The Poetry of Excel Spreadsheets

So, the news is out.

A spreadsheet that circulated online for a very short time, that named names, that filled in details ranging from harassment to assault, that warned about men to be wary of, to avoid, that utilized the clean formatting of cells and color-coding, as a kind of organized and efficient clarion call, has had its original maker named. Moira Donegan named herself because she had to – because rumors had begun that she would be named, because she received a call from a fact checker, calling to check the “fact” that she created the Shitty Media Men spreadsheet.

It was true, sort of. The original spreadsheet began with her, but it became something much more than her work. As it was online for only a few hours, anonymously, and as it was a crowdsourced document, the work became a collaborative piece — added to by many others. Women added names, added details and situations to names already there, added categories of behavior. If a man was accused of physical sexual assault more than once, his name was highlighted in red. Concerned about the way anonymity could allow for false accusations, Donegan added a disclaimer at the top of the document. The spreadsheet’s clean lines, tidy columns, organizational format allowed for the document to grow to encompass all its authors — a community — writing of their experiences, warning others, bearing witness to the kind of interactions they navigate on an often daily basis inhabiting their bodies and identities in this world.

The original spreadsheet began with her, but it became something much more than her work. As it was online for only a few hours, anonymously, and as it was a crowdsourced document, the work became a collaborative piece — added to by many others.

What does this have to do with poetry? Fair question.

The poet Isobel O’Hare has been creating erasure poems by blacking out the statements and/or apologies of celebrities accused of sexual assault and harassment. So many of these statements are lacking — full of misdirection, qualification, what-about-ism, conveniently faulty memories, long-winded sentences that never track back to what it is they’re supposed to be addressing . . . all in the interest of avoiding/distancing/distracting the reader/listener. O’Hare strips them down to an essence, finding a mystery message of a phrase within the expanse of text crafted by handlers and publicists. These erasures are thrilling to read, as if maybe — just maybe — we could imagine these being the actual words hidden within the words. O’Hare’s erasure poems will be collected and published this February by University of Hell Press, titled all this can be yours (with proceeds going to RAINN and Futures Without Violence). Additionally, O’Hare is editing an anthology/manifesto of feminist redactions. As with the spreadsheet, once O’Hare shared their work online, it engaged others and led to a continuation of that work.

I imagine O’Hare, not unlike Donegan and the community of women who created the spreadsheet, using the tools of the office (the world of work) to create a poetry from these most unpoetic of materials: picture them grasping Sharpies, giveaway pens with corporate logos, and printed text from press releases, and uncovering what is there – what is really there, beneath the surface.

These erasures are thrilling to read, as if maybe — just maybe — we could imagine these being the actual words hidden within the words.

Consider Artemisia Gentileschi’s painting Judith Slaying Holofernes: Gentileschi painted her own face as Judith, her mentor Agostino Tassi as Holofernes. This is an old old story. Tassi had originally denied the accusation, denied ever being at Gentileschi’s house. Later, he admitted proximity, claiming he’d visited to safeguard her honor. He’d been accused of previous rapes, was suspected of the murder of his wife. He was found guilty of raping Gentileschi, sentenced to two years, but the verdict was annulled and just a year later he was free. Gentileschi painted this painting a few years later, her second version of this scene. She imagines the moment of the knife at Holofernes’s throat, his last breath, being held down; Judith is assisted by her maid, a much younger woman. They work in concert and overpower him.

She imagines the moment of the knife at Holofernes’s throat, his last breath, being held down; Judith is assisted by her maid, a much younger woman. They work in concert and overpower him.

What I mean to say is that poetry, like all literature, must challenge the status quo — must challenge the reader to reconsider what power means, who has it, who should have it, and how it should be wielded. What is more of a challenge to that than the very notion of author, of “I”? Collaborative texts, intertextual texts, and anonymous texts kick the legs out from under the very notion that a text can be owned and controlled. It’s why when Moira Donegan was going to be outed, so many women responded online with #iwroteit; it’s why the erasures Isobel O’Hare began, inspired, and is now collecting are so powerful – they take the words of others and incorporate them into the poetic project, creating a hybrid text where the boundaries of ownership are blurry.

