Ending School Shootings: Why We Should be Inspired by the Tennessee Three

Six days ago, I wrote a post in response to the heartbreaking Covenant School mass shooting in Nashville, TN, where six innocent people died: three nine-year-old children and three adults. Unique to the United States, our all-to-frequent school shootings have become a national embarrassment and should horrify every one of us. For some reason, the post just sat in my Family Field Guide file.


Then yesterday happened, and I was once again horrified as I watched the egregious and historic misuse of power by the Republican-majority of the Tennessee State Legislature. Visible to entire world in real time, this elected body chose to ignore the pleas of thousands of fed-up constituents at their front door, besieging them with chants and signs to do everything in their power to stop the bloodshed. Instead, the legislature decided to silence their voices. How? By carrying out inane, legalistic rituals to expel the only three House members willing to step up and speak out on the behalf of the protesters; three who were moved to action by the immediate and dire need for gun-law reform. Three whose hearts informed their thinking.


By expelling Rep. Justin Jones, Rep. Gloria Johnson, and Rep. Justin Pearson for leading a recent protest at “the well” of the House floor, the Tennessee State Legislature thought they could ignore the angry citizens and continue with business as usual. But it didn’t work. Although the legislature failed to expel Johnson, a 60-year-old white woman, they did succeed in giving the ax to Jones and Pearson – two black freshman representatives whose cogent and heart-felt arguments, I thought, put them on a par with a young Barack Obama. The result, however was to let loose a dragon, bringing national attention to the impassioned protests of the people of Tennessee. It was difficult to watch these young men repeatedly demeaned by their Republican colleagues, but also inspiring. With any luck, these two rising stars, Jones and Pearson, will galvanize the hearts and minds of millions of the country in a fight that’s long overdue.


The following post of six days ago consolidates my thinking on why the Tennessee Legislature has been unable to bring itself to take action, and why the Tennessee Three represent inspiration for the future:


If we want to protect kids, we need to focus on the beautiful children whose lives were cut short by guns, and the children whose lives we need to save. Focusing on mental health is not a quick and easy answer; providing equitable and high-quality mental-health services is going to take a huge paradigm shift. It’s still many years down the road. And being realistic, trying to get politicians who lack emotional intelligence to recognize obvious solutions to school shootings is like trying to teach a cat to brush its teeth. They simply don’t have the skills.


What we can do with almost immediate effect is work to elect officials work who will ban assault weapons. No private citizen needs a gun designed for warfare, whose sole purpose is killing an enemy combatant and eviscerating their bodies. We can make sure we elect individuals who are in favor of red-flag laws and a higher age for gun purchases, and are sickened by the gun lobby’s influence. Conservative politicians (like those in power in Tennessee) who toss their hands in the air, saying they can’t do anything about school shootings, are dead wrong. But before they can have a change of heart, they need to be able to FEEL the emotions of terrified teachers and children hiding under desks and in closets. They need to stand with parents who’ve lost children, and comfort their traumatized classmates. If they can’t feel the emotions, they have no empathy, and if they have no empathy, they don’t deserve our votes.


As a former teacher, I’ve been in classrooms when the active shooter drill alarm sounded. What’s stunning is the silence afterward – the silence of terrified children who don’t know if it’s real or just a drill. I want elected officials to know that children cannot grow up being terrified in their schools. I didn’t grow up being terrified. And neither did most adults. Trauma is what happens in the body due to overwhelming experiences. It causes elevated stress hormones, impacts the immune system, and predisposes people to future mental-health problems and physical illness. Why should our children and grandchildren be made to deal with it? Arming teachers is a ludicrous response. I would just like to see a busy, distracted teacher pop up from a reading group to dig her loaded weapon out of a secure locker in time to confront a gunman wielding an AR-15. It’s out of the question, and it’s not what she signed up for.


