Alex Tzelnic, a Zen practitioner, is the author of Tricycle’s (Meta)Physical Education series about the lessons he has learned while teaching gym at a Montessori school. You can read more of Tzelnic’s stories here.
Recently in the PE class I teach, we played a game called Frenzy. I took just about every small object at my disposal—dodgeballs, cones, bean bags, and so on—and piled them in the center of the gym. I laid out a circle of hula hoops around the objects and paired two students at each hoop. I explained the objective: “The game will end when all of the objects are in one hoop.” Then I blew the whistle.
What ensued was, well, a frenzy. There was a mad dash for the objects, theft from other hoops, impromptu tug-of-war sessions, and inadvertent collisions. Every so often I repeated the lone directive, the students pausing long enough to roll their eyes at the seeming impossibility of the task. There were far too many objects and far too many hoops for such an outcome to occur, unless of course, they did something crazy, like work together.
Ahh . . .
It is tempting to assume that as we become adults we become more capable of cooperation and less prone to aggressive behavior. Of course, one glimpse at our current political climate, at the school shootings we tolerate like no other country on earth, and at the tone of our gun-control debate, and that belief is quickly dashed. It took my students all of 12 minutes to figure out that they needed to work together. How long will it take us, and how many more children have to die until we do?
I was 14 years old when the Columbine shooting occurred. At the time it seemed like a singular act of unconscionable violence, and like the rest of society, the event stayed with me like a lodged bullet. For much of high school and college, I imagined how a shooting might play out, where I would run, how I would hide or assail the shooter. When it became clear that Columbine wasn’t a singular act but a nightmarishly recurring one, these fantasies only intensified.
I graduated college the year of the Virginia Tech shooting. I became a PE teacher at Cambridge Montessori School the year President Barack Obama was elected. There was a period of relative calm, as far as school shootings go, and then in 2012 a gunman opened fire at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. Our school tightened its security policies, engaged in professional development centered around safety, and began to practice lockdown drills. Now, while teaching, I often imagine what would happen if an active shooter came to campus; where I would flee with the kids, the hockey stick I might grab for defense.
In the aftermath of the latest shooting, President Donald Trump suggested that I, too, become armed. Surely, a gun would be a better protection than a hockey stick. So why doesn’t this solution appeal to me?
The answer is that I refuse to support the culture of violence that has allowed America to lead the world in private firearm ownership and mass shootings. The argument is often made that having a gun can prevent the likelihood of violence but even my students could see the irony in this: the correlation between gun ownership and gun violence is so obvious. When a PE game involving dodgeballs becomes too combative, we don’t add more dodgeballs—we take them away. I understand it’s naive to compare a national crisis to a gym game, but it’s not as naive as suggesting that the solution to gun violence in schools is to increase the number of guns in schools. The idea that becoming a “hard target” would make our school safer raises the question: why be a target at all?
But aside from my disagreements with Trump’s suggestion, I won’t carry a gun because I am a teacher, and my job is to model for my students the prosocial behavior I hope they can learn. The Montessori philosophy is founded on grace, courtesy, and peace. I can already anticipate gun advocates ridiculing this stance and the vulnerability it might engender, both in our students and in our community. To that I would respond that it is a vulnerability I am fiercely proud of. The solution to mass shootings is not to engage in a domestic arms race against potential shooters but to raise a generation that is empathetic, aware, and intolerant of this kind of violence. Vulnerability is an ability—the ability to be open and accepting, the courage to sometimes be hurt by that openness, and the wisdom to express oneself and resolve conflict without resorting to violence. As a teacher attempting to impart that to my students, the last thing I would do is carry a weapon.
When one of my classes gets too wild or loud, we have what I like to call a “Buddha Break.” I blow the whistle, everyone stops what they’re doing and sits in a comfortable position, and then for 20 seconds we have complete silence. Once the 20 seconds are up, I blow the whistle and we carry on, usually in a more mindful manner. During our most recent lockdown drill, I was instructed to have my class crouch in the corner with the lights off and the shades drawn. I told the group it would be like an extended Buddha Break in the dark. When the time came, we got in position by the wall, crouched, and remained silent. We were so quiet that when the facilities director poked his head in the gym to tell us the drill was over, he didn’t realize anyone was in there. Afterward I let the group know how impressed I was with their performance.
I hope the next generation doesn’t have to grow up in fortified schools. I hope that for them, the classroom is not a place where we have to arm ourselves against violence, but instead learn how to coexist without it. America is currently engaged in a deadly game of Frenzy. The game will end when we all agree that guns have no place in schools.