Poetry is also about form, which is another reason I’m drawn to erasures – they uncouple ordinary language from syntax and grammar, summoning a dream-voice from the carefully constructed language of (often, in this case) not-apology, from rationalization. In doing so, they allow to speak the words that have power but were heaped with watered-down, corporate-speak, passive-voice nothingedness; they separate the power of language from the uses those in power often coerce language into. Erasures are an act of resistance — subversive. Gentileschi too worked within a form: a biblical story, an oft-painted scene, working in the vein of artists like Caravaggio and her own father. But she makes some important changes even working within this existing tradition — including the much-younger maid (a warning there); including her own face, her own rage; calling out the identity of her rapist and mentor, ensuring he’ll be remembered for all time for that . . . for what he did, and for that scene of her imagined revenge.

What I mean to say is that poetry, like all literature, must challenge the status quo — must challenge the reader to reconsider what power means, who has it, who should have it, and how it should be wielded.

Spreadsheets are useful to keep track of submissions, threads of story, dates and details for character developments. I remember when I realized that they were more than just elegant-looking tables, but rather something I could use — an organism to be crafted and tamed. They could do my bidding, they could morph, they could serve my needs and desires. A well-wrought spreadsheet is a thing of beauty, even when what it tracks is pain. Think of the possibilities for poetry — think what could be tracked within those cells, how to de-couple language from syntax, how to weave language and pattern and power. Thank you to all those writers who added their voices, who painted themselves into the picture, who took the sad pseudo-apologies and fixed them. Thank you to everyone who communicates in words, in a touch of the arm, with the safety of their presence, with a whispered warning, a too-long holding of eye contact — from whisper networks to the more formal spreadsheet, we need to take care of each other.

top photo by Umanoide on Unsplash

The Women’s Story

It has been an intense few months.

We’ve read about scheming politicians, afflicted refugees, innocents killed for the sake of “national security.” We’ve seen protests suppressed, military overkill, and, of course, an utter disregard for the truth supported by the dissemination of “alternative facts.”

I am, of course, talking about the biblical texts we’ve read in church.

For congregations that follow the Lectionary-assigned readings, it’s been a rough few months. Immediately after Christmas, before the baby’s umbilical cord stump had fallen off, we read a charming story we like to call “The Slaughter of the Innocents.” King Herod has heard rumors of a baby king—a rival for his throne. Since Herod can’t find the particular baby in question, he decides to kill all the babies.

So we have a paranoid, narcissistic ruler with poor impulse control. And we have plenty of people who should know better carrying out the cruel and insane orders of this ruler.

For congregations that follow the Lectionary-assigned readings, it’s been a rough few months. Immediately after Christmas, before the baby’s umbilical cord stump had fallen off, we read a charming story we like to call “The Slaughter of the Innocents.”

Jesus’ parents save him from the slaughter by becoming refugees. In an ironic reversal of a foundational Jewish story, Jesus, Mary, and Joseph escape into Egypt and remain there, in a foreign land, until word comes to them of Herod’s death.

So, we have targeted innocents fleeing a brutal political regime, and, fortunately, no wall at the Egyptian border.

After this cheery episode, we arrive at Epiphany, which gives us the back story to Herod’s death orders. You may know this as the story of the three wise men. There weren’t necessarily three of them, and they were magi, or astrologers, who really weren’t very wise. But still, lots of people know the basic idea: men from the east follow a star to find the Christ child and offer the most inappropriate baby gifts ever. These gift-bearing foreigners show up anachronistically in nativity scene after nativity scene.

So we have a paranoid, narcissistic ruler with poor impulse control. And we have plenty of people who should know better carrying out the cruel and insane orders of this ruler.

The character that doesn’t make the cut for the nativity scenes is King Herod, but he’s a central figure in this story. The magi come to him asking, “Where is the child who was born king of the Jews?” Herod’s advisers cite the prophets, who say the child will be born in Bethlehem. And Herod says to the Magi, “Hey guys, when you find that itty bitty little baby king, swing back by and let me know where he is. I’d love to go worship him.”

