In my classroom hangs a poster that says, “Share Similarities ~ Celebrate Differences.” The poster was my first purchase as a new teacher, and it fits perfectly with our classroom environment that salutes diversity. Throughout the years, students of various backgrounds, experiences, cultures, and races have come through my door into a welcoming community of learners who transform a physical room into a safe haven.
My culturally rich classroom is just one part of a dynamic elementary campus that serves a predominately Hispanic community—a vibrant neighborhood where everyone comes together as friends and family to help each other. Together, we reside and work in the heart of a city that, until Aug. 3, 2019, was known as one of the “10 Safest Metro Cities in America”: El Paso, Texas.
The killer may have known El Paso's demographics, but he did not know the community's heart.
On that day, our El Paso community was attacked by an outsider who chose to drive more than 600 miles across Texas specifically to massacre Hispanics at a Walmart. Where we saw neighbors and families shopping for school supplies, he saw invaders. He did not see the beloved grandfather or the supportive parents fundraising for their daughters’ sports team. Twenty-two individuals were killed, and many more injured.
This attack has left me and my community heartbroken. In one tragic instant, El Paso’s story changed forever. It now has another reference attached to its name: “One of the 10 Worst Mass Shootings in Recent American History.” The killer may have known El Paso’s demographics, but he did not know the community’s heart. He didn’t know that the elderly endearingly call you “mijo” and “mija” even if you are a stranger, or that we tend to hug as we say hello and goodbye. He did not know that our local police officers treat people with dignity and respect, and that this is reciprocated. He miscalculated; we value our diversity and find strength in it. From blood drives to community prayer vigils to #ElPasoStrong, we have come together.
This week, I am welcoming my students back to school. I always feel total joy to begin a new school year, but this time it is different. Before our first day back, a friend casually asked me, “So, are you ready to hit the ground running?” This normally innocuous figure of speech conjured a different image for me: In an instant, I saw in my mind the terror-filled videos of people running away from a shooter. I am positive that my students have seen similar images. It will undoubtedly be a challenge to make my kids feel totally confident about being safe in my care.
So, I have been revising my instructional planning. Even before receiving an official district plan, my colleagues and I began compiling resources to help our kids work through fear. Books For Littles provides a list of suggested picture books to help talk about gun violence with children. Useful websites like the Center for the Study of Traumatic Stress have also offered tips on how to restore a sense of safety after a tragic mass shooting. Even with these resources at hand, I feel most grateful that my campus has a full-time counselor and a full-time social worker on staff to support our student community.
The security of my students is of utmost importance to me, but so is the positive development of their character. In this sense, I am granted a rich opportunity as their teacher to create a safe and accepting space where they can grow in empathy, can understand that words matter, and can learn that choices can have consequences.
This has always been important, but now more so than ever. Just like in my classroom, norms are being set in classrooms across our country by dedicated educators. Hateful words and actions are not tolerated. Mockery and marginalization of one another are not accepted, and encouragement is given for students to speak up when they see wrongdoing.
Society depends on us. In these troubling times, we cannot look away. Racist massacres like the one in my community should not continue to happen. The divisive, hateful rhetoric needs to stop, from the highest levels of leadership to the youngest child in our homes and classrooms. We can be better. We can all instead choose to “Share Similarities ~ Celebrate Differences.”