Responding to Silence

Courtney Cook

Phillip Larkin ends his poem “An Arundel Tomb” with the line “what will survive of us is love.” Lately, when I consider this line I do so from the perspective of a teacher struggling to adequately process school violence and it stirs a lot of questions in my mind. As tragedies becomes more commonplace in schools, I think on this idea and wonder, if love is what survives us when we are gone, then what is it that will sustain us while we are here? How can we learn take better care of one another and ourselves in order to rebuild our communities in the wake of such violence?

My answers to these questions have been hard to come by. In the days following these tragedies, when I look upon my students and wonder about their hearts my mind quickly returns to my duties that “matter:” adequately preparing these children for college, teaching them strong writing skills, and ensuring overall rigor of their educational experience. However, this denial of my very human impulse to consider and support my students’ emotional wellbeing is unnatural. It registers as a sort of trained resistance to deny the human in me for the sake of what has been defined as “productivity.” Yet, if we hope to cultivate and nourish communities that resist violence, and if we hope to find a way to sustain compassionate communities, then we must communicate our questions and fears openly rather than confusing notions of success with silence.

This conflict became more apparent to me when, within a week’s time, students murdered two teachers and major publications continued to publish articles on college costs, test scores, and math and science curriculum. I saw this as evidence that the much-needed conversations reflecting on and processing violence have been replaced by an uncomfortable silence – not only in my own community, but also on a national scale.

As a high school English teacher who wants to believe that schoolhouses are secularly sacred spaces, I’m distraught and want to talk about these inconsistencies. However, time and time again I recognize that there isn’t much room for me as a teacher to openly explore the questions I have. I want to remind people that we must talk about these events, because talking is key to healthfully processing trauma, and that in order to share and be heard, we must offer safe spaces for teachers as they navigate new thoughts and feelings – particularly those of being unsafe. I write today because I feel acutely aware of this need for conversations about education that place my humanity, and the humanity of my colleagues (not just our identity as teachers), at the forefront.

Commonly, discussions of public schools tend towards politics, test scores, or how the US fares compared to other countries in measurable productivity, but what this violence suggests to me is that the conversations we desperately need aren’t about productivity at all, but about connectivity; about how we relate to and understand one another. It requires a vision of education that involves stepping back from the talking heads who start sentences with platitudes like “the problem with education today is . . . ” and not allowing them to be the architects of our imagination.

In spite of the myriad problems we have with education today, we must strive to remember that at the end of these fall days schoolhouses are this: a place where students (read: human beings) and teachers (yes, still human beings) exist together.

Every day from 7:30 – 2:30 complex people run through hallways and shuffle in and out of classrooms sorting out struggles, joys, fears, personal lives, morning commutes, health problems, pyscho-emotional struggles, medications, histories of abuse, partners who have walked out, children who are sick at home, mothers who are dying of cancer, a pet who’s been put to sleep, a night of sleeplessness due to pressures of college acceptance or a growling hunger in their stomachs. The halls do not fill with statistics at 7:30 in the morning and my classroom discussions are not driven by data. Rather, each day actual people sit with me and we study stories, we connect to one another through questions of humanity, age old quandaries of truth and suffering that still incite curiosity because these unanswerable questions are still relevant. These conversations offer a platform for exploring our own compassion, tenderness, limits, desires, and all the other things that reassure us of our abilities to be human. Our humanness, that thing that is diluted by these tendencies to focus on politics and procedures is the very thing that we need to emphasize in our schools as incidents of inexplicable violence increase.

In the aftermath of tragedy we are thoughtful, but we are silent because, what do you say? I struggled to know what to say to my students as we sat together and faced the reality of Sandy Hook. Months later, I struggled again as I looked into their faces after the Marathon Bombing, but we talked anyway—openly, freely, and clumsily.

I guess, ultimately, it’s a question of values. Can we momentarily turn our attention as a hustling-bustling nation with so much to prove to our global competitors towards providing a more stable foundation for peace education within our schools? Can we treat our teachers more like people and less like dutiful pawns? After tragedies occur can teachers have room to openly process thoughts and emotions?

We cannot cultivate communities in silence. We have to talk about the feelings that make us most human; we must be seen and heard because we can’t nourish anything worth growing silently and quickly—not thoughts, not kindness, not love, not plans, not relationships, and definitely not people. 

Don’t get me wrong, I am actually concerned with the “problems with education today” that are measurable, quantifiable, and detrimental to our global productivity, but today I’m more concerned with our values. As far as I can tell, until we place the same worth on conversations about community and compassion that we place on productivity in public education I’m afraid we’ll continue to forget the humanness of our teachers and students; only making it easier to sustain cultures of silence from which nothing good can grow.

Originally from Georgia, Courney Cook has been teaching and writing in New England for the past four years.