My mother was trained as an elementary school teacher. She got her degree in the 1950s, at New Haven Teacher’s College. When she graduated, she taught in the New Haven school system. When she had the first of her three children, in 1960, she stopped teaching to raise us, returning to teaching in the mid-70s, once again in New Haven.
A lot had happened to New Haven in the interim, as white flight had shifted the student demographic radically. Even my family had moved out to the suburbs, precisely because of the decline and perceived danger of junior and senior high schools in the city. But my mom commuted in daily, because to her, all eight year olds were the same, and they needed her. I didn’t understand why she didn’t teach in a suburban school, but no doubt she still had friends in the New Haven system, and maybe she regained some seniority and benefits despite her hiatus.
As a small child, it was not unusual for me to be with my mother as a stranger approached her, tentatively asking, “Excuse me, are you Miss Gerard?” This was her maiden name, and when she said she was, these strangers would effusively tell her how wonderful she had been to them, and how much she meant to them. These were her former students. It was not like being the child of a celebrity, but it was evidence that my mom had a life before she’d had children, and it was a pretty significant one, too.
Her second round of teaching lasted perhaps another 10 years. She left ostensibly to be closer to my dad, who retired early due to multiple medical issues, and she worked perhaps another two decades, up until her death in 2004, as a medical office assistant. She worked in the very office that tended to my father’s various and often serious issues.
But I know the real reason my mom stopped teaching these kids she loved; “her kids,” in the language I imagine every elementary school teacher uses. My mom burnt out. She was constantly buying classroom materials out of her own pocket. She would come home at night and tell us the sad stories of children who had slept alone in their cold apartments the night before, because their parents, or parent, never came home.
She would bake for them several times a week. “Don’t touch those,” she would say as I approached a warm tray of brownies, “They’re for my kids.” She would take every bit of our old clothing to school for her kids, or older ones, who might need it. Perhaps there was actual danger that she confronted, but my mother would have never told us about that.
I had been blessed to have teachers like my mom, and I believe that the vast majority of our school teachers are exactly like this. Dedicated, loving, talented people who want to help children succeed, at any age, of any race. They’re not the money-grubbing hacks that politicians now portray; if that was true, they wouldn’t have gone into teaching. Sure, some weren’t so great, but every profession has its lesser practitioners. I think teachers are pretty marvelous, and they’ve been getting a terrible rap of late.
The tragedy in Newtown may quell some of that rhetoric for the time being, as we’ve learned about teachers who were explicitly heroic in terms everyone can understand. Unfortunately, that very commitment in the face of absolute terror has given rise to a vocal contingent who are now advocating arming teachers and school administrators in order to prevent or quickly end such future tragedies. And only yesterday did I think of what this premise would have meant to my mother.
If you had told my mother, who I believe would have laid down her life to protect any child, to carry and learn how to use a gun as part of her teaching duties, she would have walked out the door and never come back. She had not attended Teacher’s College and Shooting Academy. When my mother was deeply angry, her response was to write long, guilt-inducing letters. She would not ever use a gun. In fact, when she and my dad married, she insisted he give up his job, as a bail bondsman, because she wouldn’t have a gun in the house and didn’t want him carrying one.
Of all the responses to the unspeakable horror of Newtown, the idea that it might give rise to armed teachers is the most wrong-headed, preposterous, impractical, dangerous thing I’ve ever heard. If it should come to pass, it would devastate teaching throughout the country more than any other initiative thrown at a beleaguered but essential and admirable profession. As my mom would have done, many teachers would just walk away from such a new requirement. America would never recover from the loss of their talent, and successive generations would suffer.
My mom was, I know, a very good, caring teacher. She was but one of thousands upon thousands, all special. If schools must be protected, then do so. But don’t do it by turning teachers into weapons. Do it by turning the weapons into plowshares, or memories.