This article is part of the Voices of School Shooting Survivors project, a series by VICE.com intended to shine a light on victims of school shootings across the country.
On April 12, 2013, an 18-year-old student entered a community college satellite facility in New River Valley Mall, Virginia, and opened fire. Before the shooting was over, he injured an employee and another student. One of the survivors was English Professor Megan Doney.
My own students and I fled while the shots were still ringing out, escaping physical injury. I learned later that surveillance video showed the shooter coming to our classroom just a few minutes after we escaped. Like many other school shooters, he obtained the gun legally. He posted on 4chan before the shooting. He is male.
I remember standing outside dumbly, wondering why no one else was fleeing. Hearing more gunfire. Waiting. My knees turned to jam and I fell to the pavement, shaking. Silver confetti fluttered at the corners of my vision. The lyrics of an old Tori Amos song came to me: This is not really, this is not really happening.
You bet your life it was. And my road to activism since has been driven by two sentences.
- I don’t want any other educator to have to create a document called “Post-shooting lesson plans.”
- This should not be the price of teaching.
The cost of this madness is too high. It is measured in therapy sessions, nightmares, endless loops of checking and rechecking social media and the news every time there’s a mass shooting. I pay for it every single day. And the rest of America does, too: I’ve thought for a long time that the United States is suffering from collective post-traumatic stress that prevents us from enacting meaningful change and accurately reading the signs that are flashing right in front of our weary eyes. How else can I explain this bizarrely American inaction, resignation, willful ignorance of research, and refusal to look beyond our borders for solutions? How can I arrive at any conclusion other than that American culture is fundamentally incompatible with gun ownership?
I am not weak because I’ve chosen not to arm myself.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked, “Don’t you wish you’d had a gun that day?” Of course not. I wish only that he hadn’t had one. This current, post-Parkland debate about whether teachers (but not lady teachers) should be armed is so steeped in arrogance and stupidity that I can hardly bear to listen. Leaving aside all the questions about whether armed civilians would be skilled enough to kill a man who might be bearing an assault rifle, this kind of language is victim-blaming and nothing more. It is the same mindset that allows people to keep asking why that rape survivor dared to go to a party, or why that abused spouse took her partner back the final time, because If She Hadn’t, None of This Would Have Happened.
Living through a shooting is, like sexual assault, a crime that gives you less authority and credibility to speak or advocate on the subject afterwards. Oh, you’re too close to it, people say. You’re emotional. You can’t possibly be objective.
I am not weak because I’ve chosen not to arm myself. I put my faith in intangibles like reason, words, compassion, calm, reflection, patience, and sympathy, rather than in a so-called tool that does not make a single thing and whose sole purpose is to destroy. I know better than anyone that you can never predict what you will do when the gunfire starts. If a teacher chooses not to carry a gun to school and is killed anyway, then it is the fault of the shooter. Always. Period. Carrying a gun would not be proof of my own personal responsibility nor my lack of dependence on others.
The greatest challenge in my life is to live unarmed, literally and metaphorically. To show my students the tears that inevitably come when I tell them that I know I cannot protect them, that I cannot give them a college experience free from the threat of violence. The students at Parkland know this firsthand now, too. They know how easily it can all shatter in a blink, a flash, a heartbeat. Their activism is driven by the same fiery conviction as mine: We should have been the last.
Our shooter left behind a video in which he said that it’s too easy for people to get guns. He’s right.