Our kids need leaders to take action against guns, not books
I’ve had personal experience, as a teacher, with both censorship and gun violence, suburban school librarian Gina Caneva writes. My message is simple: Books don’t kill kids — guns do.
It’s that time of year when teachers teach their final lessons, host end-of-year parties and reminisce about the school year’s successes. Soon, school leaders and teachers will begin their summer planning for next school year.
On the agenda for many of them: safety, since school shootings in our country show no sign of letting up. Since the mass shooting at Columbine High School in 1999, over 350,000 students have experienced gun violence at school. And 2022 was the worst year yet, with over 40 school shootings affecting children and families.
Many teachers, including myself, will also think about how to potentially deal with an audience of parents who may want to question, challenge or ban the curriculum we develop and the books we decide to teach.
As a Chicago-area high school librarian and 19-year veteran educator, I have had personal experience with both school safety and censorship, just as many of my colleagues have across the country. I’ve taught in three different areas — on Chicago’s South Side in Roseland and Englewood, and currently in the suburb of Franklin Park.
My message is simple: Books don’t kill kids — guns do.
In 2013, under the direction of former Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett, CPS directed all librarians and schools to pull Persepolis, an acclaimed graphic novel about growing up in Iran during the Islamic Revolution, from school libraries and from the curriculum due to violence.
I was then an English teacher at Lindblom Math and Science Academy in Englewood, but our librarian did not pull the book. Teachers and students around the city protested and used social media to show everyone reading the book en masse. The district eventually backtracked.
Now I’m a school librarian at suburban East Leyden High School, where we’ve faced one book challenge that quickly dissipated with support from our administration. But other nearby suburban districts, such as Downers Grove and Barrington, have faced book challenges that made it all the way to divisive school board meetings and votes. Eventually the challenges failed as well, but the process took time and money and focused media attention on book banning.
My experience with gun violence is far more heart-wrenching and consequential, more than I ever imagined it would be.
At Corliss High School in Roseland, the first school where I taught, one of my volleyball players came to practice one day but sat out. When my assistant coach asked him why, he showed her the gauze on his shoulder, covering up a graze wound from being shot at over the weekend.
At TEAM Englewood High School, my second school, I lost a stellar student whom I had taught for 3-1/2 years to gun violence; he was killed in the middle of a street. I taught another amazing student who survived a shooting, but I had to teach her at home. Bullets left her a quadriplegic.
As a parent of two elementary school-aged children, I think often about how easily my children’s lives could be taken away with the firing of a gun.
Shaping minds for the better
But I don’t worry about books. I can see how books shape children’s minds for the better. I heard it in one student’s voice when she called me, sobbing at the ending in Of Mice and Men, the John Steinbeck classic that is frequently challenged. I saw it when a student told me he couldn’t put down The Kite Runner, a widely-read best-seller by Khaled Hosseini about a young boy from Kabul — it’s also frequently banned — because he was devastated at what happened to the main character’s childhood friend.
I felt it personally when I read Speak, yet another title on the American Library Association’s Banned Books List, as I wanted to befriend the protagonist and help her recover from her trauma. My students and I were all experiencing empathy through reading, just one of the myriad ways that reading books can impact our lives.
Empathy, after all, is a key characteristic that mass shooters lack.
The impact that reading books has on children’s brains is substantial, and it’s essential to their intellectual growth, level of literacy, communication skills, ability to learn new information, and even the ability to empathize with other people.
But the impact of a bullet to a child’s brain is an ending, period.
We are wasting time being distracted by book banners and allowing them to take center stage. Lawmakers and leaders, stop worrying about books. We librarians and educators have the expertise to handle literature appropriately.
Instead, make the tough decisions and take action against gun violence. America’s children are counting on you to save their lives.
Gina Caneva is the library media specialist for East Leyden High School in Franklin Park. She taught in CPS for 15 years and is National Board Certified. Follow her on Twitter @GinaCaneva
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