Something Is Broken

I remember exactly where I was on the afternoon of April 20, 1999.

It was freshmen year world history at Alcoa High School, and I was sitting in the back left corner of the room. Our teacher was wearing a pink sweater and khaki pants that day. We were nearing the end of the school day so we were working on wrapping up an in-class assignment quietly before the final bell rang.

From my seat, I had a clear shot of the door to our classroom so when I saw the face of the student office assistant as he entered the room, I knew immediately that something was wrong.

“Turn on the TV,” he said. “There’s a shooting happening at a high school in Colorado. They think it’s students killing students.”

And to our horror, he was right. That day, 13 kids were killed at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. For the remainder of the day, we watched coverage as kids were being evacuated, weeping with hands over their heads as armed police officers rushed them to safety. We watched kids jump out of second floor windows to hopefully escape what was happening inside their school. We watched kids bleeding and screaming as they were carried out on stretchers.

We watched it all because we had never seen anything like it before. In that time of our lives, it never once crossed our minds that something like this could be a possibility. And I think even as we watched it unfold, we still didn’t really think it could happen to us. For us, school was just school. And the horrific massacre we saw unfolding on the news that day in 1999 surely would be the only one of it’s kind.

As I’m writing this almost two decades later, the innocence of that thought is long gone.

Like you probably were, I’ve been devastated about the news coming out of Florida this week. It’s gut wrenching—there’s just no other way to describe it. Children literally lost their innocence in a matter of moments, and unfortunately, many of them lost their lives, too. And while, like you, I’ve seen many scenes like this one play out since that day in world history class my freshmen year, something about this one has left me more heartsick than ever before.

My sister is a teacher. My brother-in-law is a teacher. My lifelong best friend is a teacher. My friend in my small group is a teacher. My mom’s best friend works in the front office of our local high school. My aunt is a teacher. My cousin is a teacher. These are all amazing people who signed up for a job in education because they love students. They signed up to teach so that they might give students a pathway to reach their potential. They did it because they love teaching and want to make a difference in the lives of their students.

And Wednesday night when I couldn’t sleep, it was their faces that kept flashing across my mind as I stared at the ceiling. Because now, there’s a real possibility that they will have to do so much more than teach. In today’s world, there’s a very real chance that they’ll be asked to protect the lives of the children in their classrooms—that they’ll be tasked with hiding in closets, and barricading doors, and throwing their bodies in front of bullets on a Wednesday afternoon at school.

School is so much more than just school now; it’s a potential war zone. And because of that, my sister, my brother-in-law, my friends, my family who work in education are walking onto the potential front lines every single day.

I don’t know about you, but that just doesn’t sit right with me.

I have a lot of opinions about gun control and mental health care reform in our country, but I don’t want to get into them here. I’d be happy to share them with you over a cup of coffee sometime.

My point is that I think regardless of politics or where you land on either side of the subject, I think we can all agree that something has failed. Something isn’t working. Something is broken. And we’re not doing right by our educators, our parents, our children, or our communities if we don’t actually try to fix it.

We’re missing the mark when a mass murder at a high school is run of the mill news in the world.  

On Wednesday night this week I was coming out of the classroom where I teach dance every week. Truth be told, I felt really defeated and even a little depressed at the news of the day when I went back to the office to put my things away at the end of the night.

As I rounded the corner, I found two of our high school seniors sitting on the floor eating dinner between classes. I’ve known these two girls in particular since they were in second grade, and they’re always two of my favorite people to stop and talk to when I see them around the studio. So Wednesday, I did just that.

We chatted about school and dance class and graduation and what was going on in their dating lives before one of them said, “Did you hear there was another school shooting yesterday?”

They started talking about what they’d seen on the news or heard from classmates about what happened in Florida. They were angry and sad, of course, but also seemingly without surprise that something like this happened in the world. For these two high school seniors, this wasn’t a shocking, out of the blue experience like Columbine was to me back then. It was a possible part of their school experience. Active shooter drills, text message alerts, and safety plans are what make up high school to them.

When I asked one of them what they thought about that, she shrugged and said, “I don’t know. It just sort of is what it is. I don’t think anybody’s going to do anything to change it.”

That last sentence was a real gut check.

I don’t think anybody’s going to do anything to change it.

To them, it looks like nothing is being done to make this present reality a distant past. There’s a lot of talk, but very little action. To them, it looks like the adults don’t care enough to actually put their money where their mouths are and do something—anything—to change the reality they live in. Whether we realize it or not, that’s the message they’re taking away from this: no one is going to do anything to change it.

When I started this blog, I promised myself it wouldn’t become another noisy piece of the Internet that’s inundated with harsh debate and firm stances. I’m not a person who wants to stir up controversy. I’m not a person who wants to get into heated debates about government and laws. I’m not a person who wants to yell and scream at the “other” side.

But I am a person who sits across from teenagers all the time, and the message so many of them are receiving is that adults aren’t going to speak up or stand up or show up consistently to make any change happen in their lives.

I don’t know all the answers, but I do know this: That’s not the message I want to send.

And on Wednesday, I told those two teenagers in my life just that.

“I hope you know that there are adults in the world who really do want change to happen to make your world a better place,” I said. “It’s just hard because the reality is, this world is a really dark place.”

One of them nodded as she picked up her stuff to leave. She thought about it for a second before turning back to me and saying, “Yeah, I think that’s why we need Jesus.”

Mic drop moment, y’all.

I think we need better gun control laws. I think we need better care for people who are mentally ill and suffering. I think we need better protection for our kids and educators. I think we need to be better, period!

But more than all that, I think we need Jesus.

I don’t say that as an easy answer to the complicated issues of the world. I don’t say that as a cop out or some version of blind faith. I don't say that to say we don't need other things, like better laws and reforms and protection in our country.

I say it because I think that student is right; I think it’s the truth.

People are broken. This world is a scary place. And for me, the answer to that lies first in a lot more Jesus in my life. I think that’s the starting point to a whole lot of things, like comfort, and peace, and healing, and hope, and security.

And at the end of the day, it’s the only thing that helps me sleep at night after a week like this one.

The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.

-Psalm 34:18

Sara Shelton