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Opinion | A hard lesson we never learn

I’m just finishing the first hectic week of classes at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. I teach in the English Department. This semester I have two composition classes and an American literature. I also work with the University Honors Program.

Our major study in American lit will be the novels Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston and The Color Purple by Alice Walker. I love both novels – the protagonists are strong women who fight through oppression and become independent women who easily stand on their own. It’s not an easy path for either Janie or Celie, but they succeed because they don’t give up.

My classrooms in the brand new University Hall have all the latest technology: Audio, video, document reader, great sound. They all do.

There’s also a Police Emergency button a few feet from my teaching desk. Every classroom in this new building has one. That’s for professors and instructors to use if something goes really bad in the classroom. Like if a shooter shows up and wants to mow us down.

I’m happy the police button is there, but sad it has come to this.

I want to teach. I want help my 70 or so students be better writers and readers. I want to introduce them to great authors like Hurston and Walker, and Frost, and Brooks, and Hughes, and Allen Ginsburg. That dude is an amazing poet. He often makes me howl with laughter. Out loud, especially when we are hearing Ginsburg read his poem “America” out loud.

I don’t want to think about the police button. I don’t want to wonder who that is coming into the room halfway through a class. Oh, it’s a late student, that’s all.

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I’m going to take active shooter training (my second time) sometimes in September. In this America, we must be ready torun, hide, fight. During my first active shooter training, not long after the Parkland, Fla., high school massacre on Valentine’s Day 2018, I was told to get some wasp spray to keep in my classroom. You know, that spray that shoots out a good distance and knocks down yellow jackets instantly. If I can’t run. Or hide. I’m to spray the wasp killer at the shooter. It’ll distract him. Give us all a chance to run or hide.

And, chances are really good that if a shooter shows up, he’ll be a WASP.

Run. Hide. Fight.

I just want to teach, and worry about Maria’s failure to grasp commas or Derek’s inability to write in complete sentences.Dominique can’t think of an angle for her literary analysis. I have a feeling Quinton isn’t reading the assignments.

I can fix those problems. I do every semester. For more than 40 semesters. Since I began teaching, 19 years ago, shortly before that awful terrorism attack on Sept. 11, 2001.

We’ve had untold number of terror attacks since then. Almost all of them domestic. We have to think about that when we go to the mall or church or the nightclub or a concert or an elementary, middle or high school, or a synagogue or to work or to a college classroom.

And if we get too involved in shopping or listening to music or writing our stories or lecturing on Hemingway, we have the police button to remind us.

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Since El Paso and Dayton, not even a month ago, we’re hardly talking anymore about what we may be able to do to decrease the chances of gun violence. Not even a month, and deep background checks and red flag laws are in the weeds. Groups like Everytown and Moms Demand Action are keeping the conversation going, as best they can. Democrats have already passed a background check bill, but Republicans in the Senate are sitting on it.

The less said the better, they claim. As they always claim. And our children die, our moms and dads and brothers and sisters die. Our friends. Our husbands and wives. They die.

They die shopping and going to church and on their job and having a night out at the club. They die during school and they die after school, at the movie theater watching the latest blockbuster.

Our leaders don’t respond. They don’t care.

And so I have a Police Emergency button in my classroom, a few feet away from where I lecture about Shug teaching Celie how to love herself, how to stand on her own, that redemption is real.

Joey Kennedy, a Pulitzer Prize winner, writes a column every week for Alabama Political Reporter. Email: [email protected]


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Joey Kennedy, a Pulitzer Prize winner, writes a column each week for the Alabama Political Reporter. You can email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter.

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