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The Right to see Christmas

December 15, 2012

I realized tonight that I have spent 55 years in schools, as pupil and teacher.

In that time, I’ve seen four or five major changes in education policy, constant revisions of examinations, thousands of reams of paperwork updated and put in place.

Working in Guidance for the past 36 years, I must have met with and supported thousands of pupils and parents. Despite the emergence of ‘league tables’ and the professed importance of exams, I am in little doubt about what parents want most when they send their child to school.

They want their child to be safe.

This relates to statutory safety, of course – no slippy floors, sharp edges or poorly maintained equipment. It requires a duty of care from staff on supervision and suggests that a pupil will be safe from harm while at school.

But, of course, it’s much more than that.

Any parent who has left a child at a school gate knows that ‘safe’ is a word that applies at least as much to the emotional as the physical. They realise that acts of God – tornadoes, floods, Aberfan slag slides – cannot always be legislated against, but they rightly expect that the child will be safeguarded from bullying of all kinds – whether from staff or pupils.

As I have said many times to parents and pupils: the least that should be expected is that young people feel comfortable in school. Pupils should feel they are in the right place and that no harm will come to them. They should be able to flourish with a feeling of security – safe from a classmate’s cruelty or a teacher’s sarcastic tongue. The basic job of the teacher is to build confidence – in so many ways, and to gain the confidence of both child and parent. The overwhelming majority of teachers I have known in a lifetime operated as if the old legal phrase ‘in loco parentis’ applied always. This was fortified by the Children (Scotland) Act, the lynchpin of which was that we should always act ‘in the best interests of the child’.

Safe, and secure.

Those who know me, or follow this blog, will know that I have huge affection for the USA and for family and friends who live there. I believe it has the potential to be a strong force for good in the world, but my affection is not uncritical nor blind.

The parents who left their children at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut this morning, just like parents in Scotland, and around the world, expected they would be safe – in body and mind. They would be focused already on Nativity plays, Christmas presents and holiday arrangements. The guddle of everyday life would be claiming their thoughts. There is no way they would be expecting the horror that visited that quiet town before 10am.

As a parent, I find their grief untenable; as a teacher I mourn, not just for murdered colleagues, but for the awful despair of helplessness that, as at Dunblane, must have swept over them as they realized what was happening. In Scotland, unfortunately, we do know how such an event spreads out from the affected community, how it affects children, parents and teachers far removed from the scene.

As it happens, Scots were involved in the construction of the US Constitution, the Second Amendment of which states, in relation to arms: A well regulated Militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms shall not be infringed.

For those without a political axe to grind, this clearly refers to civilian militias – as were common at the time of the foundation of the state.

It is time this mistranslation was tackled. It is time for gun control.

When someone with easy access to guns becomes unbalanced or nurses a grievance too strong for reason, the chances are they will follow increasing precedent and they will pick on the most vulnerable. They are, of course, only a minority of gun owners, but they exist in a society which, in many areas, sees gun carrying as ‘normal’ and many defend their ‘constitutional’ right to do so. If 100 possess a gun but only one uses it in a school, a shopping mall, or a college, that minority tag is of no comfort at all to the bereaved and bereft.

It is clear that more children will die if something is not done. It is clear that more homes will become ghostly at Christmas and birthdays and anniversaries, as empty places at the family table seem to fill more space than those that are filled.

Let those who would defend their right to carry and possess weapons be clear: to defend such a ‘right’ is to state clearly that the death of children is a price worth paying. It is to declare that the right to bear arms is of a greater importance than our children’s futures.

As for those who claim, incredibly, that the country will be safer if more people have guns, tonight they are suggesting teachers be armed in the classroom. Further comment is superfluous.

The hug I gave my son when I met him from school on the day of the Dunblane tragedy is burnt into my memory; the look of bewilderment on his face is an even stronger memory. Children don’t expect that it’s possible to be confronted by death in the classroom, the knowledge that it happens saps their innocence and feeds their fears.

Do they not deserve better?

I have blogged before about small town America and its delights, its positivity, its sense of community, the beauty of its optimism. We are approaching a Christmas season which that small town America has colonized to a certain extent – from ‘White Christmas’ and ‘Holiday Inn’ to ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’.

It promotes a schmaltzy, unreal, view of the season, but no more cheesey than my repeated message to my pupils and their parents: “You are precious, you are unique, and you are valued” What else would we want them to believe?

So my dream for this Christmas involves George Bailey’s Angel.

Is it too much to hope that he might visit 100 US Senators as they linger on the bridge between what is right and what is propitious?

And could that hope be demonstrated on Christmas morning when 51 of them tell their children that they have an extra present for them – that they have decided, irrespective of politics and job prospects, that they will vote for gun control – in the hopes that there will be no more stricken parents outside schools, no more bewildered pupils with their futures misshapen, and no more lame excuses for the slaughter of the Innocents?

A Christmas fantasy?

Oh yes.

But the alternative is surely too real to contemplate.

God, please Bless America – and its children.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Peter Wicks permalink
    December 15, 2012 1:58 am

    Thank you Sean for writing this. I was having a discussion with someone on facebook tonight (an Englishman who has an American “Redneck” girlfriend who is a supporter of the NRA. I was shocked when he said this “Ok, now let’s accept that that very mindset would prompt gun owners to hand over their weapons “1 bullet at a time” were a law passed to ammend the constitution and remove the right to bear arms and form their own militias. Millions would be killed as those kinda of people would rather die defending that right than give it up, was saving 28 lives worth it?” What a crazy notion, what a crazy world!! The second amendment needs to be removed from the American constitution, it is no longer relevant and has no place in modern society!

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