Education Opinion

Why Every School Needs a Gun Locker

By Anthony J. Mullen — February 10, 2010 6 min read
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Dallas, Texas

I am alone on the 6th floor of the Texas Book Depository building in Dallas, Texas. A few days earlier I had walked in the footsteps of protesting students and Ohio National Guardsmen at Kent State University, and now I follow in the path of America’s most infamous assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald. Visiting two historic crime scenes in less than one week appears to be the product of a morbid and perverse mind, but I am only following my travel schedule.

The Book Depository no longer stores books, but I calculate the number of books written about the JFK assassination could easily fill the spacious floors of this historic warehouse. Dallas County bought the building in 1977 and placed county offices on the first five floors. The top two floors of the warehouse, including the infamous sixth floor, remained empty until The Sixth Floor Museum opened in 1989. The museum contains artifacts and images concerning the JFK assassination, as well as a nice restaurant which happens to be on the seventh floor. I’m here tonight because I had the honor and pleasure to be invited to a dinner celebrating the 2010 state teachers of the year. I slipped away from the meal some time between the serving of macaroni and cheese and cupcakes, and walked down a flight of stairs to the sixth floor.

The air is stale and the lights are dim. The whitewashed brick walls and worn pine floors remain unaffected since Oswald’s time, and suddenly the afternoon of November 22, 1963 does not seem so distant. I look around and try to determine which side of the building faces Dealey Plaza. I manage to find the correct wall in this square room on my fourth try. A sheet of Plexiglas shields the south east corner window. So this is where Oswald’s cunning little brain created a makeshift sniper’s nest? I look inside and see the windowsill where he placed his Mannlicher-Carcano rifle. A few boxes are placed near the window to mimic the original setting, but the boxes are new and look like props.

Lee Harvey Oswald was a failure at life. He was a high school dropout, couldn’t hold a job, believed the Soviet Union was a workers paradise, abused his teenage bride, and was given a dishonorable discharge from the Marine Corps. The only skill he did have was a marksman’s eye. He was rated a sharpshooter in the Marine Corps., a talent that would later change the course of American history.

Oswald allegedly fired the fatal shots that killed a beloved president from the windowsill before me. And I later learn that Oswald’s rifle is stored at the National Archives, a place to preserve the grim reality of this tragic event. And then I think about another important archive right here in Dallas, an archive that stores hope and is trying to help at-risk students stay in school.

The MIDDLE SCHOOL ARCHIVE PROJECT is the brain child of Bill Betzen, a veteran Dallas teacher and social worker who believes a child’s own story has the power to heal. Bill was angry and frustrated that more than half of all Dallas high school students were failing to graduate, so he decided that part of the solution to this endemic problem was to remind all students that they have a past, present, and future. Bill decided that an archive could be more than a place to store other people’s relics and histories.

In Bill’s words,

“The most valuable possession any person has is their story, their history, the reasons they will be remembered.

Children of poverty make up most of our urban school systems. They rarely raise above the struggle of meeting basic human needs long enough to even think about their history. Too often it is not passed on to them. They do not know it. They have never thought about it. They have not written it. Nobody has recorded it for them. They worry about their parent’s jobs and the next pay check, the next weekend. This lack of a past often leads to a lack of goals for the future. Time for a personal history, time to think of goals 10 years in the future, is unheard of. You plan forward for a week, not a decade.

Thus mistakes are made.

Dropouts happen in a world without goals, and too often isolated from the world outside their neighborhood.Students do not realize they are creating a history for themselves, and their future children, every day. They simply need to record it. They need to connect with a bigger picture of life.

The best parents and teachers work to help their children and students connect with their personal history and life goals. Such work by parents and teachers is common. Life goals are the topic of hundreds of thousands of personal conversations among teachers, parents, students, and classmates every day. An Archive Project only helps life goals and history to become more concrete with a place to store that history, and those goals, as they existed at one time in a child’s life.

A School Archive is a resource for parents, teachers, and students in their work for the future.With an Archive Project a school provides a focus on personal history and life goals. Students are given a place, time, and encouragement to think of that history. They can record their past and their plans for the future. They can make it be something more, possibly what they want! Then they can come back, re-examine what they have done, and share their experience with students following them a decade later. They can help change lives by returning to their class 10-year reunion and volunteering to talk with the decade younger students.

All along the way the School Archive and “the letter” can be an opportunity for many priceless conversations with parents, teachers and classmates.”

The simplicity of Bill’s idea has proven to be a godsend to students most likely to leave school without a diploma. Children who desperately need a personal archive to set goals. All 32 high schools in Dallas are improving in their ability to keep students in school, and 11th and 12th grade enrollments have gone up 5% over the past four years. In real numbers, that’s 758 upper class students who have earned a diploma.

But here’s the real shocker: 55% of the 758 students came from only two of the 32 high school high schools-the two schools participating in the Middle School Archive Project.

How does it work? Let’s listen to Bill:

“The core of the School Archive Project is rather simple: a “re purposed” gun vault bolted to the floor in the middle school (or any school) lobby to function as a 10-year time-capsule leading toward a 10-year class reunion and mentoring experience with returning students speaking with decade younger students about their recommendations for success.

On this simple “backbone” you can hang many very valuable experiences or traditions. The 500-pound vault bolted to the school lobby floor, and the reality of the passing of time, help students to overcome the abstractions involved. Once the 10-year reunions start you will have that reality of 10-year older returning students. That will make things VERY real. That is what we are doing, working to be as realistic as is humanly possible. That helps eliminate the abstract issues involved.”

History is full of “what if” scenarios that require a vivid imagination and the ability to warp time. The truly tragic moments in history are often the focus of this cerebral exercise because seminal events are caused more often by the actions of people than by nature or the hand of God. These are the type of people who emerge from relative obscurity and seek a world stage. Lee Harvey Oswald was one such person.

But “what if” Lee Harvey Oswald had met someone such as Bill Betzen and joined a Middle School Archive Project? “What if” Oswald had wrote down his future hopes and dreams on a letter and deposited it in one of Bill’s gun vaults? “What if” Oswald had learned that a modified gun locker could memorialize his thoughts, aspirations, and dreams of a better future?

Just think: Oswald’s ten-year 8th grade class reunion would have occurred the same year he shot President Kennedy, a reunion that could have altered the course of American history.

Please visit Bill Betzen’s website at: http://www.studentmotivation.org

The opinions expressed in Road Diaries: 2009 Teacher of the Year are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.