“Pause it when he gets shot”

Teaching in the murder capital of the USA, I see my students fascinated by the violence that tears their city apart

Topics: Guns, Violence, Sandy Hook, Education, teaching, Life stories, New Orleans, Editor's Picks,

"Pause it when he gets shot"

My school was on lockdown last Thursday. At recess, 12 shots rang out; we shuttled the children inside and declared a school emergency. Half my students suddenly had to pee. I couldn’t let them go; all doors shut — no movement. Our security guard stopped by each room to announce the danger.

Then, we kept teaching.

The week after Sandy Hook, I’d had nightmares about places I could hide my students if a shooter came — they’re little, so I could put them in closets or drawers, I could stand outside the door and try to talk the guy down, I could dial 911 behind my back — but that’s not what our lockdown ended up like.

Our lockdown wasn’t very scary at all. It was usual for New Orleans. Our lockdown meant an 18-year-old boy died a block and a half away — he was the only intended target, the only death.

His mother, the news reports, cried in the middle of the street and would not stand up for anything. It was 2 o’clock in the afternoon, not a cloud in the sky. And inside my school, as the lockdown ended and we heard the news, I thought: Thank God it’s not one of mine. 

Last year, I taught high school, and when it comes to my big kids, gun violence is a text message I get in the morning while I’m headed to school:

Aisha: Remember Terrence Lee?

Ms. Selker: Yes – is he okay?

Aisha: Shot in the face. Three times. We think Rick did it.

(I changed the names of the students for this article, but otherwise, that text message is verbatim.)

An eighth-grader died on a Tuesday last year. On Wednesday, a student of mine reflected: “He stole my watch last Friday. That kid was always getting in trouble — he was gonna get killed sometime or other.”

These words from the mouth of a girl who sat up straight in class, who was kind to her peers, never talked back, showed up on time. She wasn’t cruel; she was broken.

She was numb. We have more murders per capita in New Orleans than any other city nationwide. Anyone who works with their hands knows that when you get hurt again and again, a callus forms. You don’t feel it anymore. It’s necessary.

The day that Christmas Break begins, I give my students a treat: 40 minutes watching “Coach Carter” instead of studying the Periodic Table. It’s the movie with Samuel L. Jackson, about the basketball coach in a tough school district. As high schoolers, my kids’ attention wavers; they’re watching, but just as interested in the chance to flirt across a classroom or gossip in the back.
 But they hush each other 20 minutes in. They’ve seen this movie a million times before — they know what’s going to happen. There’s a scene where the best friend gets shot — three loud snaps in an alley, in the rain, on a screen:
 “Ms. Selker, can you rewind it? We wanna see that again!”

“Pause it right when he gets hit, Ms. Selker!”

Shocked, I refused. Why were they giddy at the sight of murder? Didn’t they understand – this was part of the problem?

But I’ve thought about that moment a good deal since then. Today, I see it more like the New Englander who watches 24-hour storm coverage before each Nor’easter: He’s been through 50 of them, and yet he draws his family around the television to see: “There’s the storm pattern, that pink area there – that means 8 to 10 inches …”

They could look outside and see the snowflakes start to fall, but they’re glued to the screen instead. They watch the rotating cast of cars snowed in from last year, ice slicks on roads, houses halved by fallen trees. The images are frightening, yes, but they are controlled there on the television. They are captured.

They can be paused, even when the storm outside cannot.

The Storm: Here in New Orleans, it has a different meaning. Folks mark time as Before or After Katrina. But there’s another storm raging outside each day. It’s too many funerals. We read the crime report on the Times-Picayune website like it’s a Facebook feed. My students’ top drawers fill with memorial T-shirts, white Hanes printed with the names and an iron-on photo of the deceased. 
Death is not a shock anymore. It’s as usual as laundry.

As a teacher, I see the pathways to violence. In my classroom and hallways, I see the anger and the rivalries begin. I see the low test scores and unmet hunger that leads to frustration, then skipping school every other day, then week. But I also see kids cut down senselessly, with no televised vigils for their suffering.

Last year, our school had a nice boy whom everyone liked, even though he got in trouble sometimes. He did well enough in class. But his A’s in English didn’t get him into the paper; in the crime report, he’s just a “target.”

Saturday, noon, target is at his cousin’s birthday party when shots ring out. Shots miss target. Shot hits the birthday boy’s little sister. She has no time to cry.

She’s 4, big eyes, gentle, knows all her letters of the alphabet — and she dies at the scene. Right there on the front step where she played.

There was no pressing pause, no rewinding. It was done.

People often ask me if I’m scared, living in New Orleans: Have I heard gunshots? Have I been mugged? Have I seen a gun? 
I haven’t seen one, no, but I saw some detailed sketches a ninth-grader did of a pistol last year on his binder — and then I saw the crime blotter report covering that same child, booked for armed robbery in broad daylight. We’ve heard a lot about gun violence in these past months. The nation is rightly outraged. But statistics are cold and hard and incontrovertible: Eight children die from gun violence every day.

And so I am scared, though it’s not because I feel like I’m in personal danger. It’s that the children I love live in neighborhoods colored red on the city’s crime map.

I am scared — because I send them home with their homework, and I cannot be sure that they’ll come back.

Kate Selker is a writer living in New Orleans, Louisiana. She has taught in, and continues to be involved in, the New Orleans Public School System.

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