So we have a fearful politician desperate to maintain power who is not honest about his intentions.

The men from the East don’t seem wise enough to figure out that the last thing Herod would do is worship a rival king. Perhaps Herod was charming, a convincing liar. Perhaps the magi were the type of people who hear what they want to hear, who filter out disconcerting and inconvenient warning signs. Whatever the reason, they don’t seem to suspect Herod’s ulterior motive in wanting to find the child. (Fortunately for baby Jesus, though maybe not for all the other babies, God comes to the magi in a dream, sending them home by another way.)

So we have people who can’t—or won’t—recognize the true nature of the dishonest political leader.

So we have people who can’t—or won’t—recognize the true nature of the dishonest political leader.

And that’s all within a couple weeks of Christmas. Fast forward through Lent to Palm Sunday and we meet another insecure ruler. Okay, we don’t actually meet Pilate in the Palm Sunday story, but he’s there. The Bible tells the story of Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey, the crowd waving branches and shouting “Hosanna!” Historians tell us that Pilate, too, would have ridden into Jerusalem—he needed to be there during the week of Passover to make sure the pilgrims didn’t get out of hand. As governor of the region, Pilate would not have been riding into town on a donkey. He would have been on a war horse accompanied by a military entourage.

So, we have a politician desperate to look powerful, eager to be adored by the people—people who, for the most part, despise him. And we have a joyful, peaceful parade that amounts to a protest against the current political establishment. I imagine Pilate insisted that his crowd was bigger than Jesus’ crowd.

So, we have a group in power using disproportionate violence, committing their violent acts in the dark so the broader public doesn’t know what they are doing.

As you might know, while things start off pretty well for Jesus on Sunday, by Friday it’s all gone to hell. Judas, a disciple, has agreed to betray him. His best friends keep falling asleep in the garden where Jesus is praying his heart out. And then the mob shows up—a group of men rounded up by the chief priests and elders, carrying clubs and swords. They are there to arrest Jesus. Jesus who, as far as we know, never carried a weapon. Jesus who, as he tells them, had been preaching in broad daylight all week and could easily have been arrested without this stealthy nighttime campaign.

So, we have a group in power using disproportionate violence, committing their violent acts in the dark so the broader public doesn’t know what they are doing.

Jesus’ ensuing trial is a master class in dysfunctional politicking. (Or, I suppose, functional politicking—depending on your perspective.) A conservative faction of a religious group convinces the powers that be to go along with their agenda, threatening dire political consequences if the political leaders refuse their request. The political leaders, Herod and Pilate, pass Jesus back and forth—neither wanting to be responsible for him. And Pilate asks a haunting question at Jesus’ trial: “What is the truth?”

So we have politicians who fail to carry out justice, instead engaging in political maneuvers designed to shift blame away from themselves and appease a wealthy and powerful special interest group.

Then we have Matthew’s account of the Resurrection. The men who had been guarding Jesus’ tomb tell the priests and elders what happened: there was an earthquake, and then an angel descended and said that Jesus had been raised. The religious leaders are worried about how the people will react when they hear this story, so they pay the guards to tell a different story: we all fell asleep, and the disciples came and stole the body.

So we have fake news.

I’m somehow glad to know that politicians have always been corrupt, that the poor and otherwise vulnerable have always been oppressed, that violence has always been the go-to solution for those in power, that fake news was not invented by Breitbart.

I realize that these dark musings may not be in line with what I, as a pastor, am expected to preach in Easter season. I should be proclaiming the Good News. Shouting about new life from the rooftops. Exalting in God’s power to heal and transform. Pointing to God’s promise to bring justice in this world and eternal life in the next. And sure, as a Christian, I think that’s all true and grand.

But these days I’m actually gravitating to the human aspects of the biblical story. I’m somehow glad to know that politicians have always been corrupt, that the poor and otherwise vulnerable have always been oppressed, that violence has always been the go-to solution for those in power, that fake news was not invented by Breitbart. I suppose some might find it depressing to have these ancient stories of corruption and death as companions to the troubling daily news. But I find it oddly comforting.

