The day after 17 innocent people were killed in the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., I met my English 1102 class at its regularly scheduled time at Florida Southwestern State College.
I greeted Jack, Marie and Jennifer, already at their desks, and I opened my briefcase to extricate what I needed for the hour: graded essays to be given back, two dry-erase markers, and a blue folder with my class roster and notes for today’s lesson on logical fallacies.
But I knew my students would want to talk about the shooting. There have been other such atrocities this year throughout the country. But Parkland is opposite us on the Atlantic side of the state, a drive of just a couple of hours across Alligator Alley.
Some of my students are still in high school, taking a college class through what is called the dual-enrollment program. So they are the same age as Nicholas Dworet, 17, and Meadow Pollack, 18 — two of the 17 shot and killed on Feb. 14.
Once everyone was present and seated, I walked to the door, which I ordinarily leave open during our session, and closed it.
“Is that to protect us?” said Jennifer. She rolled her eyes. “We’d all just all be killed, anyway.”
“Why do you say that?”
“We just had an active-shooter drill at the dental clinic where I work,” she said. “They said you can ‘run, fight or die.’ But we would be trapped.”
“What about the windows?” said Nate.
The far side of the classroom is lined with windows. I was not sure whether they opened, since the shades are always closed against the harsh Florida sun.
Nate, tall and athletic, briefly struggled with one of the window locks.
“OK, here it goes,” he said, while pushing the window open from the bottom. There was ample room for someone to step through the opening and onto the lawn outside. Our classroom is on the first floor.
So, at least, we had a plan. I would do what I could to stop or slow the gunman while students escaped through the windows.
A few looked toward the door, the upper half of which was a clear glass window. The “plan” did not seem to inspire a lot of confidence.
“This is supposed to be a gun-free zone,” said Gabe. “As if someone who wants to kill us is going to be bothered by that.”
“How did he get a gun?” said Alexis. “Whatshisname?”
“From his mother,” someone said.
Confessed killer Nikolas Cruz, 19, legally bought the Smith & Wesson M&P 15 rifle himself from a gun store in Coral Springs, Fla.
I asked if tougher restrictions on manufacturing and selling guns might prevent future massacres like Parkland’s.
Carlos raised his hand while shaking his head no.
“It doesn’t matter,” he said. “It’s easy to get guns on the black market. Like in Chicago.”
“And it’s too late,” said Alexis. She is enrolled in several other classes and works as a waitress at Olive Garden after school. “There are too many guns out there.”
When I asked if they could think of anything at all that might prevent the next school shooting, Mark suggested more security cameras.
Jasmine mentioned arming teachers, and someone laughed and expressed doubts about teachers being brave enough.
“Wouldn’t you rather have him be armed, than nothing?” said Jennifer, pointing at me.
I asked further if there were another country that was successful in reducing mass shootings — someplace we could learn from or emulate.
When no one could answer, I assigned everyone to research the question for homework, using our college’s online library. We might follow up by printing a bibliography of 20 articles in periodicals that might be the basis for a problem/solution essay on school shootings.
There were more comments and a few more questions. Most of what my students said manifested hopelessness or anger. And underlying fear.
It made me think of my many years teaching at Chicago Vocational High School, when students had to contend with violence and crime on the way to school. But they felt safe inside my classroom.
Here, however, I could feel their desperation.
The president of the United States has the power, with his Republican legislature, to assuage their fears and solve the problem by enacting the same gun-control measures that Australia instituted after a horrible mass shooting in 1996 with 35 fatalities. Those measures led to a whopping 57 percent reduction in suicides and 47 percent in homicides.
But Trump’s track record on matters requiring compassion, such as with health care or Gold Star parents or the Dreamers, and his deflections in response to previous mass shootings, indicate he would probably lack the motivation to buck the National Rifle Association to save schoolchildren.
On the other hand, he is clearly a man for whom fame and popularity are high priorities. And he has to know that the American Political Science Association has just ranked him 45th, or dead last, projecting that he will go down in history as America’s worst president. Nothing he can do about taxes, immigration or infrastructure will likely change that legacy.
But if he leads the way on gun control that will halt the casual, repetitive slaughter of innocent Americans with easily accessible weapons of mass destruction, he might just be able to salvage his reputation.
And even be thought of as great.
David McGrath, a former resident of Hayward, Wis., and emeritus English professor at the College of DuPage, is currently teaching in Florida and is author of “The Territory.”