We need to stop thinking of the children who died in school shootings as “victims.” They were living, breathing human beings who played tag and studied spelling words, struggled with algebra, looked forward to prom, caught colds and watched their favorite shows on tv.  Now that they are no longer alive, they will no longer be able to run up and hug their moms and dads – the parents who whose hearts now ache with sorrow. They will no longer open birthday presents or eat cake and ice cream. They will not be able to fulfill their God-given potential in life and contribute to society.


For politicians to piddle around with piecemeal, politically-safe solutions to mass shootings is to profess gross denial of the problem: primarily the massive proliferation of guns. And to call the pleas of parents whose children were shot and killed by guns “temper tantrums,” is to tell the world that emotions have no place in law-making. However, the legacy of hundreds of American children lying dead in their classrooms or anywhere else is one we cannot allow to be hidden or forgotten, unlike the history of black lynching. There’s no need to prolong the pain. We can, and we must, end it now.


Here’s what you can do:  Call or write your state representative, your U.S. representative, and your U.S. senator. Tell them there is no excuse for letting any more children die. Join with local parents and civic organizations fighting for gun-law reform. And if you own an AR-15, take it to the nearest police department and hand it over. Here are two of non-profit groups working to save children’s lives: and Remember, focus on the children. Not the politics. FFG




Are Purists Protesting too Much over Revisions to Roald Dahl’s Children’s Books?

News of the revisions being made to Roald Dahl’s classic children’s books shook me down to my writer’s bones. As a kiddie lit junkie, I adore Dahl’s books. I wondered how anyone could mess with the creative genius of the man who authored Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Witches, and Matilda, to name just a few of the late British author’s inspired works.
According to CNN, the decision to revise Dahls books was made by the author’s estate, the Roald Dahl Story Company, and Puffin, the publisher, in partnership with Inclusive Minds, “which describes itself as ‘a collective for people who are passionate about inclusion, diversity, equality and accessibility in children’s literature, and are committed to changing the face of children’s books.'”
What kinds of changes were made? “Language relating to gender, race, weight, mental health and violence had been cut or rewritten. This included removing words such as ‘fat’ and ‘ugly,’ as well as descriptions using the colors black and white.”
I understand taking certain books out of circulation. Little Black Sambo, by Scottish author Helen Bannerman, for example. In 1932, Poet Langston Hughes criticized Little Black Sambo as “a typical ‘pickaninny’ storybook which was harmful to black children.” (Wikipedia) And more recently, A Birthday Cake for George Washington, which was recalled from circulation almost immediately upon publication. (Critics argued, why would Washington’s Black personal chef and his little girl, both slaves, take joy in making the president’s birthday cake?) Upon hearing this book was being recalled, I ordered two copies on Amazon – which were never delivered. I actually liked this book very much. But I get it: Washington owned slaves.
In my opinion, there are so many books that should remain forever unaltered. Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Where the Sidewalk Ends, Where the Wild Things Are, Charlotte’s Web, and books by one of my favorite children’s authors: Tomie dePaola. Nana Upstairs, Nana Downstairs is about a young boy facing the death of his great-grandmother, and filled with compassion. Not to mention Strega Nona, which heaven forbid may elicit accusations of “witchcraft.”
Last night I texted my teacher-daughter about the Roald Dahl book revisions. What she texted back made me think twice.  Maybe I was being too much of a purist: previously she had not been able to read Dahl’s books to her class. Whether by school decree or other, I don’t know. She teaches abroad. Apparently, some of the wording was offensive. Now, she says, that will change. So maybe the “good “-  more children in the future knowing Dahl’s work –  will eventually outweigh the voices of critics decrying censorship, including people like me, who think kids deserve good literature any way they can get it. FFG

She’d Had Enough of Loneliness. Taking Action Meant Taking a Risk.

The need for connection is basic to our survival. Overcoming the lack of it sometimes requires courage, a lesson I learned recently from a complete stranger.

My critique partner and I were meeting at our usual place – a Starbucks inside Barnes and Noble. “Jenn” and I get together most Friday afternoons to share our rewrites and new work, and to hash out problems, like, does this paragraph even belong here? Or, how can I have two men named William in the story?

