While I was substitute teaching a history class at a high school in Southwest Louisiana, a student pointed a color guard rifle at me and said, “Shut the hell up. Shut the hell up” (1). The rifle was clearly fake. There was a closet full of them, each wrapped with white tape to reduce confusion about their authenticity. One might argue the rifles were nothing more than oddly shaped batons flipped around by students of the color guard during the halftime show, but these batons had butts, stocks, barrels, and shoulder straps.
To be fair, I knew the student was joking, and I wasn’t the first person he aimed his fake gun and choice words at. The student first pointed his gun at his peers, which got my attention. It wasn’t until I began walking towards the student that I became his target. “All right,” I said, reaching for the rifle. After he said “Shut the hell up. Shut the hell up,” he handed it over and laughed. “Ha ha,” I said. “But you shouldn’t point even fake guns at people. It can get you in trouble, especially if someone doesn’t know it is a fake gun—it could get you shot” (2).
I could write at length about the circumstances that led me not to take action the moment the student got ahold of the gun and why the same classroom environment could allow a student to tell a sub to “shut the hell up,” but I’m still learning how to tell war stories. What I do want to address here is the notion that education is truly “militarized,” especially in the post-Columbine era. I am not talking about the color guard explicitly (despite “color guard” meaning military or police, uniformed military officials who parade with the institutional flag—the colors). There is something more subtle and difficult to pinpoint.
Critics such as Noam Chomsky have been voicing their concerns about instilling students with a sense of patriotism for decades. History is taught to glorify the United States and breed a new generation who believe they are exceptional (3), meanwhile we continue fighting unwinnable wars while our education system continues failing students. There is nothing exceptional about any of this. How does the system ensure that money keeps going into military spending simultaneously taken away from education? We literally keep students from learning while sending military recruiters to campuses.
While subbing for a Home Economics class at a different school, I watched a recruiter get the students’ attention by saying, “You like blowing stuff up, right? Well, if you join the Coast Guard, you can blow stuff up for a living. You can make a living by blowing stuff up. You need to pay for college, right?” The recruiter was in the front of the classroom, standing in front of a screen that listed kitchen safety rules—how not to cut oneself with a knife, etc., and I couldn’t help thinking of the phrase make a living. Making community college free might help, but can free tuition make up for an already failing education system and prevent campuses from being a war zone recruiting station?
Ultimately, it is not just the fake guns or the pointed language that give me pause and a sense of unease. When I was subbing for the history class, I saw, on the teacher’s desk, a student-designed poster. In purple marker, the student had written “Holocaust” in a font you might see on a cheerleader’s banner.
Across the nation there are campaigns—some successful—to allow guns on campus. Some schools have to do drills to practice in case a shooter storms campus. At one of the college campuses where I teach, long passages from the Columbine Manifesto are written on the women’s bathroom stall. Over the Summer and Fall semesters, there were two bomb scares, a fire alarm pulled, and an emergency alert notifying us there was a man who might have a gun near campus and that police were on scene. If police were on scene, why did we need the alert? I bet a lawyer could answer that. Such alerts create unnecessary fear, in much the same way that making ISIS video threats news creates fear, and this does not address the real problem.
I have taught essays to my college students that address these issues, namely Brandon Schrand’s “All That Glows,” in which he describes how he and his friends liked blowing stuff up in high school. He suggests that he liked to make bombs and use them because he lived in a town where chemical companies pollute and mining companies strip the mountains to rubble by blowing them up. The exterior landscape had become his interior landscape that was excited by destruction, despite its harms. But this mature realization comes later in Schrand’s life, after he and his friends make a fake bomb and let it loose in their high school, scaring not just the students but the faculty. In class, we address how the inappropriate prank was pulled pre-Columbine and how a student would get arrested for similar actions today. The last time I taught the essay, a student asked, “Do you ever get scared to come to school?” My gut answered before I had time to think. I mentioned the writing on the bathroom stall. I didn’t go into details of other incidents, like the time a student, only days after the Virginia Tech shooting, tried to convince me he should pass the class by asking me to read his short story about a guy who gunned down students from the roof of a building on campus. I didn’t tell them about the student who asked if it would be “nonfiction” if he wrote about imagining to stab out a squirrel’s eyes. “By all means,” I told him, “yes—as long as you let your reader know you imagined it.” It was a fair enough question, but it brings up the old debate between imagining doing something and actually doing it. In fact, this student didn’t frighten me but he did my students, one who pulled me aside after class to tell me he wasn’t the only one concerned for their safety. I didn’t tell my students about how some students who have done tours in Iraq and Afghanistan or who are in service have a way about them that makes me nervous—a commanding presence that seems to flourish in sexist institutions like the military.
I didn’t tell my students that I am more afraid to go to school than I am of a terrorist attack. Some might argue that precisely because we have a well-funded military and take aggressive measures we can feel safer. If that is the case, perhaps we should use some of that money and ensure our safety at school.
And even if the actions described above are only an illustration of students who literally play on the boundaries of truth and fiction and try to manipulate themselves through a system that enables such manipulation, it is nonetheless disconcerting. Post-Columbine, what kind of person would hint at being like a mass shooter just to get a passing grade? It is perhaps a good time to mention it is only through the Humanities that we can address these types of issues and work towards the demilitarizing of our campuses, if it is not too late.
When biking home from school after a night class, I heard a bunch of people yelling and thought there might be a fight. It was dark, and I was nervous to continue biking into the commotion, so I slowed down. The voices got louder, and then I saw twenty or so students, each with their own toy machine gun, marching in military formation, albeit sloppy, shouting a song. I remember the song being offensive, but I don’t remember the words.
Ultimately, it is not just the fake guns or the pointed language that give me pause and a sense of unease. When I was subbing for the history class, I saw, on the teacher’s desk, a student-designed poster. In purple marker, the student had written “Holocaust” in a font you might see on a cheerleader’s banner. Pasted to the mint-green paper was a series of black and white pictures showing the atrocities of the Holocaust—piles of bodies, stacks of bodies, rows of bodies, heaps of bodies. Around each picture, the student drew decorative boarders—wavy and zig-zaggy lines with periodic dots. I felt like I was beholding an ironic masterpiece or an inappropriately designed poster that made the Holocaust nothing more than a Friday night halftime show.
1. I recall the student actually saying “Shut the fuck up,” however I have trouble believing it now, and I would rather downplay the situation than exaggerate the truth. Additionally, and ironically, the principal of the school where I had my first subbing job asked me to leave because, after I tried teaching misbehaving 7th graders for an hour and a half, the principal entered the classroom, at which point I said, in tears, “I can’t fucking take this.” He responded, “With language like that, no you can’t.”
2. This incident took place in May 2014, after the killing of Trayvon Martin but before George Zimmerman’s acquittal and the subsequent killings of Michael Brown, John Crawford III, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice. Playing with a fake gun, especially if you are black, can get you killed, as was the case with John Crawford III and Tamir Rice.
3. See the recent controversies over the re-writing of history in states like Texas, where all things positive about America are emphasized, negative historical events are deemphasized, and American exceptionalism is taught as an historical fact.
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