Once I was teaching a class of third graders. The lesson was about balance in a forest ecosystem. I asked them to create a skit in which one of them played the role of the Forest Manager, as if forests are run like an Office Max. The Forest Manager was charged with the task of maintaining a sense of order among animals and people.
One of the groups of eager actors came up with a short play in which a hunter was caught shooting at deer in the off season. In the script, he was reprimanded by the Forest Manager and agreed to return during official deer season. During the first rehearsal, a rolled up yoga mat served as the prop for a rifle. Instead of bullets, the mat dribbled the caps of milk jugs from its end and onto the the head of a small boy playing the part of the deer.
Their audience of classmates were utterly entranced by the dramatized violence. The climactic firing of the yoga mat was without a doubt the highlight of all the day’s skits, and yet I sensed tension in the air. The children knew inherently that this kind of play was probably not within the rules of school. They were looking to me for a decision. Do I forbid such blatant disregard for our school’s unwritten yet often repeated policy: no gun sounds or depictions thereof, not even a joking forefinger pistol with a cocked thumbhammer? Or do I let this one, seemingly harmless portrayal pass since it falls under the umbrella of “on topic”? Not to mention the fact that it opened the possibility for the class to examine the ethics of hunting, a tradition that I happen to regard as noble, even essentially human. I decided to deliberate with my decision until the following day.
As fate would have it, my principal was scheduled to observe the following day’s lesson. I couldn’t imagine trying to explain how I had allowed my students to act out the execution of a third grader. Before the final performance I broke the bad news to the actors.
“After giving it some thought, I’ve decided that I can’t allow any guns in the skit.”
The actors looked hurt.
“Can we have crossbows?” asked the Hunter.
“I’m afraid not.” I deadpanned.
“Knives are weapons,” chimed a student who was predictably sympathetic to my authority. The proverbial Girl In The Front Row. The other actors frowned at her.
“How about a net?” pressed the Hunter.
I considered the clever boy’s measured compromise for a long time. Probably just a few seconds, but roughly seventeen minutes in kidtime. After savoring the pregnant pause by staring thoughtfully into the air just above their heads, I made the decision to keep a hard line, regardless of logic or reason.
“You are allowed to approach the deer with an imaginary net, but the Forest Manager must confront you before you actually use it.”
At this point I felt the increasingly familiar sensation that scores of young eyes were blinking at me in astonishment that adults really are all completely insane.
This was life after Columbine, but before Sandy Hook. We were doing our best to grapple with a new era of violence in our lives. Lockdown drills became a thing while I worked at this school. Everyone in education was, in their own way, doing their best to assert some sense of control over the situation.
And yet we were paralyzed by an intense and profound fear of a catastrophe like Columbine. Fear so clouded our vision that we found it virtually impossible to look at violence in a nuanced way. Since then of course, things have only become much worse. The frequency of massacres by guns has only increased. The sense of loss and suffering has only deepened. In addition to my own reckoning as a teacher within this climate of fear, I now also reckon with being the father to a one year old boy who will be living through massive societal upheaval concerning race, nationalist paranoia, governmental ineptitude, and of course, guns.
How do we orient ourselves amidst this dystopian nightmare? If we identify ourselves as peaceful people, how do we relate to those that are struggling with violent thoughts, rather than dismissing them? How can we seek to understand the anguish that is increasingly showing its monstrous face?
I am striving to “bear witness” to the anguish that drives so many people to use violence as a means to an end. In a recent article by Joshin Brian Byrnes of the Upaya Zen center, the author widens the lens beyond the usual victim/shooter polemic.
Bearing witness is not only about understanding what drove “them” to do such terrible things. The practice is also to look deeply and with precision at the innumerable ways that they are us and we are them. Doing so allows us to observe the intimacy that naturally exists among all things.
Byrnes’ premise for the piece is that by repeatedly stating the death toll of the Orlando shooting as 49, the media – and by proxy our entire collective consciousness – effectively dismisses the 50th death as relevant to the discussion. Of course the 50th death was the shooter himself. “As part of bearing witness to the suffering of this world, I think we should count Omar Mateen among the dead”, Byrne writes. “It drives us further into the hard question of suffering in our world and our role in relieving it.”
We can’t relieve what we don’t understand. Understanding violence means recognizing our own intimate experiences with the situations and emotions that give rise to it in our own lives, every day.
For the children in my care, I want to bear witness as they sort out their place in this complicated and increasingly violent world. Rather than reflexively banning the use of an imaginary gun in a class skit, I want to understand the feelings that brandishing such a weapon evokes for the child. How is the weapon giving voice to powerlessness? How is the weapon a way of taking action based on the innumerable societal cues that bombard them?
“The ancient wisdom of the Buddhist texts”, writes Byrne, “drives home a message: if we want a wholesome world, we must remove the poison from our own minds first. If we want peace, wellness, and intimacy in our world we first have to see it and cultivate it in ourselves.”
If it is too much to see some part of ourselves in Omar Mateen, we can surely see ourselves in the hearts of children. I would like to share a story from my life. It is my first memory of a personal encounter with guns. Perhaps by reliving the memory, I can more fully bear witness to the confusion that children must be feeling right now.
Bird, I, M
I am six or seven years old. I’m standing on green plastic carpet, the kind with the look and feel of astroturf. I look down at my shoes. Mauve sneakers with velcro straps. I shuffle a sneaker and the green turf crackles like static. A voice to my left ear:
“Your shot, Joe.”
