February 19 — 4:06 pm, 2018

Opinion: An urban teacher’s response to the suburban school shootings


It may be strange to say, but, as a teacher, I feel totally disconnected from the seemingly weekly occurrence that is the horror of mass murder in our nation’s schools.

I shouldn’t feel disconnected. After all, my daily life is spent in classrooms and hallways, surrounded by young people, picking up new slang, and learning about the latest type of social media. I should be able to imagine my school when I see Columbine, Sandy Hook, or Stoneman Douglas. I should be able to imagine my students and their families when I see the memorials and protests. But I don’t. And the reason is simple – I don’t teach in the suburbs.

Generally, the phenomenon of school shootings has been a primarily white, suburban experience. When one of these school shootings happens, it has become a common observation in my classroom, which serves a nearly all-black population in West Philadelphia, that it will no doubt be in the suburbs and the shooter will probably be white. This is, of course, not an indictment, but simply a viewpoint rooted in truth. 

There is a disconnect between the urban school experience and that of the suburban school, which has become the all-too-common setting for mass murder. Our schools look different. Our campuses, if one can call an urban school a campus, look different. Our student populations look different. Simply put, suburban schools and urban schools often do not resemble one another, so we do not see ourselves in one another. Thus, when I see the horrific aftermath of the shootings in Parkland, I, as an urban school teacher, can sympathize, but I cannot empathize. 

There is another difference. A suburban school shooting is a lightning bolt of trauma, a single, focused explosion of terror and fear. That is not the urban school experience, or at least not my own.

We don’t have lightning bolts of trauma; our collective trauma is the steady undercurrent of societal oppression and its corresponding generational poverty. Our collective trauma lies in the reality that is expressed when a class I am teaching reads Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness and more than three-quarters of them share that they have a family member who is in prison or has been there in the past. Our collective trauma lies in the fact that a student who was in his seat yesterday is not there today because he has been arrested. Our collective trauma lies in the T-shirts, sweatshirts, and tattoos that honor deceased loved ones. Our collective trauma lies not in the attack of a school shooter, but in the almost daily routine of gun violence that too many of our students face when they leave school.

But there is one similarity I see beginning to arise between the suburban school shootings and the relative omnipresence of urban gun violence: its acceptance due to its ubiquity. We, collectively, have overlooked urban violence and its traumatic impact on schools, students, and teachers for generations. Such communities are not power centers that attract the attention of politicians and media. Urban gun violence and its impact on urban school communities have tragically become the accepted norm. But this acceptance no longer seems to be solely relegated to the urban school sphere. With every suburban school shooting, one can begin to feel the dampening intransigence of routine.

This, sadly, is the one similarity between the suburban school shooting and the urban school experience.  

Zachary Wright is a master educator at Mastery Charter’s Shoemaker Campus, where he has taught world literature and AP literature since 2010.  He was named Philadelphia’s Teacher of the Year in 2016 and is a regular weekly contributor to Education Post.

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