When I found out I had an actual office – and not a cubicle – the first thing I noticed was the door. I controlled who was able to enter the threshold. If I needed space, or just time and privacy to work alone, I could shut the world out.
I also realized, pretty quickly, that arriving before 8 a.m. would mean that silence and privacy would reign for about two hours. Academics tend to wander into their offices around 10 a.m., possibly after teaching a morning class. So, when I heard the familiar scuffle of heels a few moments after I had settled into my office, I was somewhat surprised.
My door was open, the light from my office puddling out into the dim hallway. I was startled when I looked up to find a colleague pausing outside of my door. It created a strange silhouette.
When students enter my office during office hours, there is no pause. There’s simply a rushed entry, and usually some exaggerated comment about how difficult it is to find my office as they slip off their bags and fall into the chair across from me. The pause was important. It signaled hesitance or at least a questioning: Is it okay to enter?
I spoke first, mentioning the early hour. That’s when I noticed the red rims – she had been crying. I waited as she slowly made her way to my desk. I asked if everything was all right, and as she sank into the chair, she heaved a deep sigh.
Listening closely, I heard her talk about the juxtaposition of her children’s voices and the radio as they dropped her eldest off for kindergarten. The morning struggle of which snacks could be brought in the car was followed by a hysterical breakdown when her son tried to walk out of the house with a certain toy. But the tears and the pain subsided when he realized that his youngest brother would be traveling in the car with him.
The ride to school was about 10 minutes. And that day, just like many other recent days, the news was filled with discussions of the school shooting in Parkland, Florida. While driving, my colleague listened to the details about the victims: the kinds of lives they lived, their aspirations, the memories they’ve left behind.
As they neared the drop-off lane, the news switched from narrative to opinion. Since New Year’s Day – a mere seven weeks ago – shootings in schools had happened eight times. A voice calls for “common-sense gun control,” and another says that guns should be kept from individuals with mental illnesses.
In the background, completely oblivious to the news filling the car with darkness, two children were talking about the Transformer toy that had gotten left behind at the house. The eldest promised to play with his brother when he returned home from school.
As the family pulled into the drop-off lane, the boy bounced out of the car and disappeared behind a teacher, racing through the doors of school. In that moment, one of the fathers of the victims teared up, lamenting his inability to keep his daughters safe. He called for schools to be more secure.
Dropping off her youngest son at home, my colleague listened to callers voicing their opinions about how to accomplish the security of schools. Some mentioned airport security, while others mentioned prisons.
At that point, she lost it. Having watched her child bounce off to a place he loved, she couldn’t stand to think of sending her child into something akin to a prison.
In the days and months ahead, the policy debates will continue about the safety of our schools. But we should also realize the possibility that lies behind an open door. There should be an openness to dialogue, the ability to lend an ear and listen as mothers lament and express their concerns for their children.
We need to hear from students themselves, put aside strongly held personal opinions about guns and gun control and hear the fear and concern stemming from the site of a school drop off.
Dr. Heather Bozant Witcher can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.