The Bible doesn’t just show the long history of evil, but it also shows how people have fought against that evil. People cross borders they aren’t supposed to cross. They disobey orders from corrupt leaders. They join in protest marches, finding joy in communities of resistance. And people keep speaking the truth.

If humanity can survive the likes of Pilate and the Herods, maybe we can survive our current president. When I consider the biblical story, I realize that, as awful as things are, maybe we are simply dealing with mundane, run-of-the-mill evil, and not a new breed of unconquerable super-evil.

In addition to the “misery loves company” comfort I find in scripture these days, I also find hope. Because the Bible doesn’t just show the long history of evil, but it also shows how people have fought against that evil. People cross borders they aren’t supposed to cross. They disobey orders from corrupt leaders. They join in protest marches, finding joy in communities of resistance. And people keep speaking the truth.

Here’s what amazes me about the Resurrection narrative. (I mean, besides the earthquake and lightning angel and dead guy alive again.) There were two basic stories circulating about the body of an executed Jewish rabbi. The logical stolen body story was being circulated by respectable male guards and the powerful religious establishment. The unbelievable Resurrection story was being circulated by a couple of women—at a time when the testimony of women was not even valid in a court of law. Yet somehow the women’s story is the one I preach every year.

The unbelievable Resurrection story was being circulated by a couple of women—at a time when the testimony of women was not even valid in a court of law. Yet somehow the women’s story is the one I preach every year.

Today, there are two basic stories circulating about the current presidential administration. Let’s call one the “inauguration story”—that America is first; that our military power makes us great; that this president has the biggest crowds. Let’s call the other one the “women’s (march) story”—that America is on open and inclusive country; that our commitment to care for the vulnerable makes us great; that this president is an incompetent sexual predator. (I mean, he’s a competent sexual predator and an incompetent president.)

Two stories. I find comfort in scripture these days because these ancient words suggest that, in the end, the story told by the women is the one that endures.

top photo by Gradikaa on Unsplash

Bathroom Bills

Dear State Legislators Passing “Bathroom Bills,”

Please. Please. For the love of God and your constituency, find a real problem to write bills about. Because transgender people in bathrooms are not causing any problems. None. Zero.

My preference would be that you spend your energy addressing pressing concerns that threaten to destabilize society and possibly annihilate the entire human race. Might I suggest: generational poverty, mass incarceration, underfunded public schools, or Donald Trump’s presidential bid.

If, for reasons I won’t pretend to understand, you insist on creating bills related to public restrooms, allow me to suggest some bills that might actually improve the bathroom-going experience of the general public:

  • A bill requiring “occupied/not occupied” signs on stalls. The older I get, the more awkward it is to bend over and check for feet under the stall door.
  • An “all or nothing” bill regarding automation of bathroom amenities. Does the toilet flush by itself? Will the soap squirt out automatically? Will the water turn on if I move my hand back and forth faster under the faucet? How long should I stand here waiting for the paper towels to emerge? An “all or nothing” bill would help me avoid quite a bit of embarrassment.
  • A bill prohibiting the use of 1-ply toilet paper. For reasons I shouldn’t have to explain.

I appreciate your time and attention to my concerns. And I hope your next experience in the public restroom of your choice is a pleasant one.

Kind regards,Joanna

Dear Conservative Christian “News” Sites and Conservative Talk Show Hosts,

I imagine you and I disagree about many things. Evolution. Abortion rights. Gay marriage. Women pastors. Israel/Palestine. Military service. But with all of these issues, I at least understand where you are coming from. I can articulate the values that undergird your opposition to same-sex marriage. I can turn to the Bible passages that you quote when you champion creationism. I can even tell you all the reasons you would say that I should not be a pastor.

I don’t agree with you on these issues; I do (more or less) understand your perspective. But when it comes to your opposition to inclusive bathroom policies, I am truly and completely at a loss. I listen to your arguments in favor of forcing people to use the bathroom of the sex they were assigned on their birth certificate. I try to find some shred of reason in what you say, but every single argument I hear either says nothing or it says something that is so obviously false I can’t imagine anyone really believes it.