The voice is my cousin John’s. The voice is an octave deeper than mine but with the same Okie twang. I look up at his face. I see that he is holding a gun in front of his body. I’m not ready to look at the gun so I let it fall into soft focus, peering past it to the T-shirt that my cousin wears. The shirt is orange and has an iron-on design with metallic flakes that glint in the light. The design says GO FOR IT and there is a cartoon football player under the letters charging forward with a stiffarm like a bulldozer. There are glittery stars coming from the place where he started running.
My cousin is skinny like me. And he is my hero. Last time he spent the weekend at our house I became so giddy that I wrapped both of my stick arms around his torso and chanted “John John John John John” while I jumped up and down. Mom told me to give him a break and I didn’t understand what she meant.
“C’mon Joe, don’t wuss out.”
He thrusts the rifle toward my face and my eyes cross a little, bringing its image into focus. Blackish-grey barrel. Little slot on the side. Finger guides framing the trigger. Brown plastic handle and shoulder rest. The gun shoots BBs.
The metal and plastic is now cool in my hands. It isn’t as heavy as I thought it would be. My arms feel strong, and I feel slightly taller.
“There’s one for you. Get em”, John whispers.
His change in tone startles me and I look up to his face and follow his sight line to the yard. We are standing on a porch. The porch is the thing covered in astroturf. A rickety wooden railing separates us from the yard. There are kids’ toys strewn here and there, their colors faded by the sun. I wonder which kid the toys belong to.
The porch is my Great Aunt Letha’s. It is cantilevered from her trailer home, over the dusty ground like a cliff. The land is my grandparents farm, and somewhere in the distant fields, cattle are grazing.
“Don’t lose him”, comes another whisper at my ear. My cousin’s finger arrows to the space beyond the toys and the yard. I follow its invisible line and a wire comes into focus. The wire has pointed barbs. A small round thing is balanced atop the wire, near one of the barbs. The thing is still and then shuttering. I squint and see that the shuttering shakes free a wing. It is a bird. The bird’s head shakes five or twenty times in the next movement. I watch closely hoping for another shutter so I can count the head shakes. It’s a game that I like to play with the hummingbirds that visit our house. The creature’s frame is squat and compact, like an Easter egg only rounder. The eyes are dots so black they have no direction but outward to everywhere. In an instant they snap closed and are open again, and this motion mesmerizes me even more. I lean forward to catch the next eye snap. My cousin’s voice startles me.
“C’mon bud. He’ll get away”.
The rifle is still in my hands and now it is moving. John is lifting it for me so that it reaches over the railing just like his finger, arrowing beyond the yard in the same way. His other hand places my forearm so that it rests on the railing’s edge. A nail head pushes onto my skin and hurts a little but I don’t show the pain. He positions my hand so that it rests awkwardly around the triggerframe. My other hand is already propping the gun barrel. I wonder who placed that hand there.
“Get em in your sight and when you’re ready, pull the trigger”, he says calmly.
I look at my cousin for a long time after he says this, my mouth a bit open. His brow furrows at me when he realizes that I’m losing focus on the task, and then he lets out a laugh or a whispered “Tsch” like grandma does when she finds something silly or when I’m being ornery. I feel embarrassed now so I furrow my brow too and turn toward the yard.
My left palm is sweating and still on the barrel. My right cups around the trigger frame. My thin finger slips into the frame and rests gently on the cool surface of the trigger. My head leans toward the rifle till my cheek rests on the metal of it and now I see what he means by “sight”. Near my eye is a little metal piece shaped like a capital M. At the end of the barrel I see another metal piece shaped like the letter I. I shift the I so that the top of it sits in the valley of the M. I let both letters fall out of focus and now the wire is in sharp focus and now the bird. Again I move both letters until they all form a stacked order: Bird, I, M.
My breath is coming out of my mouth and it is too loud so I close my mouth and let the air come out of my nose. Bird, I, M. I purse my mouth the way I do when I’m drawing a picture. Bird, I, M. My breath is making the sight wiggle so I breathe more slowly. Bird, I, M. I tug the trigger toward me and stop breathing. Bird, I, M.
The trigger collapses with a click and I feel a dull thump like someone poked me on the shoulder. At the same time my cousin’s voice lets out a loud “WOOO” that surprises me so much that I stumble away from him a step and lose my balance. I quickly get myself back upright and John is bounding down the steps and across the yard. He’s now in the deep unmowed rough beyond the yard, holding onto the wire fence with one hand and sifting through the yellow grass with the other. Another “WOOO” from him and he stands up. He looks very far away. He holds up a floppy thing that looks like a grey rag. It has wings that stretch down toward the ground and a hot breeze ruffles them a little.
“You got em!” He hollers. He is holding the bird. He rushes back to where I’m standing and dangles the body in front of my face. The animal’s eyes are shut tight like it is thinking very hard. A slap on my back nearly knocks me down. It is my Uncle Terry standing behind me.
“Well, alright Joe.” He says.
There is laughter behind him in the house. Many family members are there, and now they all say something about the bird. They all have smiling faces so I smile too.
In my story, the bird parishes as does my own innocence. Still, in the story I am far from a character like Omar Mateen. The child actor who shoots an imaginary deer with a yoga mat is certainly not Omar Mateen either. But if we are to bear witness to his suffering as well as the suffering he brought upon so many, we can at least recognize the struggle between war and peace that wages inside of each one of us. And when we cross paths with the suffering, we can meet them with knowing compassion. We can let them know that they count.