December 13, 2018

Pick up, Honey … Please Pick Up

Guest Opinion
By Mark Pontoni | March 3, 2018

Feb. 15 should have been just another mid-winter doldrums day. It was gray and cold in northern Michigan, and as I pulled into the school parking lot, I should have been thinking the way most teachers think about February days: Just get us some sunshine! But Feb. 15, 2018 wasn’t just another day, and I wasn’t even sure sunshine could cure my funk. As I approached the front of the school, I reluctantly glanced toward the flagpole, knowing the half-staff reminder of Parkland, Florida, shootings would be frowning down on me. But the flag at my school was high and proudly kicking it in the breeze.

I figured the crew hadn’t gotten around to lowering it yet, so I would have to wait until morning announcements to share with my students and colleagues our sentiments on this latest massacre of the innocents. As the bell neared, I wondered how I would address yet another statement about another tragedy in a place connected to us only by the similarities of our circumstances. Another temple of our future — full of tomorrow’s hope on the hoof and their oft-frustrated but steady teachers — was attacked. 

Moments after the bell rang, I learned which sports teams had won and which athletes had scored which points. I learned about an upcoming talent show. And then I learned just how normalized school shootings have become. Not one word about Parkland. Not one thought. Not one prayer. And then we were asked to pledge allegiance to a country whose people in power don’t seem to be bothered by rows of dead children lined up on the floor, as the only life left on their bodies — their cell phones — rang non-stop in their pockets and purses. With images in my head of distraught parents hoping against hope that their child still had the option of picking up, I was supposed to start class.

I stood in the center of the room for a few moments with my head bowed as I tried to collect myself. I don’t really remember the exact order of things. I know at some point I laid out the objectives for the class for that day, but somehow the blood of the French Revolution wasn’t dripping from the necks of Robespierre or Marie Antoinette. All I could see in my head were those rows of students and their infernal cell phones. So I interrupted our quest for AP World History fame and fortune long enough to ask the students how they were thinking about Parkland. 

The stammering and quizzical looks were overshadowed by the body language exhibited by one normally thoughtful young man. He shrugged his shoulders. That, more than anything I had read or heard since the news of the tragedy broke, summed up our collective attitudes toward school shootings.  It’s not that he was incapable of caring; it was that he had no idea what we can do about it. He, like the rest of us, have come to accept that school shootings are as American as baseball, hot dogs, apple pie, and Chevrolet.

During a very restless night I struggled with the same questions many teachers face: “What if this happened here? How would I react? Could I be the hero my students would need me to be?”  I told my students later that I had actually mapped out a couple of plans to thwart a gunman. I gave them permission to laugh as I described how I would leap off the second floor onto the killer, or how I would use an empty bottle thrown against a wall to distract him while I rushed him from behind. Few laughed.  This was either because the connections to their colleagues in Florida was just starting to sink in, or that the thought of their aging teacher with a knee replacement and a reconstructed shoulder being their best hope for survival just wasn’t that funny.

Before returning to the non-stop pressure of meeting curriculum objectives, I asked the students to help me understand something. In at least one of my classes, my voice cracked as I asked them if they thought this is what I had signed up for. I asked if this is what they signed up for. What has gotten us to the place where it’s not only fantasy to suppose that on any given day we could be the target of an angry person with an automatic weapon? I admitted that my generation had screwed this up. I implored them to do better and to make sure their kids and grandkids could go back to worrying the most about what those two girls at the lunch table are whispering about.

In northern Michigan, where manhood is so often measured by the size of your gun, it’s not easy to talk about solutions to school shootings. Inevitably, we must admit that we are all victims of big money politics. We have been collectively brainwashed into believing that the Second Amendment actually protects the rights of anyone to own any type of gun — actual words of the amendment be damned. It will be days or even weeks before I can erase the images of Parkland from my dreams. If I’m lucky, I’ll have a few weeks after that before we shrug our shoulders one more time to thoughts of parents weeping as they listen to their child’s voicemail message for the tenth time in the last three minutes.

I pledge allegiance … .

You can read more of Mark Pontoni's thoughts on education, politics, sports, and family at



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