After reading aloud, and deciding to scrap, her new material, Jenn was eager for me to read a few paragraphs from a book I’d found on the library’s “free shelf” and really liked. We eventually got around to my rewrites. And as our meetings sometimes go, the conversation drifted off course; we were now discussing brain fog, that almost indescribable state of being unable to concentrate.

That’s when I noticed an older woman, maybe mid-seventies, sitting alone at the next table. She wasn’t engrossed in her books or with her phone, as are most people these days, but appeared to be observing us. I sent a nod of acknowledgment her way, and maybe a slip of a smile.

As Jenn and I continued our discussion (what the devil does cause brain fog, anyway?), I became aware of a moving figure in my peripheral vision. Then more detail: a head, slightly bent; hands meekly clasped at the waist. And suddenly, the woman from the next table was standing right in front of us, as if drawn by a magnet.

“I see you sitting here, talking to each other, and I have no one,” she said, her voice beseeching, her accent unmistakably German.

Jenn reached for her handbag and pulled out a surgical mask, mumbling something about not wanting to take any chances. I’d had Covid just before Christmas, and decided to wear one as well.

The woman’s straight, chin-length hair – which seemed not yet all gray – framed her oval face. And she wore the shy, pained expression of heartfelt longing. “I want to be like you!” she said.

Jenn and I made eye contact, a silent agreement that we would be kind. But behind our masks, our words sounded muted and distant. After several minutes Jenn mentioned that we were writers in the middle of a work session.

“I write, too!” the woman said, her face brightening with hope.

She had not taken the hint. It must have been my nod that encouraged her, I thought. Now we were either going to have to invite her to take a seat, or…what? “What’s your name?” I asked.

She came a bit closer. “Eva,” she said, her hands still clasped at her waist.

Trying to get a feel for her plight, I asked some of the usual questions one asks of a new acquaintance. As it turns out, Eva lives with a granddaughter – a busy mother of three with a fulltime job. She had dropped Eva off at the bookstore that day. And the day before.

Once again, her eyes imploring, she stated her purpose: she only wanted someone to talk to, to be included.

But what could we do, Jenn and I? Maybe there was something. Sometime in the future. I asked for her phone number and watched as she fumbled with her cell phone. She couldn’t find it – not a good sign. Instead, I took down her granddaughter’s name and number, which she managed to locate, and promised to give her a call.

Seemingly satisfied with our exchange, Eva disappeared into the store. Jenn and I resumed our discussion. But fifteen minutes later, Eva was back, her face steeped in worry, her hands moving, moving. Her granddaughter was on her way to the bookstore at that very moment, she said. And she was angry. Apparently because Eva had shared her phone number with us.

With the two women now standing at our table, we made introductions. As it turned out, the granddaughter, whom I will call “Leah,” was not angry at all. Only relieved that her grandmother – Oma – hadn’t given out her credit card information. I think it was then that I noticed that Eva’s fingers. No longer laced at her waist, I could see that they were gnarled with arthritis.

We invited them to sit. It was the only thing to do. What we proposed, Jenn and I, was sharing community resources. Leah took notes on a sheet paper that I’d torn from my notebook. Searching on her phone, Jenn found the number for our senior resource center. I mentioned local volunteer opportunities. Did we know that Leah’s grandmother had been a teacher?

“Kindergarten through fifth grade,” Eva said. The corners of her mouth curved up in a modest smile.

Over the next few days, I thought about our strange encounter. Or was it strange, really, that someone should want to join in where people are connecting with one another? What Eva is craving, I realized, are relationships. Not simply contacts. Should I invite her to tea? Or was it enough that I took time to listen?

Growing up at a time when children were not generally recognized as real people, some of us learned the very unwise lesson of keeping our needs to ourselves. Or worse yet, were made to feel guilty for expressing them. Quite often, suppressed needs follow children into their teenage years and adulthood, surfacing as social and emotional problems. Even addictions, according to Gabor Maté, MD, a well-known author and speaker on trauma and addiction. The Hungarian-Canadian Holocaust survivor urges us not to ask “why the addiction?” but “why the pain?”

