The room closed in around me and my throat tightened. I was stunned. Shaken. I couldn’t speak. I suddenly felt entirely unprepared, unworthy of this cultural ambassadorship and put completely on the spot. Everyone is staring at me. I’m the only American here. I have to answer but I can’t speak. They are laughing at me. They are laughing at us.
It’s been a while since I’ve cried in front of students. I can remember it happening only twice in my eight-year teaching career—once when I said goodbye to a beloved class of Advanced Placement history students and another time when I learned about a horrendous community tragedy through a news alert, while taking attendance online. In both situations I was surrounded by students I knew and who knew me. We comforted each other, and I felt safe revealing my vulnerabilities.
But the security that comes with my school community in Vermont doesn't exist this year, and I surprised myself back in February when I broke down crying in front of students, to whom I'd introduced myself only five minutes earlier.
It was just two days after the tragedy at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida when the student asked me, “Have you ever been in a school shooting?”
I encourage my Norwegian students-for-a-day to not hold back and ask me what they really want to know. “Nothing is off limits, and if I really don’t want to answer, I’ll just say so,” I tell them. Now that it’s April, I can anticipate most of their curiosities and I have canned responses for what I know will undoubtedly come up: “What do you think about capital punishment?” “Why is there so much obesity in America?” “Is there racism in your school?”
So I tried registering the student’s question with an issue. Ok, gun control—go, and was about to launch into my response, the same one I’ve given countless times this year, when I realized what was happening in the auditorium: everyone was laughing.
Finally I uttered the most human response I could muster: “Umm, why is everyone laughing?” And, just like that, the room of 60 fifteen-year-olds became impossibly quiet.
“No, no I have not,” I said. “Uh, I have thankfully never been in a school shooting.” My throat was clenching.
“I’m sorry everyone,” I continued. “This is really hard for me to talk about right now. As you know, it has been a really difficult week in my country. It just makes me incredibly sad and terrified to think about someone coming into my school to be violent. And it just keeps happening. It’s so, so scary. I’m sorry. I need a minute, please.”
The student’s question, the causality with which he asked it, as though he were “checking just to be sure” made even more real for me the frequency with which our nation experiences these traumas—and the image this creates for the rest of the world. He wasn’t trying to be rude or funny, he was just curious, but his curiosity made others uncomfortabe. As far as he was concerned, a school shooting could have very well happened at my school.
Standing in front of those students, grasping for words and answers, I felt a lot of things all at once. I was angry and sad and scared, and I still am. I was frustrated at the recurring nature of these events, and I still am. But, most of all, I felt embarrassed that my country hasn’t done more to end this—and I still am.
Since the Parkland shooting, and following the widespread student activism calling for gun reform throughout the U.S. the topics of gun culture and violence are part of my daily Q&A with teachers and students here. I aim to provide honest yet balanced responses to their questions—all of them complex and many quite personal. Here are just a few of the questions I’ve been asked about guns and schools.
Do you feel safe at your school?
Do your students have clear backpacks?
What would you do if a person with a gun came into your school?
Isn’t practicing for this really scary?
Do you have an armed guard outside your school?
Do you feel safer knowing there is a police officer with a gun at your school?
Why would someone joke about killing kids at school?
What would you do, as a teacher, if your school told you that you had to be armed?
To help me make sense of this country’s culture surrounding gun ownership, I've been asking the students a lot of questions, too. Norway, after all, is a country with a strong hunting and sport-shooting culture, and nearly one tenth of the population are registered gun owners. But this country has taken a strict approach to regulating gun ownership while still maintaining a citizen's right to own a weapon. For example, civilian gun ownerships is restricted to holders of a firearm permit, issued for the purpose of hunting or sports shooting. You must be 18 to own a rifle in Norway, and 21 to own a handgun. Firearms permits are only issued when a citizen has a valid hunting license or sports shooting license, both of which require extensive firearms safety instruction. Further, in order to qualify to keep a gun at home, an individual must keep the weapon, or parts of the weapon, in a locked and certified gun safe.
More importantly, I wanted to know students' perspectives, so I recently gathered a group of willing students, posed some questions, and then sat back to listen and take notes.
The remainder of this post features quotes from an after-class discussion I had with a group of tenth graders in a rural community in Nord Trøndelag. Three of them are older than 16, the minimum age to shoot guns for sport. When I asked the group who had at least one gun in their home, more than half of the group raised their hand.