Sometimes when people ask me if I like teaching fourth grade, I have a cynical answer at the ready. I tell them that I prefer teaching them to upper grades, since their little fingers don't allow them to reload as readily as their older siblings. If I stay low for eight or nine shots, I stand a chance as they struggle to get in a new clip. And just about every time that I say that, I feel a little chill.
That chill comes from the time that I did have to confront a kid in my class because the word on the street was that he was packing heat. This was a boy who had spent hours in my class drawing guns and knives, and he had come to our school as a result of a disciplinary hearing. His moods could be as black as the ink that he once colored his palm with a permanent marker. When I heard from my assistant principal that he might have a pistol in his backpack, I believed it.
In the two minutes it took to clear the rest of my students out of the room for "early dismissal", I had little time to reflect on the options that I had at my disposal. Which side should I favor: act fast and avoid the confrontation, or try to defuse the incident with calm and rational discourse. I took the direct route. I asked him if he had a gun.
He said nothing.
"Can I look in your backpack?"
He said nothing.
It was a good ten steps across the room, and if he had the inclination, I would have been shot before I made it to his desk.
He didn't move. When I reached for his backpack, he put his hand out, more out of reflex than to keep me from picking up it up. I know that I flinched, but I didn't care. I opened the backpack and found a gun.
Yes, there was an orange plastic dart gun. The prickly sensation I had been feeling on the back of my neck subsided. "Do you have all your homework?" I asked.
He looked at me, and then back at his desk, from which he pulled a spelling worksheet and his math workbook. I held his pack open and he dropped them in on top of the dart gun. I handed him his book bag, "See you tomorrow then?"
He said nothing, and walked out of the room.
Today in Cleveland, a fourteen-year-old suspended student, dressed in black, opened fire in his downtown high school, wounding four people as terrified schoolmates hid in closets and bathrooms and huddled under laboratory desks. He then killed himself.
I think it's time to find another way to describe my fondness for teaching the fourth grade.