Editor’s Note: Chris Fisk is a teacher at Miami Northwestern Senior High School. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.
“Raise your hand if you or someone you know has been the victim of gun violence.”
As a high school teacher, this is not how I want to start my classes. After Sunday’s deadly shooting in the Miami neighborhood of Liberty City, I’ve watched as every single hand, in every one of my classes, has been raised. That’s more than 100 ninth-graders – 14- and 15-year-olds. Gun violence is a reality that my students at Miami Northwestern Senior High School know too well.
A few of the ZIP codes in this community account for close to a third of the shootings that injured or killed children between 2012 and 2015 in Miami-Dade County. Two years ago, Liberty City, along with two other neighborhoods within an area of roughly 4 square miles, recorded and reported 8,280 individual gunshots – an average of 22 bullets a day. And just last week, the same senselessness claimed a 4-year-old girl in the community.
Elected officials need to show my students how the gun violence they endure is just as unwelcome, tragic and important as what happened in Parkland, Florida, and in other places that have commanded the national stage.
I take seriously my obligation to field my students’ questions and to help them navigate their feelings and experiences. But some questions I’m unable to answer. Some questions require responses from their elected officials. Here are a few:
“Why do ‘important’ people only come around when something bad happens?”
“We walked out for Parkland; who’s walking out for us?”
“Will people care about what happened here since it’s in Liberty City?”
“Do you think anyone will remember this tomorrow? What about next week? Next month?”
“These shootings happen all the time. Why haven’t our leaders done anything about it?”
There is a realness, a truth to the points these freshmen make that reflects insight and maturity well beyond their years. Beneath these keen observations, though, rests the onset of something even more troubling than the reality in which they find themselves: numbness and desensitization.
In addition to an array of curricular standards, I know that I have to teach my students about the strength of their voices. I have to instill in them an unshakable belief in the power of their own self-efficacy. That is, a belief in their ability to sit in the driver’s seat of their own lives and in their capacity to affect the lives of others positively.
It’s obvious then that one of the most frightening things a teacher can witness is students who are disillusioned, who feel like they don’t matter, and live in a world that makes them feel invisible. In fact, that’s something we as teachers try to keep our students from feeling every day they walk into our classrooms. It’s those feelings that compelled them to walk out Tuesday morning.
At best, your complacency as their elected officials on the issues that affect their lives signals disinterest; at worst, it normalizes their experiences of unfreedom and injustice. These kids already carry the weight of the world on their shoulders, and I think it’s about time they felt you – their local, state and national leaders – are sharing the load.
While your presence on the news and at the scenes of these tragedies is heartening, it doesn’t impress my students. They care more about what you’re doing to keep them from experiencing the next one. Show them how you’re making an effort to bring about change for their community. Show my students what you are doing to reject the status quo of their reality. Give my students the time and attention they deserve, and let them be the judges of whether or not your work suffices.
Above all else, come help me show them why they should pursue progress instead of accept defeat. Show them how these things – the death, the unrelenting loss they cope with – shouldn’t be normal and shouldn’t be expected.
I have and will continue to facilitate the process by which my students forge an understanding of the role they can play in solving the problems that plague them. But what they’ve been asking gets at a different question: They want to know how you’re honoring your responsibility and how you’re upholding your obligation to be stewards of their best interests.
These inquiries are valid, and I cannot answer them for you. Elected officials, it’s your turn.
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Be warned, they know how to identify fallacious claims and how to pick out insufficient, irrelevant evidence. And they know what clear, succinct responses are supposed to look like. After all, these are the standards they’ve been held to in our class and at our school. It’s only fair then that you be expected to meet them as well.
You should also be aware that no one is better at seeing through attempts at deception than they are – they’ve spent their lives listening to leaders make empty promises.
We’ll be waiting in our classroom.