‘The First Day Back Was Agonizing’
Christina Berchini is a faculty member at Michigan State University.
As a teacher, you have to be prepared for the worst. I’ve read dozens of articles about mass shootings. I speak with colleagues and students about how safe we feel at school. I attend workshops on response protocol. All that work and I was still ill-equipped when my school was targeted by a gunman last week.
I went to bed early the night of the attack. I was particularly stressed about the upcoming week. It was a busy one, filled with meetings and classes. I took extra melatonin, followed by some Benadryl, and my body fought sleep until, eventually, sleep won.
The next morning, I awoke to a flurry of frantic texts asking if I was safe. I am a professor of teacher education at Michigan State University, and I knew in my gut that something unspeakable must have happened on campus. Google confirmed what I already sensed to be true.
I clicked on an article with the words “mass shooting” in the headline, and read aloud to my husband. With each passing sentence my voice cracked.
Where did the gunman go?
Who did he shoot?
How many were dead?
I teach in a beautiful building called Berkey Hall. The inside is old, but the exterior has a collegiate charm that makes teaching within its walls almost whimsical.
Berkey Hall is a special place. When I learned it was the first stop on the gunman’s deadly rampage, I sobbed into my husband’s chest. Two students were killed down the hall from my classroom and a third just a couple of buildings away at the Union, one of the school’s most high-traffic areas. The gunman critically injured five more, leaving at least one student paralyzed.
My students have cruelly and unmercifully been forced to spend their lives practicing for something like this. I assured them via email that class would not be held for the rest of the week. I told them that I was thinking about them, that their mental health is my main priority.
“Please rest and check in on each other,” I wrote, my shaking hands wet from my tears. “Please reach out if I can do anything to support you.”
After hitting send, I waded through the rest of my inbox, catching up on the barrage of alerts from the night before. They said:
Seven days later faculty and students were asked to return to the classroom.
As a veteran teacher of 18 years, I don’t understand the rush. I am not okay. My students are not okay. My fellow teachers are not okay. Nothing could have prepared us for the harsh reality of returning to the scene of the crime so soon. Asking us to come back adds an unnecessary layer of injustice on an already tormented moment. School, as we knew it, is over.
Faculty have been tasked with participating in workshops and community events designed to ease the pain of the tragedy. Many of us are on communication overload, keeping students, families, and friends up to date. Because I taught in Berkey, my own classes were displaced and needed to be relocated. That was a process that did not resolve until approximately 24 hours before my first class was scheduled to meet.
Some students are taking a stand. Many refused to return to class, opting instead to protest. They are calling on politicians to end this reign of terror; they are mobilizing like their lives depend on it—because they do. Other students have stayed home, absorbing the love and care of family and friends, unable to imagine returning to campus just yet.
Faculty have fewer options. Most of us are not trauma or grief experts, and yet we are expected to proceed as if we are. Like students, faculty were also brought to their knees by this. I’m not sure our administration fully understands what they are asking of us by resuming classes so soon, by asking us to helm the school’s response. Many of us were the first point of contact for the students who decided to return.
The first day back was agonizing. Did we talk too much about the tragedy? Did we not talk enough about it? Do my students feel seen and heard? Was it wrong to burden them with my own uncontrollable tears? Later on, when I laughed during a word game that we played together, or when I introduced them to an adult coloring book that had curse words in it, was that the right thing to do? Is laugher okay in these moments?
My worries induced a migraine. I vomit when I get migraines. Our return to school in the wake of a mass shooting made me physically ill.
Of all of the resources available on how to cope in the aftermath of such a tragedy, there is nothing that explicitly indicates when a return to school is appropriate. What I now know, based on experience, is that asking teachers and students to return to the site of a tragedy so soon is to ask the impossible. It’s to ask the unthinkable. And it’s to act irresponsibly. You can read books about mass shootings, you can follow protocols. You can speak to colleagues and attend workshops. But can you ever really be prepared for something like this?
Christina Berchini is a teacher and writer living in Michigan. Her first book, Jawbreaker, is forthcoming with Farrar, Straus and Giroux (2023). Her essays have appeared in Marie Claire, ELLE, Ms, the Washington Post, and other outlets.