The say nothing arguments go something like this: You know we’ve just always . . . and we’ve never . . . and society and common sense and values.

The obviously false arguments go like this: If you let people use the bathroom that corresponds to their chosen gender identity, men will go into women’s restrooms and attack women.

The obviously false arguments go like this: If you let people use the bathroom that corresponds to their chosen gender identity, men will go into women’s restrooms and attack women.

The fact that a man followed a mother and daughter into a women’s restroom and choked the 8-year-old girl until she passed out is awful. Horrible. I cannot imagine the terror that mother and girl must have experienced.

Also, it has NOTHING to do with allowing transgender people to use the bathroom that corresponds to their gender identity. The man was not transgender. He was not even a cross dresser. He was a creepy guy who walked right into the women’s restroom and strangled a girl. Which, by the way, is against the law everywhere.

I don’t get it. I have deep roots in the Christian tradition—Baptist roots. I’ve read a broad theological range. I’ve attended prayer meetings where people spoke in tongues. I’m fluent in evangelical-ese (if a bit rusty), and I almost always understand the conservative Christian perspective, even though I don’t often agree with it.

I truly and honestly have no clue why you are opposed to letting people use the bathroom that corresponds to their gender identity. I thought maybe there was something in the Bible that I’ve somehow missed in all my years of study. So I did some searching.Turns out that many relevant bathroom words are not found in the Bible at all: bathroom, toilet, pee, poop, feces, shat. None of them are in there.

But not this time. This time I’m stumped. I truly and honestly have no clue why you are opposed to letting people use the bathroom that corresponds to their gender identity. I thought maybe there was something in the Bible that I’ve somehow missed in all my years of study. So I did some searching.

Turns out that many relevant bathroom words are not found in the Bible at all: bathroom, toilet, pee, poop, feces, shat. None of them are in there.

But “urine” was a hit. God tells Ezekiel to proclaim the coming devastation: “Every spirit will become faint and every leg will be wet with urine.” (Ezekiel 21:7) Also, in a story repeated in 2 Kings and Isaiah, a commander declares that the defeated enemy will “have to eat their own excrement and drink their own urine”. (2 Kings 18:27 and Isaiah 36:12)

Which led me to “excrement” and a passage in Ezekiel where God relents and lets the prophet bake his bread over cow dung instead of human excrement. (Ezekiel 4:15)

Very vivid verses—but not especially relevant to the topic at hand.

I was able to find only one verse that seems at all related to modern bathroom use. In Deuteronomy 23: 12-13, instructions are given to the Israelites:”Designate a place outside the camp where you can go to relieve yourself. As part of your equipment have something to dig with, and when you relieve yourself, dig a hole and cover up your excrement.”

I think we can all agree on the basic Christian principle of covering up our excrement. Or flushing. Beyond that, perhaps we should keep silent where the scriptures are silent.

Your Sister (I can show you my birth certificate if you like) in Christ,Joanna

Dear Cis Woman in the Women’s Restroom with Me,

If I run out of toilet paper in the stall next to you, I may ask you to pass me some. I would be happy to do the same for you. Otherwise, I expect we can each do our bathroom duties in peace. Have a nice day.

Dear Trans Woman in the Women’s Restroom with Me,

If I run out of toilet paper in the stall next to you, I may ask you to pass me some. I would be happy to do the same for you. Otherwise, I expect we can each do our bathroom duties in peace. Have a nice day.

Dear Cis Man or Trans Man in the Women’s Restroom with Me,

It seems only fair that if you enjoy the privileges of being a man in our society—higher pay, more respect, a wardrobe that does not go out of style every six months—then you should also experience the down sides of being a man in our society—nasty public bathrooms.

But, at any rate, if I run out of toilet paper in the stall next to you, I may ask you to pass me some. I would be happy to do the same for you. Otherwise, I expect we can each do our bathroom duties in peace. Have a nice day.

In bathroom solidarity,Joanna

Dear Sexual Predator in the Women’s Restroom with Me,

GET OUT!

Dear Men who were in the Men’s Room when my Woman Friend Accidentally Wandered in there and Used the Bathroom and then Noticed You All Looking at her Funny While She Was Washing her Hands,

She feels pretty silly and wants you to know she was really tired and jet lagged. It won’t happen again. Probably. But if it does, thanks for being cool about it.

