Monday, April 23, 2007

Lessons from the VT disaster

I posted this story yesterday, but I was dissatisfied with my treatment of it, so I decided to pull it and try again. Basically, I seemed to be muddling my response to two quite different questions, and I wanted to separate them to see why this story bugged me so much.

First of all, there's the incident itself. (And it's not a joke, that really is the name of the school.)
VANCOUVER - The Delta, B.C., school board is planning an investigation after a popular elementary school teacher had students in her Grade 6 and 7 drama class re-enact parts of the Virginia Tech shootings.

"The teacher was told that it was a completely inappropriate lesson and that it was certainly a lack of judgment on her part," said Doug Thomson, principal of South Park elementary, where the incident occurred.

The students had been creating tableaus, or frozen scenes, from newspaper headlines for a few weeks as a drama class exercise. On Friday, the teacher, whose name has not been released, chose a headline about the shooting rampage at Virginia Tech.

"The purpose of the lesson was to give the kids an opportunity to address their feelings about violence and about the tragedy," Mr. Thomson said. "But to involve students in such a lesson was inappropriate."
Now, I don't object to children being told what's really happening in the world, as long as it's suited to their level of understanding. There's nothing to be gained from terrifying children with scare stories that they have no way of dealing with. I think what annoyed me here was that the VT massacre was being re-enacted as part of a drama class - "tableaus" - almost like a Victorian parlour game. That just seems trivial. And the reason given for the project made it even worse: "to give the kids an opportunity to address their feelings about violence and about the tragedy". It's that damn "therapeutic" approach to life that I just detest.

Right after I'd posted this (the first time), I came across a similar story out of Boston. Only in this case, the professor was trying to prove a point - that if there had been someone with a gun, the killer could have been defeated before claiming so many victims. I think he's right in this thesis, but teachers are too inclined to use their position to propagandize their students, so I don't fully support him. He could have as easily been a pacifist, anti-gun teacher browbeating his students over the necessity for absolutely disarming every citizen. But I'll give him points for trying to tell his students that it's possible to DO something in such a situation, not just passively allow someone else to take control.

That seems to be the unspeakable suggestion, that we could really do something ourselves. Mark Steyn was the first to point out that the passive approach we'd all learned to accept when it comes to airline hijackings died on 9/11, when we learned that up there in the air, when the crisis happens, the government, the experts, the all-knowing authorities who've studied the phenomenon and issued the guidelines, are not going to be there to protect us. And we learned that lesson. Now, I think everyone who gets on a plane mentally rehearses what they'd do if a bunch of guys tried to cow them into submission and take over the plane. "Hmm, let's see, I'm supposed to throw something - well, I've got this magazine, and my purse, and that guy's got a laptop, and there's 110 of us here, and if we all kept pelting them, they'd be unable to aim very well, and they might lose their balance..." And that's in a confined little airplane cabin, where you've already been disarmed and you know there's nowhere to flee. We're not talking commando exploits here - this is very basic "fight back" stuff. But it's sunk in that over 100 people are NOT totally helpless, even if the other side is armed.

But the lesson seems only to have been learned in that particular situation. Nobody is mentally rehearsing what to do if they're in a movie theater and someone pulls out a gun and starts shooting. Or in a mall, or in a school. And even suggesting that you COULD do something, as in the case of the Boston professor, or Kathy Shaidle, or Mark Steyn leads to a knee-jerk reaction (from CONSERVATIVES, note, not just liberals) that you're insulting the honour of the dead and blaming the victim.

I disagree. I don't think it's reasonable for people to think that as long as they can avoid being in the rare situation of travelling on a plane the day some terrorists leap into action, that they can just going on leading lives of tranquil innocence. Evil LOOKS for people who are unprepared and won't resist - why give it more opportunities to succeed? So what's really wrong with going over a disaster like VT and trying to teach students what to do if it happens to them? I'd fault the professor for not taking a wider approach; instead of just saying, "If they'd had guns, this wouldn't have happened," he should have said, "OK, you're here, you don't have a gun, what do you do?" Don't tell me there isn't SOMETHING people can do. Throwing things might work - harder to take aim with crap hitting you all the time. Everyone moving in different directions too - never just follow instructions and line up against the wall to be executed, the way those students did. You might have a chance if you're moving - you won't have any if you're standing still with a gun at your head.

I don't blame those students at VT - who ever talked to them about this? When were they ever told to mentally rehearse an escape strategy in the event of that sort of disaster? It's not enough to say, "You've never been in that situation, you can't know how you'd behave." How many people in the WTC on 9/11 had ever been in that situation? And yet all the information of what to do in case of an emergency worked - they took to those long, long emergency staircases and got out. It worked, without any advance training at all, and great numbers of people were saved. We are level-headed when it comes to the need to react to fires or earthquakes, but our brains lock up when it's time to devise a similar plan for combatting some human, as opposed to natural, disaster. Nobody wants to admit that such a thing is possible, and so we leave people unprepared when it's their turn.

So I'm not opposed to talking to kids about this event, I'm only opposed to doing it in a frivolous way. The teacher in Delta wasn't trying to teach her kids a strategy for dealing with such an emergency; she was using it "to give the kids an opportunity to address their feelings about violence and about the tragedy," and that to me is completely useless. Gnawing over one's feelings and doing no more is pointless. So kids feel sad and scared that something bad has happened - what else is new? What next? Nothing, apparently. They're not given any reassurance that if such a thing happened to them, they'd be able to escape or they'd be OK because they could do this, this and this. No, they're just encouraged to emit feelings. And since that was the whole point of the exercise, we should hardly be surprised that one student took it to its logical conclusion and carried the experiment home to weep and complain about hurt feelings to her parents.

The school board leaped in right on cue, and immediately provided "a multicultural worker" would could speak Korean, and "A counsellor will be available to speak to the children this week," so everyone else won't feel left out, and can have their noses wiped too. So the mere fact of having to acknowledge the existence of this incident has become a trauma all its own.

I think Andy Warhol was wrong - in the future everyone get 15 minutes of victimhood.

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