Life principle

These teenagers from Florida hid for their lives. Now they’re coming out roaring.

BRATTLEBORO — Back in the early 1990s, I was a teacher at a junior high school for the arts in East Harlem, N.Y. There was an elementary school in our building as well. It was a dangerous time and place.

If the weather was good, I rode my bike - at a very crisp pace - to school. If I took the subway from my apartment in SoHo, I sprinted the three blocks from the subway station to the school.

One day, as I left school, I witnessed a small Hispanic kid get jumped and stomped on by four other adolescents. Without thinking, I dropped my bike in the middle of the street and shielded the boy behind me.

The leader of the attacking group told me he would, “knock those motherfuckin' blue contacts out of my head.” It seemed funny to me that he assumed I wore blue contact lenses, but then I recalled that no one in his neighborhood had blue eyes, except those wearing contacts, so I understood his mistake.

I then informed him that I was a teacher in the building and that he could come and visit me anytime. The episode ended shortly.

The next day, after telling my principal what happened, she told me, “Never get into it with these kids. You don't know - they could have a gun or a knife.”

I was flummoxed, as I thought she would get it.

I didn't feel like what I did was heroic, then or now. I was just doing what I thought anyone would have done in those circumstances.

Some instinct kicked in. The life principle was coming through me.

In my five years at that school, I was threatened with violence during three or four other incidents.

I tell you this because I know what a teacher will do to protect his students.

* * *

When I read about people in social media attacking the character or motives of the teens from Parkland, Florida, it stirs something hot and red in the bottom of my belly. These teens have witnessed horror, they have hidden themselves and run for their lives, they have suffered and survived gun violence.

And now they are being malignantly attacked from someone hiding behind the safe firewall of the internet. It makes me want knock down the front door of their assailant's home and puke on his chest.

About five years ago, I moved to Brattleboro full-time. It was just a few weeks after the mass murder of 26 first graders and their teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.

I joined GunSense VT, which formed in the aftermath of that shooting, not because I am a good person. I joined GunSense because I could no longer numb myself to the pain of knowing that I had failed to protect kids from violence. I joined because the life principle flows through me.

At an early meeting, I reflected to our small group of volunteers what I thought was the essence of the two sides in this debate. I had studied the NRA's message and boiled it down to one word: Freedom. In my mind, I heard that word the way George W. Bush used to say it, with a Texas drawl and as if it were the best cut of beef.

Our message? Responsibility. I heard that the way my mom used to tell me to be home by 11 p.m. and to make sure there was not a scratch on her car. I wondered aloud why our message felt so flat while theirs sounded so American, so sexy. (I know “sexy” is not the right word but I couldn't find another more fitting.)

* * *

Life - as in “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” - is the first of three principles laid out by the founders of this country.

Sigmund Freud believed that much of human behavior was motivated by two drives: the life instinct and the death instinct.

The life instinct relates to a basic need for survival, reproduction, and pleasure. Freud also suggested that all humans have an unconscious wish for death. Self-destructive behavior, he believed, was one expression of the death instinct.

Watching the pictures from more than 800 March for Our Lives rallies, from every state in the union, from cities in foreign countries even, I was struck by the passion of democracy, of real freedom. Freedom to assemble, to speak our minds, to call truth to power.

That these marches and rallies were organized by youth - and that their most passionate speakers were these same youth - ought to scare any member of Congress with a favorable rating from the NRA. These kids are serious and passionate, and they will very soon vote.

I'm looking forward to the November elections the way I used to anticipate Christmas mornings. I can't wait to see how many former leaders are consigned to the dustbin of history by the vast majority of citizens no longer willing to be silenced by a bully.

I respectfully suggest to the majority of gun owners in the United States of America that you take back your sportsmen's organization - the NRA. It's way past time to wrestle the focus away from those who promote terror and unregulated militia-style weapons on behalf of gun manufacturers.

Take back your organization and return its scope to promoting safe hunting practices and away from spreading fear and paranoia and suppressing science and facts in the name of unregulated capitalism.

If that is not possible, consider starting a new organization that doesn't pervert the meaning of the Second Amendment.

* * *

One thing I respect about the NRA leaders is that they can get their members to be single-issue voters. Sure, they might be crude in manipulating the fear and paranoia of their members, but their strategy is effective.

The NRA is masterful at stoking the fear that “the government is coming to take away your guns.” If one member of Congress steps out of line, discovers a backbone, or waffles with a conscience, thousands of NRA members overwhelm that lawmaker with letters and phone calls while dangling their pledges of financial support.

The message is clear: if you want to stay in office, you'd better do as you're told.

* * *

Dang if those Parkland teens haven't left the same ultimatum for their leaders.

One of them, David Hogg, recently said, “To those politicians who say change will not come, I say we will not stop until every man, every woman, every child, every American can live without fear of gun violence.”

These teenagers picked themselves off the floor and from under desks where they were hiding for their lives and came out roaring after yet another disturbed young man shot up their school and murdered 17 of their friends and teachers.

Their question to America was loud and clear: “Am I next?”

It has awakened the conscience of a nation. A conscience that, until this moment, would rear up on occasions of mass murder only to be silenced by the NRA, their dirge of “freedom,” and some strange narcoleptic brew that put much of America back to sleep until the next outrageous act of violence.

The essence of these teens' clarion call is this: life.

And damn, it's sexy.

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