The dawn of the New Year brings thoughts of the future, and remembrances. Many are still remembering the Newtown massacre, searching for healing and seeking ways to honor those lost.
This past holiday season, in the wake of that terrible tragedy, I was reminded of an American folk ballad that tells of one Christmas evening, snow upon the ground, when a murderer is found:
“His name was Charlie Lawson, / And he had a loving wife. / But we’ll never know what caused him / To take his family’s life.”
In the song, we hear his children beg for their lives —
“But the raging man could not be stopped; / He would not heed their call, / And he kept on firing fatal shots / Until he killed them all.”
And then he takes his own life, and the ballad goes:
“They did not carry him to jail; / No lawyers did he pay. / He’ll have his trial in another world / On the final judgment day.”
As in the Lawson Murder Ballad, the killer in the Newtown story took his life and thus denies us any part we might have played in his trial and punishment. But the need for justice will maintain in many hearts, and the search for it will happen in different ways. Many will work to make our public schools safer and more secure. As a public school principal, I will play a part in this. Indeed, all of us, as voters and taxpayers who sustain public schools — we will all play a part in the ongoing work of nurturing our nation’s children. This is one reason why the Newtown tragedy hurts so badly: It took place at a school, a site for the common work of caring for our young people. Remembering the teachers as “those who cared for them” is a common theme in our nation’s mourning.
There is an infrastructure of caregiving in our country, and our tragedies often remind us of its importance. This infrastructure can be seen in many personal and private gestures, but it especially resides in the public sphere, where we see it embodied in people like our firefighters, police, and — especially when it comes to children — in our school teachers.
Universal public schooling is how America extends care for its children outside of the family and home. In loco parentis — in the place of the parent — is the essential phrase. While the parent is away, the school is where a child finds care. The school is staffed with people whose only vocation is to teach and protect children. There are those who cook for them, too, and nurses, bus drivers, and staff who fix the roof and make sure there’s heat in winter. And every day, in intricate ways, these staff collaborate with other public institutions to strengthen the structures of care: hospitals, fire departments, mental health services, child protective services, public health, public transit, state colleges, public parks, the police.
In the Lawson Murder Ballad, a father kills his own children in their home. In the Newtown shootings, a citizen murders his fellow citizens’ children in their school. There are only a few degrees of intimacy separating community school and family home: The school is the center of the web of public infrastructure designed to extend the family’s care for the child. When there is the murder of children in school, our hearts break — and it feels like civilization is broken, too.
Of course, recognizing the continuum of care between home and school begs the guns-in-schools question.
In New York City, I was principal in a building where armed police sometimes patrolled the halls. And I was principal in the same building when all we had inside were security agents, with the cops at the precinct down the block. In the school where I work today, in Randolph, the police are two minutes away. Personally and professionally, I prefer to have the guns in the hands of police who are close-by, but on the outside. That said, I might be convinced that other arrangements make sense. This is an important debate to have, and to have thoughtfully. But I’m not writing to argue whether guns in public schools make us safer. I’m writing to argue that public schools — and all the public resources connected to them — make us safer.
This public sector is vulnerable today. Federal investments will continue to teeter on fiscal cliffs, and states and towns all over America will continue to wrestle with deficits and debate the value of public sector investments. As we have these debates, I hope that we will not forget that schools are an essential site for the collective care of our country’s children, and that one reason the Newtown tragedy hurts so deeply is because a public school was torn apart. If we remember this, and support our schools accordingly, we not only honor the teachers who died, we also — if we educators do our jobs right — keep our kids well cared for. And if those if us in schools really do our jobs right, then we’re not only caring for children, we’re helping to nurture the future citizens who will actually make our world a safer place.
T. Elijah Hawkes is associate principal at Randolph Union High School in Randolph. He was founding principal of the James Baldwin School in New York City.
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