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.
Who here lives in a house where there are guns? Tell me about the process you have to go through to get a gun in Norway.
“We own four guns total. I’ve got two and my father’s got two. We both have shotguns and rifles for hunting; nothing else. It’s harder to get guns in Norway. You need a license from the police. It has to be registered. You need to be 16 years old to use a gun. And you need approval from your parents. You need to be 18 to own it yourself. You also must have hunting training and pass a test in order to be able to go hunt. It’s sort of like a written exam…I think it’s good. People who should not have the guns don’t get the chance to have a gun. People who shouldn’t have them can’t have the opportunity to shoot people down.”
What have you heard on the news about guns and gun violence in the U.S. recently?
“I saw a tweet where the daughter had blinking shoes…and she came home crying because she realized if there was a shooter she could be seen. I think it’s awful that a seven or eight-years-old girl would be afraid like that. That’s terrible.”
“I think that it’s good we have such strict gun laws. It keeps the wrong people from getting guns. When I see how easy it is in the U.S. I am shocked. It is so easy for the wrong people to get them. I like the strict rules we have with all the things you have to go through to get a gun here.”
“One day I was sitting on the sofa. I watched a video about USA and someone shooting there. I remember people screaming and in shock and gunfire and it shocked me and scared me. I was glad I lived here. I really hoped everyone was OK. I was thinking about it all night long.”
How did it make you feel to read that some people in the U.S. have 10, 20, 40 or even more guns?
“Scary, but also a little bit jealous because I like shooting. I’ve been in Sweden and shot military weapons, and it’s of course really fun to go out and shoot. It would be fun, but I still advocate for the laws we have here, because I don’t want them to get into the wrong hands. Cause that could really quickly happen.”
“We do have lots of guns in Norway, but we’re taught from a young age that we are not to talk about them in that way. In Norway we have a small country, so I would say our laws work for us. But I have heard you have lots of gangs in the USA, so I think it’s good that you have the opportunity to have a gun if you want to feel safer, like for protection. You should be able to own one, but not more than one. There is only one gun that is suitable, and that’s a Glok 19. I’d have that one, and only that one. If I ever moved to the US I would want to get a license and registration but I wouldn’t be someone to have extended magazines, nothing like a 44 mag, full metal jacket bullets, no, no, nothing like that.”
What would you say to American high school students who want to see change?
“Definitely keep protesting and try to influence others that gun laws can be more strict. As it is here in Norway you can only have pistols if you’re in a pistol clubs and rifles if you’re hunting. It’s completely illegal to have semi-automatic and fully automatic. It’s not allowed.”
But wouldn’t some people here in Norway like to have them (semi automatic and fully automatic weapons)?
“Yes, probably. In 2011 there was a mass shooting. After that, semi-auto and fully basically are not allowed. Some of the gun owners that had the automatic weapons before that have gotten permission before to keep them, but they had to go through a process to be allowed to keep the guns.”
“In Norway shotguns are only able to hold two shells at a time. In bolt actions you can have maximum five bullets at a time.”
As a gun owner/user, do you think that is a fair regulation?
“Oh yeah, that’s enough. In order to kill a moose you only need one bullet. In competition shooting those rules are a little looser because it’s in a controlled environment. But you cannot take those guns out to go hunting. They are only for training and competitions.”
“The most number of guns you have is six. So we have nine guns in our house between all of us.”
What would you say about the argument that kids don’t know very much about this issue, so they shouldn’t be protesting?
“I think there are a lot of kids that actually have more information about these things. Let’s say the kid has been around guns for a long time. It’s part of their culture. We can understand what needs to happen. The adults think they know more. It’s important that parents and adults listen to their children and not shut them down.”
Does anyone have a message for U.S. politicians?
“Change the laws. More regulations so people can’t have them [guns] who shouldn’t.”