For a friend,Joanna

top photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

On Guns, Again

The other day, as my wife and I drove north on Interstate 25 in our Mazda CX5 with our eleven-year-old daughter, Mitike, and our dog, Fable, in the backseat, I thought, “Why not get rid of all these safety features in our car?”

I mean, really, our car would have been so much cheaper without all these gratuitous extras—without the blindspot monitoring, without the brake assist or the traction control, without the air bags or the rearview mirrors or the windshield wipers or the daytime running lights. And if Mazda hadn’t been mandated to install seatbelts or spend its resources on IIHS or NHTSA safety tests, this car would be far more fun to drive.

I glanced in the unnecessary rearview mirror at Mitike, who bent over a book. What kind of world are we promising future drivers like her? All these regulations! These superfluous rules, like properly registering a vehicle, or paying for insurance on it, or passing vision and knowledge tests to get a license to drive. Fettered by decades of rules, we cannot enjoy driving. Someday, the government will probably just take away this right all together, and we will all be forced to take the public bus system.

“Um, Mom?”

“Yes, Mitike?”

“What are you writing?”

“I’m tired. Another school shooting, and no one’s going to do anything. I’m resorting to sarcasm.”

“But you’re not writing about guns.”

“Yes, I am. If guns could be regulated like cars are, we’d have far fewer deaths. Did you know that when states started requiring people to get driver’s licenses in the 1930s, they dramatically reduced accidents on the roads? And that after most states started requiring seatbelts in the 1990s, people’s injuries in car accidents decreased by half? And that when car companies started putting in air bags in the late 1990s, they reduced the mortality rate by 63 percent? A few rules, and we’re safer. I’m trying to argue that—”

“Mom, let me try.”

“What?”

“Let me write your column this month.”

“Would you mind?”

Stop This NOW! A Guest Column by Mitike Iris Campbell, Age Eleven

Why do you keep letting this happen? You grown-ups are exasperating sometimes. You would not hesitate to protect your children and your family, but you hesitate at this, at choosing the safety of your family over your precious guns? The Second Amendment reads, “A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” This does not mean that everyone just has the right to bear arms. It means we have the right to bear them in a well-regulated way. Technology like guns is always advancing, so laws must always be made and changed to protect us. Children are losing lives they have only just begun. Our future is being destroyed by your inaction here and now. Decide. Unregulated guns or continued tragedy? Danger or safety? Violence or peace? Injustice or justice? Death or life? Hatred or love? Please remember that the choices you make will affect the future as well as the present.

—MIC

A question-and-answer session with the guest columnist, Mitike, who is in fifth grade and loves reading fantasy novels, considering fashion styles, playing volleyball, and relaxing with her family.

SHC: So, Mitike, why do you think school shootings are happening?

MIC: Because of guns.

SHC: Does hearing about a tragedy like the one in Florida make you feel afraid?

MIC: Yes, it does when I think about it, but most of the time I’m so focused on my work, I don’t think about it.

SHC: What does your school do to prepare for emergencies?

MIC: We do lock-downs, lock-outs. In art class, we do a lock-down drill in the kiln room. And we do have talks about this kind of thing a lot. They talk about what is appropriate and what is inappropriate to bring to school, and how you should report it if you see anyone with anything unsafe.

SHC: What’s an example of something that is inappropriate to bring to school?

MIC: Guns, knives, swords. I don’t know if swords really exist, but, you know. Daggers, bombs, but they don’t really talk about those. That’s mostly it.

SHC: What would you say to someone who says that if we allow the government to regulate guns more, the government will take them all away?

MIC: Well, it’s not necessarily a bad thing if they do. If that’s the only way they see fit to keep us safe, then it’s probably a good choice.

SHC: Like what Australia did?

MIC: Yes, I think that’s great. They’re having a fine time down there—except they do have lots of poisonous animals threatening their population, instead.

SHC: What do you think of the idea of requiring licenses for everyone who owns a gun, as a place to start?

