By Joey Kennedy
Alabama Political Reporter
I spent 90 minutes Tuesday afternoon in UAB’s Heritage Hall learning how to respond to an active shooter on campus.
You know, some deranged individual out to cause as much mayhem has he can, shooting and killing and shooting. And killing.
Yeah, it’s sad. But it’s today’s reality.
I teach English at UAB. I’ve been doing this for 18 years. I love it.
My first semester of teaching was September 2001. Two weeks into the semester, terrorists flew passenger jets into the Trade Towers in New York, into the Pentagon in Washington, into the ground in Pennsylvania.
I truly had no idea what I was doing, in front of my class at UAB that first semester in 2001. And two weeks into it, I had 9/11.
I didn’t count absences on that Sept. 11. We coped. We endured. We hurt. We still hurt.
In the 18 years I’ve been a part-time English teacher at UAB, we’ve endured many horrible shootings, many terror attacks.
Columbine happened two years before I started teaching. But since then, there have been so many shootings. Too many shootings to list, too many shootings to name.
But not so many that some can’t be named. Like the 2007 massacre on the campus of Virginia Tech University, where a senior student shot and killed 32 people and wounded 17 others.
Some of these shootings are too close to home, like the 2010 catastrophe at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, where 44-year-old biology professor Amy Bishop killed the chairman of the biology department and others.
And more school shootings, many other school shootings, too many other school shootings, including the one at Sandy Hook Elementary School on Dec. 14, 2012. Twenty 6- and 7-year-old children died that day, as well as six members of the school’s staff.
Since Sandy Hook, there are yet other shootings – not just school shootings, either, though there have been plenty of those. In Charleston at a church. In Orlando at a nightclub. In Las Vegas at a concert.
And, yet, Congress, dominated by NRA Republicans, refuses to act. Refuses to do what it can to make us more safe.
Then, on Valentine’s Day, in Parkland, Fla., a few weeks ago, at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, 17 students and adults were gunned down. Others were injured.
A few weeks ago. The students there aren’t staying quiet. They’ve started the #NeverAgain movement, and on March 24 in Birmingham, there will be a rally at Railroad Park and a march through Birmingham to encourage – implore – our political leaders to do something.
So here I am, an English instructor at UAB, for 18 years now, sitting in a classroom to receive instruction on how to respond to an active shooter on campus. There’s even a pamphlet: “UAB Police Active Shooter Guide.”
It’s where we are, as a nation, where we are today. I praise UAB officials and campus police for offering the class. When I received the message from the dean that the classes were available, I wanted to cry. Hell, I did cry.
How did we get here? Where, instead of teaching the Rhetorical Triangle, I’m worrying about barricading a door or making sure my students evacuate the building before being gunned down by a nut.
What stunned me before my active shooter class even started was that, since 2014, UAB Police officials have conducted nearly 200 such active shooter response classes.
This was my first.
And I learned that wasp spray might be my best weapon. We were told that even trained officers, police officers who go to shooting ranges, work under stressful conditions, patrol and police in the real world, miss 70 percent to 80 percent of the time they fire their weapons.
So, we’re told, that distracting the shooter may be our best option, if we can’t high-tail-it out of our building to a safer place.
Barricade the doors with chairs and desks and filing cabinets. But if the shooter gets in, distract him by throwing stuff at him. Swarm him. Maybe, I decided, I would carry the wasp spray and have it handy if the shooter looked my way. Hornet poison certainly will hurt, if you aim it right.
And an AR-15 will kill, even if you aim it wrong.
Yet, I mainly want to teach my students how to negotiate a college essay or convince them that Ernest Hemingway, the bastard that he was, is the best short story writer of the 20th century.
I want to encourage my students to read and enjoy words. I want them to appreciate Kate Chopin’s “The Awakening,” especially when Edna takes off her clothes and swims deep into the Gulf of Mexico to claim her independence.
I want my students to celebrate a good semester, to rejoice and appreciate their A or B or C.
I don’t want to keep wasp spray in my book bag. But I guess I will.
Because this is now. And, frankly, now sucks.
Joey Kennedy, a Pulitzer Prize winner, writes this column every week for Alabama Political Reporter. Email: [email protected].