we are, it doesn't mean that they are not as afraid. And while the classroom discussions that help kids understand the history of gun rights, how the death penalty might apply to an insane person, or the connections between rhetoric and action, are helpful and illuminating, kids also need to understand something much more important: that when they come to school, they are safe and feel cared about.
This kind of curriculum does not always play out in text-based discussions about articles from the local paper. We can create safety and show kids that we care every single day by saying "good morning", taking a minute to see if they need any extra help, or simply looking them in the eyes when they pass us in the halls. We may not be able to control the mental health care industry or the laws surrounding the purchase of guns in our state, but we can control the ways we create safety in our schools, with our own small gestures, each day with our kids.