MIC: I think that is a good idea because if we had that, then we’d be able to trust that we lived in a little bit safer country, and a little bit safer schools. Kids should not have to worry that we’re going to die.

SHC: What are some other things you worry about?

MIC: Well … I hate snakes, komodo dragons, snakes in a pit, snakes chasing me on top of a cart that wants to run me over, finding out my house is on fire in the middle of the night and not being able to run away, losing my dog. I’m worried my cousins will get me in trouble. I worry that my cousin Ryland will break his head open because he’s not being careful. I worry about doing terribly on tests. I worry that I’m not getting enough information from the books my teacher wants me to read. I worry about forgetting my homework.

SHC: Wow, that’s a lot of worries. What would a peaceful life look like for you, then?

MIC: It would be a life where I would only worry about little things I have no control over, not about my life being threatened. Not in school, anyway, where I’m trying to learn.

NOTE: Call your senators now. Tell them to support the assault weapon ban and to push legislation that requires strict licensing and regulation of guns. Donate to and join Moms Demand Action. Please. Let’s allow our kids to worry about poisonous snakes, instead.

top photo by Jose Alonso on Unsplash

Imagine

Trump, in a speech on Friday, February 23, 2018, to the Conservative Political Action Committee in Washington, D.C.:

“Well-trained, gun-adept teachers and coaches [should carry firearms in schools]. I mean, I don’t want to have a hundred guards with rifles standing all over the school. You do a concealed carry permit. This would be a major deterrent, because these people are inherently cowards.”

Saturday, February 24, 2018, Trump tweet:

“Armed Educators (and trusted people who work within a school) love our students and will protect them. Very smart people. Must be firearms adept & have annual training. Should get yearly bonus. Shootings will not happen again — a big & very inexpensive deterrent. Up to States.”

It’s March 24, 2020.

In Denver, Colorado, a certain English teacher with streaks of silver in her brown hair completes her final “Armed Educator Training,” which her school district has mandated for all educators, in compliance with SB1999 passed after Colorado endured another mass shooting, this time in a Colorado Springs high school in May of 2019. This time, nearly fifty students and educators died. This time, finally, enough Colorado legislators stood up to demand alternatives. Thus “Armed Educator Training”: six courses all K–12 teachers are required to complete before the end of this 2020 school year. Former military personnel or teachers who can demonstrate similar arms certifications are exempt if they complete the appropriate paperwork. Upon completion of the six courses of the Armed Educator Training, each K–12 teacher receives a standard-issue M&P 9, with a Picatinny rail under the muzzle. On this day, March 24, 2020, a stern army colonel with wire spectacles perched on her nose hands this English teacher her M&P 9. The English teacher holds the gun on the palms of her hands and does not look away.

Behind her, a kindergarten teacher breaks into quiet tears as she is handed her gun. A middle school math teacher accepts his grimly. A high school chemistry teacher grabs hers a bit too eagerly. The room is silent. No one says thank you. No one laughs or jokes with each other, as they have been doing in the dreariness of these evening classes and at the shooting range, where learning how to hit the targets felt more like a sporting competition than anything real. But now. They fit the new guns into the blue plastic holsters they have been issued, and they accept the paper certificates that confirm their completion of Armed Educator Training.

At home, the English teacher sits in her car in the driveway for several minutes, trying to grasp this brave new world. She will leave the gun in her glove compartment and transport it to school tomorrow, in the clear plastic bag (all bags and backpacks at her high school must be clear now) that currently holds her students’ research papers, three books she needs to skim to prepare for tomorrow, and various spoons and forks she has neglected to return to her kitchen. She refuses to bring the gun into the house. Not with her child in there. But then she shudders: her child’s teachers all carry guns now, too. Every teacher in Denver is required to, now.