When we finally start peeling away the layers, including the traumas, that created who we are today, we discover all sorts of false beliefs about ourselves, beliefs we absorbed as children. Only when we are no longer in denial about those suppressed needs can we shift the blame, and the shame, away from ourselves. We learn that using our voice is not a sin, but a gift.

I applaud Eva for expressing her need for connection. It took courage to take action, walk over to our table and say that she wanted to be “like us.” Being “like” the people we see – people who are playing, laughing, creating, sharing food and conversation – is a primordial need. It’s why babies crawl upon our laps and touch our mouths and faces with their small fingers. It’s connection, from the time we are infants, that wires our brains for life and keeps us happy. FFG

Tragic School Shooting Devastates Oxford, MI, Families and Community – But What Should We Expect?

 Once again, we ask ourselves, why do we have to live like this?  But really, what should we expect when guns are worshiped in America like demi-gods?  When one in three Republicans believe violence may be necessary “in order to save our country,” according to the Public Religion Research Institute. (The Independent, 11/1/2021)

Some gun owners feel so threatened they open-carry to the grocery store for a loaf of bread.

I blame Tuesday’s school shooting in Oxford, Michigan, on the 15-year-old suspect’s father. Imagine the man’s delight upon showing his brand new 9MM Sig Sauer SP2022 semiautomatic pistol, reportedly purchased on Black Friday, to his son only days before the teenager took it to school. Now the man and his wife could face possible charges, according to a story in Tuesday’s Detroit Free Press. And well they should: three students lost their lives and eight more were wounded in the massacre. One 14-year-old girl is on a ventilator in critical condition.

Pictures of the gun and a target were posted on social media in advance of the shooting, news sources say. I’m wondering, did the dad let his son take pictures, the two of them standing over the gun with their mobile phone cameras, admiring it, like Thanksgiving turkey? The shooter, still unnamed because he’s a minor, relinquished the weapon to police and was taken into custody as students and teachers barricaded themselves in classrooms. Meanwhile, “police found two 15-round clips in the school and are looking for a third.” (Detroit News, 11/30/2021)

But here’s the thing: there were rumors of a threat circulating around the school prior to the shooting. According to the news story, “Earlier this month, Oxford schools published a note to parents that it was aware that ‘numerous rumors’ had ‘circulated throughout our building this week,’ and the school was reviewing the concerns.” Unfortunately, that review didn’t happen fast enough. Even the school resource officers who were in the building were not able to prevent the five-minute shooting spree.

The suspect’s parents are not permitting their son to talk to police and have hired a lawyer. I can see why.

Thoughts and prayers are not going to solve our gun problem. And it is solely an American problem. Today, more families are mourning the loss of their children. And another town, one where people believed a school shooting couldn’t happen, is grieving en masse. How many more parents will have to face the news that a child may not live because some entitled individual decided that buying a gun and leaving it unsecured was a good idea?

The hard truth is, gun violence can happen in any community – as long as we live in a culture that glamorizes weapons, creating a religion of gun worship. And as long as just about anyone can buy a gun.…/oxford-high-school…/8810588002/


Are Conservatives All Suffering from Unhealed Childhood Trauma?

When individuals in power attempt to force their fantasy of a perfect world onto the whole of society – or even a segment of it – it can attract a cult of followers who are willing to believe that, like their leaders, it’s possible to live some charmed version of reality. It’s like existing in a dissociative state.  Or a dissociative fugue.


According to the Psychology Today definition (Aug. 2, 2021), “Dissociation is generally thought of as a defense against trauma that helps people disconnect from extreme psychological distress. A dissociative fugue state is a condition in which a person may be mentally and physically escaping an environment that is threatening or otherwise intolerable.”


