After the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in February 2018, colleagues and I sat around a table to decide how best to listen to our students and respond as a school community. We had had a tumultuous year already. While our struggles did not compare with the trauma and earth-shifting reality of a school shooting and loss of life, we knew we needed to come up with a healthy, appropriate response that was inclusive, healing, and meaningful, leaving politics aside as much as possible.

Around the table: an interim principle, a dean, two English teachers and myself, the Director of Student Life trained in pastoral counseling and conflict resolution. This group, with its mixture of conflict aversion, activism, community peace-keeping and conservative and liberal leanings, politely discussed current trending options for response, our student body, our school values — and stayed in their corners.

Myself included — at least at first. After enough tentative back and forth, I leaned in to the middle, lightly slapped the table, and said, “ I worry we might come up with nothing more than thoughts and prayers by the end of this meeting, and I am tired of hearing about kids being shot at school.” All four cautiously abandoned their respective corners, leaned in to the table, and agreed.

Points of Agreement

I reached for a piece of paper and used all of its blank real estate to draw a circle. Inside the circle I wrote, I am tired of hearing about kids being shot at school. A basic shared statement by all. Then I said, “What else do we all agree can go inside this circle?” In a short amount of time we filled the circle with much more than platitudes and fluff.

The poet Edwin Markham, in his poem Outwitted, wrote:

He drew a circle that shut me out! 

Heretic, Rebel, a thing to flout.

But love and I had the wit to win

We drew a circle that took him in.

When we gathered, each one of us was so committed to the rightness of our reactions and reasons. We drew tighter and tighter circles around ourselves that disallowed any creative solutions or room for others’ ideas and perspectives.  Fear, anger, ego, pettiness, and distrust drew the circles that shut each of us out. 

Moving Outside Our Comfort Zones

After we filled the circle with ideas and feelings held in common, I said, “What is outside of the circle? Would we all be willing to name two things that we hold that we think others present might not?” To my surprise and relief, everyone named two things.

I continued to push my luck and asked everyone to name one question they had — this could have been anything about gun ownership, mass shootings, school safety, gun violence. And they did.

My questions were: What is a bump stock, and how does it work? Why would any civilian need such a thing, and how do you get one? My gun-owning colleague was ready to answer my questions and any others I had. By the end of the meeting, I agreed to go to a shooting range with him for the experience of holding and firing a gun, as well as to research some websites he recommended to balance my daily diet of more liberal media. He agreed to immerse himself in my media diet, imagining himself as a mother of school-aged children as he read, and have a few lunches with my children and me for frank, small forum discussions.

What Shifts Thought

What does it take to be as willing to change your own mind just as powerfully as you desire to change someone else’s mind? I think it requires a critical measure of humility, and probably love. A willingness to see the people around the table and remember that you really do belong to each other on the tempest-tossed, late-March ship of your school, out on the open waters of culture, exhaustion, uncertainty, and relentless demand. It is love that has the wit to win.

Do we have the patience and generosity to find what is held in common in the midst of conflict instead of staying in our corners and holding tight to our passions and opinions? A small circle of “one-right-way-only” was not going to move our collective concerns forward.

Instead of trying to be right, or trying to convince each other that we possess all the answers, I simply asked my group what matters the most to us all and remembered that we are all educators. We make up a circle that takes us all in.