She sits in the driveway, and outside the March wind pummels her car. The car rocks. Mentally, she lists all that she still does not have as a teacher, though she now has a gun:

  • she does not have whiteboard markers
  • she does not have the students’ attention, since they are staring at their cellphones
  • she does not have a key that works in both classrooms in which she teaches
  • she does not have enough desks for all of her students when all of them attend
  • she does not have time to use the bathroom
  • she does not have a printer or a projector that work reliably
  • she does not have a reasonably sized class
  • she does not have enough books, or paper, or pencils
  • she is not paid enough to live in most of the neighborhoods in her city
  • she does not have adequate healthcare
  • she does not have regular assistance with her students’ mental health issues
  • she does not have reassurance that the district has invested adequately in her retirement
  • she is not paid enough to save for her own child’s college education

But she has a gun. On the passenger seat beside her, the gun in its ridiculous blue plastic holster, inanimate but not innocuous, waits for her to do something with it. She remembers other times she has held and fired a gun: as a child, when her father had reached around her and held the rifle with her so they could point and fire at clay pigeons the machine threw into the air over their cornfield. And she remembers the time in Alaska. In Alaska, where she trained to be a teacher, her program required all urban education students to do a one-week intensive in a rural school. She had flown to Kodiak Island, to a village of fifty, where two teachers led a K–12 school for eighteen students, lived together (though they were not a couple), drank tequila, and shot guns. For the entire week, the teacher had become increasingly dismayed by the ferocity with which the other two teachers wanted to finish the day so they could go shoot guns. Every afternoon, the three of them walked the short distance to the town dump, set up rusty cans on stumps, stepped back, and fired. Bang. Bang. BANG. The teacher wanted to know if they could hike instead. Ha, said the man teacher. Hike? There are Kodiak bears out there. THIS is all there is to do safely here. He lifted his pistol again, a little shakily, since he had been drinking. Bang! The other teacher, the woman, laughed bitterly, examining the pistol she held. Yeah, they say you have to be insane or be running away from something to come out here to teach. I think I’m doing both. She leveled the pistol at the man a moment, and they both laughed crazily. Bang! A tin can exploded in the distance, out by the dump where only the bears and the bald eagles could hear.

Until the mandatory Armed Educator Training, the teacher had not fired a gun since that moment in the Alaska. Some of the teachers in the training had reminded her of those two teachers on Kodiak Island: desperate, fierce, angry. Give me that gun, an eighth grade social studies teacher had said, his teeth gritted. No active shooter will think to bother my classroom, ever.

Now she sits in her car beside the gun, and outside, it has begun to rain: large drops splash rough-edged circles on her windshield, which is cracked. Where is she safe, if not in her classroom? Where is her daughter safe? She thinks of a cartoon she saw once, of a boy on a playground holding a stick. The teachers gathered around him, staring down at him, debating. Should we arm all the other children with sticks? Or should we take away his? The cartoon teachers frowned in their indecision.

The front door of the teacher’s house opens, and her wife steps out, peering through the gray rain. She wraps her sweater around her body and walks out onto the porch, down the two steps, across the driveway. She doesn’t hesitate: she opens the driver’s-side door and grasps the teacher’s hand. Come on, sweet wife, she says. Come inside. She glances at the gun on the passenger-side seat, but mostly she keeps her gaze focused on the teacher.

Shivering suddenly, though she is not cold, the teacher begins to cry. I don’t want this—I just want to teach writing—I hate living in America—I—

Her wife pulls on the hand she holds and guides the teacher out of the car. She shuts the car door, and the car, smart, locks itself with the gun inside.

Dinner’s ready, the teacher’s wife says quietly. Let’s just go inside.

Inside, dinner is already on the table, and the women’s daughter sits waiting, her dark eyes round with concern. The fireplace is on, and the dog greets them, wagging happily, as he does every day. The teacher lets her shoulders relax. Her daughter springs up from the table to hug her, and the dog wedges himself happily between them.

And the teacher gives herself permission, as she does every afternoon, to forget the world outside this one, to forget guns and inept politicians and deep gun lobby pockets that refuse to ban even semi-automatics and bump stocks and fear and students who jump at any loud noise and lockdown drills and lockout drills and the flashing red and blue lights of America.

Her wife locks their front door. Here, by the fire, the three of them settle into their chairs at the dinner table, and the dog stretches out at their feet.

But it is not enough. The teacher knows it: it is not enough.

top photo by Heather Mount on Unsplash