Nicholas S. Thacher is the headmaster of the New Canaan Country School in New Canaan, Conn.
Last week the U.S. Census Bureau sent me a principal’s questionnaire. It included a section asking me to rate the problems I face in administering my school community. Intrusive school boards, difficult parent groups, absent students, disinterested or incompetent teachers, that sort of thing. But my No. 2 pencil paused longest over the question about violence and guns on campus, as I sat at my cluttered desk remembering the many stories I have been reading about children and teachers dying in the corridors of our nation’s schools. I am tired of hearing and reading these stories.
In my school the teachers and I often agonize over the ways in which we keep most of “the real world” at bay, letting it seep onto the campus in what a social critic with a keen eye would term “manageable doses.” For a private school we take real pride in our diversity: Nearly a quarter of our students receive financial aid, thanks to a generous endowment and the collective fund-raising efforts of our active P.T.A. We are equally proud of our historic commitment to community service: Our 8th graders, for example, spend each Wednesday afternoon working in an impoverished day-care center, which their commitment has truly transformed. They were even selected as one of President Bush’s National Points of Light and journeyed to the South Lawn of the White House for an inspirational ceremony at which, like preadolescents everywhere, they displayed far greater interest in Tony Danza than in the President. (We all noticed there were no guns on the South Lawn.)
That same keen social critic would report that at my school we are trying to make a difference, that our passionate commitment to “diversity” may at least partially vitiate the natural sense of entitlement with which our more privileged students grow up. But we could certainly be criticized, as most exemplary private schools can, for making ourselves appear effective by excluding difficult-to-educate children, leaving them to the public schools, rejecting them with the same complacent certainty we reject guns.
My No. 2 pencil begins to come down in what I believe is the appropriate block. No guns here. But wait. Our middle school students have recently become enamored of paint-ball guns, in the faddish, hysterical way children of that age feel the lurid attraction of certain distasteful things: Garbage Pail Kids cards, say, or “Beavis and Butthead,” or--some years ago, mercifully--the Madonna look. Now it is paint-ball guns, described in brochures as “harmless,” guns which look and sound real but shoot gelatinous bullets which splatter their target with paint. The targets sold with such guns are human silhouettes. If that isn’t enough, you can don appropriate protective masks and uniforms and “play” in a paint-ball-gun war.
The film critic Michael Medved has recently warned us all about the violence which the entertainment industry is using to great effect to purvey their commercial interests. It is no news that murder and violence have proliferated in film and on television far beyond the realities of our streets and schools. Now paint-ball guns are proliferating again. In spite of the feminist movement (or perhaps, the social critic might say, because of it), Testosterone Rules! Little boys--and medium-sized boys masquerading as skinheads or drug dealers and big-sized boys dressed up as members of Congress voting against the Brady Bill--are having a field day.
I frequently think of our school community, in spite of its lack of real diversity, as a microcosm of the social order. There are no guns here--why? Because we do not allow them. We speak immediately and explicitly against violence and violent things. Students who fight are disciplined--even when we are tired. When young children ask to make swords in their woodshop classes, the shop teacher turns their impressionable hands and hearts to making bookends or birdhouses or boxes which can serve a useful purpose. When our youngest students in inventive play ask if they can “do karate,’' their teachers, no matter how tired, encourage them to find a different script. The children respond.
No. 2 pencil still poised over the Census Bureau’s questionnaire, I discover questions of my own. What would happen, I wonder, if our nation passed a bill far beyond the Brady Act, if for once we found leaders who would stand up to the lunacies of the National Rifle Association and the gun lobbyists and say, clearly and emphatically, “No guns!’' Maybe not even paint-ball guns. No violence on television (at least during the pathetically short time defined as children’s viewing hours). Maybe--dare I say such a thing in today’s ludicrously litigious culture?--amending the constitutional right to bear arms?
If, in some miraculous and unlikely way, that had happened a decade ago, let’s say, would the weary teacher one of my colleagues interviewed last year have offered a different response when asked why she wanted to move from the public schools of Chicago to the demonstrable fairyland of independent education? “I’m tired of going to my students’ funerals,” she said.
Knowing these children belong to us all, who doesn’t share her fatigue? It’s a gut-wrenching, bone-deep weariness--just the sort of fatigue which every teacher and every single parent understands. It is the fatigue that may ultimately destroy our culture. There are going to be too many funerals until and unless we all step up, turn off the television, and say, simply but decisively, “No guns.”
A version of this article appeared in the February 23, 1994 edition of Education Week as On Saying (Decisively) ‘No Guns!’