Friday, August 28, 2015

This Should Not Be Who We Are in WV

West Virginia is a lovely state.  Everywhere you drive in this state, you can find some green fields and lush hillsides covered in trees.

We are so lucky to live here.

Not just for the scenery, but also because small town America still exists in a lot of places in our state.  Places where family still comes first, and you know the names of your neighbors and their kids play with yours on your street and on sports fields all over town.  Our communities feel more like family in a lot of ways -- still -- in most places across our lovely state.

But this week, a piece of that internal myth was shattered.  A student at Philip-Barbour High School held an entire classroom full of kids hostage at gunpoint for several hours (from People):

"She thought it was going to end right there; she already had accepted that fact," Principal Mark Lamb tells PEOPLE. At the same time, he says the teacher told herself, "I've just got to make sure that he doesn't hurt any of the kids." 
Teacher Twila Smith – a graduate of the school where her sister also teaches, and their father taught before them – eventually was freed, along with the 29 student hostages, after Philippi Police Chief Jeff Walters negotiated their release with the armed 14-year-old, who surrendered two hours later...
Philippi is a gorgeous town, known more for its old covered bridge than probably anything else, although it was also the place where the first land battle of the Civil War was fought.  (My students from 5th grade all proudly announced this to me last year when we went there for an away football game:  "Hey, Mrs. Smith, did you see the sign about Philippi being the first Civil War battle?  We already knew that from last year."  So proud of my kiddos!)  It is nestled among the high, rolling hills of the Appalachians, and is just a gorgeous place to visit.

Read that excerpt from People again.  The classroom teacher is a second-generation teacher at that school, having also graduated from there as well.  In WV, our roots run very deeply into the soil of our mountains, which is why everyone feels so much like family -- we've known each other in our little towns for so long.

So what went wrong with this particular boy?

We have always been a hunting and fishing state, but with an emphasis on safety and respect for the rules with firearms. I suspect that this is a 14 year old boy who is desperately trying to get some attention, probably from a very frightened girl, in a really misguided way.

I grew up hunting and fishing with my dad my whole life, but I would never -- and I mean NEVER on pain of serious punishment -- have ever touched a gun in his gun cabinet without permission, because he taught me gun safety and respect for other people's lives and safety above all else from the moment we first went to a shooting range.

No idea where things went wrong for this particular boy, why he thought that threatening the lives of his classmates and teacher in this callous way was acceptable behavior, but it makes me sad.

Around here, we tend to think of everyone in our town as a wider family, and this is so, so outside of that.

Apparently, the first thing this boy asked for from the police chief was to talk to the pastor of his church, so his parents were trying to instill some values in him on some level.  Somewhere things just got twisted and wrong for him, which happens.  But when it threatens the lives of so many other kids in a town, it really makes you stop and ask "why?"

Something tells me that folks in Philippi will be asking "why?" for quite a while.  Not certain what the answers may finally be, but I know this:  respect for other people, caring for them, nurturing our connections, reaching out to folks who feel disconnected (especially young people, given how unstable everyone feels during adolescence), all of that is incredibly important.  Reaching out to someone who needs a friend may be the most important thing you do today, because it is our connections that strengthen us as a community of human beings, all trying to work our way forward in the world together.

It is the Golden Rule, writ large.  Would that more of us tried to live by it each and every day: do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

Something made this young man think that it was okay to hold the lives of his fellow students and his teacher so cheaply, to be able to disregard his connections in his community and among his peers.  You don't just pick up a gun and wave it around at school in a vacuum.  My guess is there was a whole string of things that led up to this, opportunities that a whole host of people had that were missed to de-escalate whatever this situation was before that gun ever went into his backpack and went to school.

We like to think that we are insulated from big city woes and big city problems here in our little towns in West Virginia.

This recent incident in Philippi paints that thought as the myth that it is. We play these kids from this school in football and basketball, and run against them at track meets every year. My daughter may have shaken this kid's hand at an athletic event in the past year, that's how close we all are. We're all one degree of separation apart from each other in this state -- it's a small town, and a small state, and the myth that this is a big city problem has just been shattered here.

The whole thing just makes me very sad.

But the bright spot in all of this was the wonderful way that the classroom teacher and the local police chief reacted to the crisis:  with calm and compassion, reaching out to the boy even as he was threatening them, seeing his humanity and making him see it as well so that he could choose a better path.  It was excellent work on both of their parts, and they deserve some serious praise for keeping clear heads and open hearts in a crisis.  Their work saved a lot of lives, and for that we should all be grateful.

(Photo of the covered bridge in Philippi via OZinOH.)

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