A few days ago, Monday, 1/14/13, I was quietly driving to work in the early morning darkness when the world exploded in my face. No warning. One second I was following an SUV into the left turn lane as we approached an intersection and prepared for a turn. We had slowed to twenty-five or thirty miles an hour. We were still well back from the cross street when I felt what I can only compare to the sensation of jumping from an airplane into a three hundred mile an hour blast of air. It only lasted for a second or two, but in that second my car went from forward motion, upward, sideways, and into a car traveling beside mine. I can’t really say that I was aware of any specific motion, only the realization that the day I had been preparing for wasn’t going to happen. That and a puzzled, almost embarrassed, certainty that I never saw it coming. This might as well have been a meteor falling from space.
It wasn’t– a meteor that is– but that information didn’t come clear for at least a few minutes. And some facts aren’t clear even now. I’m really not certain if I lost consciousness. Maybe not, but I’m still bothered by the fact that there is no memory of that moment of panic before something hits you, no memory of a flash of headlights in the windshield, nothing but those last seconds of following the car in front of mine. At least a few moments are missing. The first thing I remember involved crushing metal and glass, and then mentally assessing each extremity, tasting blood that ran from my nose, and realizing that other than sitting on top of a lot of glass, I was reasonably comfortable. I knew it was not a fender bender, I knew the airbags had deployed, I knew the seat belt was still pinning me tightly in place, and I knew I had to let people know I wouldn’t be opening the medical clinic I’d been heading to that morning.
Turns out that instead of a meteor, it was only a Ford Explorer that had crossed over the median, hit my car, slammed me into the car to my right, and then continued down the highway head on into the Chevy that had been following. It was my first experience with the jaws of life (thank you to first responders everywhere), and everybody got away with what the newspaper called “non-life threatening injuries.”
This motor vehicle accident was, in the larger scheme of things, not a big deal. Four fairly new cars destroyed, but that’s about it. Nobody died. I’m almost embarrassed to admit that thanks to modern automotive safety features, my most serious injury was a broken index finger. But, serious or not, I was totally vulnerable at that time. Not physically. Physically, I was just fine. But mentally, I was not up to any kind of responsibility. Fortunately the police, firefighters, and paramedics were there in minutes. They, the professionals, took over, put us all into ambulances, and made things right.
What I’m left with is some major curiosity about what trauma does to our minds. And what it does to our human ability to function effectively. The whole experience got me to thinking about how people react under stress, and what we have a right to expect from them.
Psychologists say that, under stress, people experience all sorts of sensory distortions. They remember things that didn’t happen, they may have no recall of actual events. The passage of time is distorted. Their accounts of events are not to be trusted.
Perhaps I was encouraged by the easy availability of news, opinions, and statistics following the recent tragedy at Sandy Hook, the murder of twenty babies, first graders. Everybody has a solution to the problem, of course, and one I heard involved arming and training school teachers. Apparently, teachers by the hundreds, for what those numbers are worth, have stepped forward to volunteer for whatever training would be available. I wonder how those teachers would react if actually challenged in their classrooms by some well armed intruder? The teachers at that elementary school reacted admirably, but might armed teachers have saved the day? Some people think so. They are wrong.
According to a recent issue of Time Magazine, New York City police officers are required to score a 78% hit rate on the shooting range when they qualify twice a year. That’s shooting at a paper target. Many do better, of course, but when they later find themselves in a situation where someone is actually shooting back at them, their hit rate falls to only 18%. These are professional peace officers, thoroughly trained and undergoing regular in-service refresher training designed to teach them how to react in just that type of situation. When subjected to the stress of a life or death situation, most find real life is different from a shooting range.
Teachers who hope to do as well as the police (18% hit rate?) would need a lot of training, and that training would have to be extensive, regular, time-consuming, and expensive. Not to mention how it would cut into teaching time. It’s certain those elementary and high school teachers are going to make do with a lot less training than full-time police officers. And they’re going to be a whole lot less accurate than the professionals. When people are being shot at, they seldom perform at their highest level. If police performance falls off when they are shot at, arming teachers is nothing more than an excuse to manufacture more weapons.
The answer lies somewhere else. You know all the suggestions. The papers are full of bright ideas. Fewer guns out there, take away “assault weapons,” more thorough background checks, improvements in mental health treatment, limit the number of shots available before reloading, and probably a dozen more that escape me now. I’m not saying that getting rid of all our weapons is either advisable or possible. Guns are used for many acceptable purposes, and Americans are not going to accept being disarmed at this point in our history. But something is going to change. Count on it. Just don’t let it include arming teachers.
Schools are safer than ever these days. The chance of a child being killed in school is only one in three million. Still too much when you look at those pictures of the babies who will never learn to read, explore the world around them, grow up to have families of their own. Once some crazy, evil person takes their lives, it doesn’t matter that they would have been more likely to win a lottery. We still need to work toward making the odds zero in three million. But arming teachers is not one of the ways. Encouraging people to see that as an answer is a dangerous distraction at a time when our leaders should be making real progress toward making our children even safer than they are now.