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Musings from Anxious Educator

Thursday, July 21, 2022

​​By Mark Massaro

As the end of another semester approached, the faculty at the small state college where I teach took a collective sigh.

Our meetings became more laidback, concluding with relaxed shrugs and claims that the most pressing issues could be tackled next semester.

The standard issues still plagued us: the students who disappeared mid-semester suddenly materialized again, hoping to make up eight weeks of work in a night, and course evaluations stated that I was either the best or worst educator. The students who believed that they deserved a better GPA—yet never completed any optional extra credit assignments—let us know that “it would be cool” if their grade increased.

And yet what I mostly felt was overwhelming gratitude and relief. Despite all of our petty annoyances, we had been one of the lucky ones this year in one critically important regard: there was no school shooting on our campus.

Regrettably, this has become a standard American experience as the path to education turns into an endless target for anger and violence. The mass shootings in this country make us feel as if we’re circling a drain, one that, sooner or later, we’re destined to fall through. School shootings are becoming so common that I’ve grown accustomed to seeing news reports about attacks prevented or their aftermaths.

Politicians, the NRA, parents, extremists, and mourning victims seem to be the most vocal and enthusiastic about the marketing of this new phenomenon. But it seems that no one asks teachers and students for their thoughts, despite the fact that it solely involves us.

During one of my first semesters teaching college, my class was filled with incoming freshmen who were survivors of the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting. I realized this as we were halfway through completing the first-day “icebreaker” introductions. There was a quiet stillness in their voices, unsure if they should say more than the previous student. As the semester unfolded, I began to feel their anxiety when tardy students entered the room. I listened intently to what was happening in the hallway. Like them, I started to feel as if the campus wasn’t safe and was continuously scanning the crowds for sudden movements.

I started to wait for the inevitable and an internal battle grew inside me: would I do enough for the students, or would I be thinking of myself and my family? I am a dad, a husband, a son, and a brother — but I’m also an educator. Would I protect the arrogant students who constantly distract others and cheat, or would I run at the first sign of trouble because I don’t want my son and newborn daughter growing up without a father?

I am an English professor, passionate about cultivating my students’ critical-thinking skills so they become more discerning members of our society. I teach stories so they can experience other cultures, eras, and perspectives that will challenge their own inherent biases. I want their hearts and minds to grow after they leave my courses, with the hope that they will, at the least, recognize the influences that surround them. I don’t want to risk my life in my pursuit to do so or exist in a weary state of constant paranoia.

When I explained my apprehensions to my father, he calmly told a story about being in the Military Police and being dispatched to the riots in Boston after the tragic Kent State Shooting. “It is what it is,” he said. “There’s nothing we can do.”

“But you signed up for the military, expecting violence. I’m a teacher, Dad. I didn’t sign up for patching bullet wounds or carrying weapons.”

There’s an ignorant pride surrounding our culture now. I don’t even recognize some of the kids that I grew up with anymore, witnessing their “love” for our country on social media by spreading racist, xenophobic, sexist, classist, easily refutable misinformation. I see important books banned because they merely hold a mirror up to our faults. Self-evident truths are better ignored than acknowledged, apparently.

Simply put, I’m scared, and I’m worried for my children’s future. With emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion, I search for a glimmer of morality, generosity, and selflessness in our culture only for my outstretched hand to be slapped away. It’s like being in an abusive relationship with the nation, which is why education is continually defunded, ignored, and slighted. If education was as revered as mindless television and social media, the heartbreaking reality couldn’t be neglected: we’re not what we claim we are. The actions don’t match the rhetoric.

“Simply put, I’m scared, and I’m worried for my children’s future. With emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion, I search for a glimmer of morality, generosity, and selflessness in our culture only for my outstretched hand to be slapped away.”

But now the next semester looms and when that time comes I will go into my assigned classrooms a few days early to look around, test the technology to make sure it’s working, find hiding spots for the students, make sure that the emergency tourniquet is under the podium and that the active shooter door locking devices are present in the clear plastic box on the wall. And then the thoughts race through my head:

I could use the long table to barricade the door so the shooter can’t see inside.

That chair is broken in the back; I could use the leg of it as a bat.

The projector has a long, metal part that could easily break off.

Hopefully, there will be strong athletes that can help.

I could hide everyone against this wall, but only if they collectively leaned back.

During the first week of the new semester, I will still see students uneasily jolt every time the classroom door opens midway through the lecture. Students who have never experienced a tragedy are still on constant alert because of this new normal, and I’ll continue to share that anxiety with them. They’ll look at me for guidance and leadership when a door slams in the hallway or someone screams outside in the common area. And I’ll see that they, like me, are wondering what I’ll do if it happens.

Another worrisome consequence for educators in a culture of escalating violence and misinformation is that we now have more serious reservations about grading. We are used to emails about a grandparent’s death, dissatisfaction with a grade, or desperate pleas for makeup work. But now I stop to consider that a student might seek violence if their work earned them a C instead of an A. Am I risking bodily injury if they don’t like the essay question on a midterm?

I’m an American educator, on the frontlines of a global pandemic and institutionalized violence, while being underpaid and pressured into teaching a deluded version of our national history for job security.

How can I teach Langston Hughes or Flannery O’Connor without discussing our racist past? How do I teach rhetorical analysis without objectively critiquing political speeches? And isn’t an author’s life relevant to their work or am I only allowed to focus on that context if they’re a hetero white male?

I believe we learned the tragic consequences of suppressing history when we read Orwell’s 1984 and Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, but, ironically, those moral lessons are now in danger of being banned as well.


​​Mark Massaro received a master’s degree in English Literature from Florida Gulf Coast University with a focus on 20th Century American Literature. He is a Professor of English at Florida SouthWestern State College. When not reading and writing, he can be found at a concert or with his wife and son. His writing has been published in Dash, The Georgia Review, Litro Magazine, Rain Taxi, Jane Austen Magazine, Los Angeles Review of Books, The Sunlight Press, and others. Follow his literary adventures on Instagram at @bostonmahk4.