I have seen students do this. They just “punch out,” like they’re floating in space. It happens when kids are abused or neglected by shameless adults who don’t give a damn. By staying inside their heads, children can tune out reality. It gives them a sense of control. They often imagine they can protect themselves. However, the least threat, real or imagined, can trigger an angry response. Their stress level at this point is through the roof. They can’t think rationally. When I would ask students to please clear their desks for a spelling test, I could expect one kid to have a problem with it. Because children aren’t supposed to run or fight, sometimes they simply freeze. The ones who do act out – usually boys – might throw all their books and pencils on the floor. Rip their neighbor’s paper. Or disturb the entire class with crazy talk.  I’ve seen both boys and girls act out by sitting back with arms folded. They feign arrogance. Sometimes they look broken.  The look says, “Lady, I ain’t doin’ nothin’ you say to do.”


A woman I know, a writer and educator whose parents were both doctors,  once revealed that she was left alone every day after school. The family had horses and a barn, and it was there that she created an imaginary world into which she could escape.


Another woman whose memoir I worked on as a ghost-writer had a hideous childhood. As a girl she had dissociative episodes both at home and school. She fainted when she couldn’t cope with her parents fighting. At school, it  was beyond her understanding why everyone cried when President Kennedy died. Her mother, a nurse, would come home from work, lock herself in her bedroom, get drunk,  and cry wildly while my friend played jacks outside her door. And she insisted she had a happy childhood.


I would guess that more than a few over-the-top Right Wingers grew up without empathetic relationships. People like Gov. Greg Abbott, who thinks he’ll score votes by denying women the right to an abortion; Rep. Lauren Boebert, who believes everyone should carry a pistol, and wanted Jan. 6 to come off like the Revolutionary War (1776),   And then there’s Rep. Jim Jordan, who according to the Washington Post, Tweeted out that vaccine mandates are un-American. He means for everyone.  (Jordan apparently hasn’t heard that while fighting the British, Gen. George Washington was also fighting a smallpox epidemic, and felt it necessary to mandate a crude smallpox vaccine for his troops.)


However, by denying their personal stories of hurt and trauma, these self-righteous zealots abandon their humanity. They become fundamentalists who need everyone to become part of their fantasy world. To quote psychotherapist and author Thomas Moore, “The tragedy of fundamentalism in any context is its capacity to freeze life into a solid cube of meaning.” (Care of the Soul, 1992, HarperCollins.)


Conservatives today seem bent on freezing the country into a solid cube of meaning. No discussion. No compromise.


So, what do we have now, but an increasing number of far-Right elected officials pushing a concept of freedom they’ve packaged into a neat and tidy single belief, whether it’s denying a woman’s right to choose, insisting that legitimate election outcomes were fraudulent, or pushing a false narrative on vaccinations? They think if enough voters take them seriously, if they can force their childish will on enough people, they will never have to feel the burden of pain, loss, and failure, all of which make us human and are part of life.  In my opinion, it’s not the future that scares them, but facing their pasts.


Time and again, we’ve heard Joe Biden talk about his personal history of loss and pain. Telling his story is exactly why he has empathy for families who’ve lost loved ones to school shootings, floods, war, and disease. Because in the retelling of his traumas, he’s owned his humanity, not sold it for some easy, fundamentalist fix he’d like to impose on other people’s lives. He’s done the hard, emotional work of healing. Some would call it resilience, but I think Biden’s gift of empathy is the result of having grieved, and having given each of his stories a Beginning, Middle, and an End, so that they are no longer traumas. By owning his pain, he has gained “soul.”


I believe those political and religious fundamentalists who are trying to force the country into a “solid cube of meaning” are simply prolonging their own pain. And they would like to see everyone else suffer along with them. They just don’t know why. If they could only acknowledge their humanity, and accept the fact that life is a shared journey, they might walk alongside the rest of us instead of trying to lord over us.


Fixing the problem won’t happen overnight. It takes raising a generation of empathetic listeners. And to do that, we have to become empathetic listeners ourselves. In other words, we have to believe in everyday soul work. It’s about telling your story, whether to a trusted friend, counselor, or writing it in a journal. It’s about crying and grieving losses of all kinds. And most of all, it’s about listening to our children when they share their  hurts. Just by listening to our children, and to each other, we can help heal the world. FFG