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FIRST-PERSON: Shooting prompts teacher to look for answers in schools’ hallways

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (BP)–Like two years ago, I am grief-stricken and almost paralyzed with a fear at what has happened again in a school when a troubled youth disregarded every ounce of human decency and civility to mow down innocent classmates and teachers.

I look up and down the hallways of my own high school just north of Kansas City, Mo., wondering which wounded soul lurking in the hallway might make a nightmare a reality. I think of my own children and their high school years, and how we are all so vulnerable in this age of free-thinking, unrestricted immorality. I search the Scriptures and find peace for myself, but few answers on how to legislate the morality of our freedom-loving society.

What’s wrong? Why are kids, once thought to be decent at heart, pure and untainted, turning into careless and immature purveyors of horror? Where has inner constraint gone? What has happened when the formerly protected are exposed to the fabric of a society that has shunned God, shunned morality and shunned respect?

I told my principal a few weeks back, although I wasn’t a psychologist, I thought one of my students was suffering from abandonment, negligence and anxiety. His 16th birthday celebration was at a popular eating place known to emphasize certain body parts of young women. A T-shirt he wore bore testimony to his appreciation of the establishment. I learned all this when I asked him to either remove the T-shirt or to turn it inside out while at school.

I couldn’t understand why this student who flunked nearly two years of high school was encouraged by both his parents, on two separate occasions over the weekend, to break the condition of his court-imposed probation for crimes I am not privy to. The probation was broken because his mother allowed him, without a license, to drive her car to a fast-food joint. His father admired the shirt and told him to go ahead and wear it to school for laughs. In addition, that father let his son hang out at an all-night recreational event with the boy’s younger sister. Those two acts broke the terms of his parole, he informed me insolently.

It gets worse. This particular student told me all of this, in my opinion, to actually garner a stern look and words of correction. I think he yearned for honesty and wanted to know someone viewed his behavior as negatively. He desired a parent-like figure to acknowledge the incorrect nature of his actions and encourage him to make better decisions. Why would he have told me otherwise?

Just listening, I discovered there’s more. My student’s mom doesn’t even live in Missouri, but in another state far away. She popped in on the weekend in preparation for his birthday, according to the boy, who lives with his father and his father’s girlfriend, although I think he may have conjured up the visit.

It was obvious he had a brooding sense of anger, almost of grief the morning he changed the shirt. After first getting lippy with me, he volunteered to seek out the principal and ask him about the shirt. I agreed and was gratified when the principal backed me. The boy wasn’t too happy, however, and stormed back to the classroom with a scowl shriveling his face. The book bag barely held as he threw it across the floor. Quick to forgive and wanting to defuse the situation and make sure first-hour trauma did not turn into a wasted academic and emotional day, I sat beside the student with a partially finished essay he’d written and praised him for his keen description of the scenery.

By the end of the hour, we had joked about the shirt, talked about why NOT to drop out of high school (it takes a diploma to get a good job to buy band equipment), and restructured and salvaged his fledgling essay.

The opportunity I have to work with this particular student came about by a problem with scheduling that left one period of my day open. Because I teach journalism and upper-level classes, I am usually not confronted with failing students or students with behavioral problems. I thank God for the privilege I have had this one semester at my school to be close to the pulse of students with which I don’t normally come into contact.

Many teachers cannot realistically work with students in the way I have with the four individuals in my first-hour class. Many are too overloaded and have not a few, but over a hundred come through their classrooms every day. To build these kinds of relationships with kids on a regular basis takes prayerful and focused attention on our place in the classroom.

My eyes well up with tears as they did two years ago when angry young men turned on fellow human beings in the most tragic of circumstances. Every time I think of Rachel Scott who was killed April 20, 1999, at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., and her younger brother Craig, who was hiding in the library and only miraculously survived, I am stricken with an obligation to do more for our children.

There are no easy answers. It will take every ounce of every one of God’s children to fight against a culture of misuse of children. In every single shooting situation there have been clues that have surfaced, after the fact, which might have prevented the tragedies. May we all look, listen, be attentive to and really HEAR the children. Anticipate their moves, read their hearts and know their condition.

    About the Author

  • Joni B. Hannigan