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Friday 2 June 2023 Dublin: 12°C
Jae C. Hong A law enforcement personnel lights a candle outside Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, Wednesday, May 25, 2022.
Irish lecturer in US 'The shadow of campus shootings has loomed large in our lives for years'
Caoimhín De Barra says threats to safety on campus are always on your mind when you work as a teacher in the US.

ON TUESDAY AFTERNOON, my American wife and I were rearranging some garden furniture in our home in Washington state.

I knew I had to leave soon to pick up our six-year-old daughter from school, so I looked at my phone to check the time. A headline popped up on the screen: “Nineteen elementary school children and two teachers shot dead by mass shooter in Texas.”

I read this aloud to my wife. There was a pause and then she said, “I think we need to move this bench back a bit.”

Nothing better encapsulates how deep America’s gun problem has become than this.
It is not that my wife, mother of three and a high school teacher herself doesn’t care. But when you have heard it all before and nothing is going to change, what can you say?

Normalising violence

Ten minutes later I was outside my daughter’s school mixing with other parents as they collected their children. I listened keenly to the conversations going on, wondering what they would say about the horrible incident in Texas.

I didn’t hear anyone say a thing about it.

Later that evening, my daughter’s soccer team was having a pizza party to celebrate the end of their season. We sat with other families, all with children the same age as those murdered in their classroom only a few hours before. I was curious what the response would be to the massacre. We were there for two hours. It wasn’t mentioned once.

The topic of guns is highly politicised and most of the parents didn’t know each other very well. Maybe people didn’t feel they could speak freely or honestly about what happened.

Right to bear arms

On the other hand, this part of the United States leans conservative. Perhaps some of those in attendance believe that the occasional mass slaughter of children is just the price that has to be paid for the right to bear arms and there isn’t anything to say about it.

As an Irish parent of a child attending an American school, the frequency of school shootings terrifies me. That more will happen in the future seems inevitable. All you can do is hope that your loved ones are not in the wrong place at the wrong time.

My daughter goes to a tiny school that has absolutely zero security. It reminds me of the type of school that is totally normal in Ireland.

There are lots of reasons why I would love to move back to Ireland, but probably the most important one is that I wish I lived in a place where I didn’t notice what kind of security an elementary school has.

As I drove home with my daughter on Tuesday, I decided to tell my daughter what happened and to try and explain it to her.

We speak in Irish. People often complain that when Irish is taught in schools it is not “practical” Irish needed for everyday communication. I certainly don’t remember ever learning how to talk about school shootings and the massacre of children.

When I told my daughter, she said that when she is older, she will be a superhero who will stop things like that from happening.

It is telling that even for a six-year-old, the initial response is to think about how to prevent future tragedies. And it is heartbreaking that the adults who are in a position to take action will ultimately do nothing.

Planning your escape

Although this is only my eldest daughter’s first year of school, the shadow of school shootings has loomed large in my life for some time. My wife worked in a high school classroom for years. When she got a new job that meant she would only be teaching online, honestly the first thought I had was “now we don’t need to worry about her getting shot at work.”

But I am also at risk. I have been teaching in American university classrooms since 2007, the same year 32 college students were murdered in a massacre at Virginia Tech.

Most American elementary and high schools have some level of security to prevent school shootings. Restricted access to the building and armed guards in the hallways are not uncommon. But this is not true of American third level institutions, where campuses sprawl across numerous buildings and monitoring who is entering them is difficult.

In some moments of downtime in my classrooms, I often find myself thinking: “how do we get out of this room if we learn a school shooter is in the building? What could we do to stop them from entering this room?”

There is one classroom I teach in on the fourth floor of a building that is right next to a tree. I have regularly imagined a scenario where my students and I have to climb out the window and escape by descending the tree.

I have even wondered if I should buy a gun and keep it hidden in my laptop bag as a desperate last resort if ever confronted by a school shooter.

These are the crazy things one thinks about when working in a country where mass shootings occur with sickening regularity.

It also impacts how I interact with my students. I once was confronted by a student who was upset that he had failed an exam in my class. The conversation got a little heated. For weeks afterwards, I wondered if it was possible that he might show up in my classroom, armed, looking for revenge.

In recent decades, culture wars have erupted in various western countries as politicians seek to exploit emotive issues for gains at the polling booth. In the United States, in particular, the term “war” seems apt as the place of guns in society is central to the political divide that splits this country.

Given the frequency of gun violence here, the term “culture war” seems less metaphorical and more literal. And myself, my family and millions of children and educators are on the front lines, running the daily risk of being the next victims sacrificed on the altar of the Second Amendment.

Caoimhín De Barra is an assistant professor of history at Gonzaga University, Washington.


Caoimhín De Barra
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