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Amanda Gorman's school shooting poem is a light in this dark time

A world without school shootings requires our imagination.
Image: Amanda Gorman
Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman speaks during the inauguration of U.S. President Joe Biden on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol on Jan.20, 2021 in Washington.Alex Wong / Getty Images file

Amanda Gorman, America’s inaugural National Youth Poet Laureate, has lived through an endless onslaught of mass shootings. At this point — days after 19 children were killed at an elementary school and nearly two weeks after 10 Black shoppers were gunned down at a grocery store — we all have. At times the grief is so thick that it’s palpable, hopelessness reigns and it’s difficult to make sense of another tragedy as predictable and preventable as the one we’re facing. Yet, as Toni Morrison wrote in a canonical piece for “The Nation,” moments such as these are “precisely the time when artists go to work—not when everything is fine, but in times of dread.”

Amanda Gorman, America’s inaugural National Youth Poet Laureate, has lived through an endless onslaught of mass shootings. We all have.

Gorman knows full well what her art summons her to do: to use words as a salve, as a rallying cry, to pull us out of a grief-induced slumber and paint for us a picture of a future without gun violence. On Wednesday, she tweeted a poem she’d written in response to our latest national shame:

“Schools scared to death

The truth is, one education under desks,

Stooped low from bullets;

That plunge when we ask

Where our children

Shall live

& how

& if”

In a subsequent tweet, she asked a question that should shake our collective conscience, if we have one in this country teetering on authoritarianism and minority rule: “What might we be if only we tried? What might we become if only we’d listen?”

In her simple, graceful way, Gorman — alongside others who are ringing the alarm about our national gun violence crisis — is calling us to action at a time when inaction seems likely. There aren’t words for the carnage and trauma facing Uvalde, Texas, a small town of about 16,000 people near the U.S.-Mexico border. Today, there are 21 fewer people among them — 19 of them children, two of them educators — after a mass shooter, whom I will not name, opened fire at Robb Elementary School. While the shooter’s motivations remain unclear — and will likely remain so given that he was fatally shot on the scene — Uvalde joins a long, tragic sequence of mass killings that have a single feature in common: guns.

Listing those mass tragedies threatens to desensitize us: Buffalo, 10 dead; Pulse Nightclub, 49 dead; Las Vegas, 58 dead; Stoneman Douglas High School, 17 dead; Columbine High School, 13 dead; Aurora, 12 dead; and, of course, Sandy Hook , 27 dead — 20 of them first graders. It should always shock us that a gunman opened fire on first graders, their mouths still full of baby teeth, their fingers still being held up to assist their counting, their little bodies still desperate for naps after school. But Sandy Hook didn’t shock us enough, and now, we have Uvalde, where 19 children didn’t return home.

Mass shooters have different motivations, different backgrounds and different traumas, but they’re connected through a shared, uniquely American, ability to acquire enough firepower to achieve their murderous aim. And once again, as Gorman highlights in her powerful poem, we’re watching children — the most vulnerable among us — being treated as collateral damage in a death cult that prioritizes unchecked power above our collective safety. It’s bad enough that adults aren’t safe in movie theaters, grocery stores, concerts and nightclubs, but children being targeted in schools, the very place where they’re supposed to be the safest, should rattle us all to our cores. They’ve been taught to huddle under desks, but so have the shooters targeting them, so what shall we do? Accept this as an unmovable reality? Gorman would argue otherwise. Morrison would, too.

A different world requires imagination. It requires treating hope as a discipline, a phrase that prison abolitionist Mariame Kaba has brought into our consciousness. It requires faith. It requires community investment. It requires much more than voting, though, of course, casting a ballot can be a tool in the arsenal of community engagement. It requires bravery in the face of rampant cowardice. We know instinctively that we don’t have to live in a world where mass shootings are as routine as parents packing lunches every morning, but we also know the roadblock that prevents action proven to curtail most mass shootings: conservative politicians, most of whom don’t act as if democracy is a viable form of government.

Conservatives are unwilling to name as the culprit our nearly unfettered access to firearms without universal background checks.

Because conservatives are unwilling to name as the culprit our nearly unfettered access to firearms without universal background checks, we’re doomed to repeat this nightmare until there’s enough political momentum to change the reality. In the few days since the shooter killed 21 people, we’ve heard calls for better mental health services coming from the same Texas officials who nixed $211 million from the Texas agency overseeing mental health programs. Then they say, “Let’s arm teachers!” The same teachers who aren’t even given the authority to dictate their own curriculum. “Let’s put armed guards in schools!” doesn’t hold up to scrutiny, as we’ve seen in the wake of Uvalde. Neither of those proposals would be effective. And speaking of ineffective, on the other side of the aisle, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has signaled that there isn’t much to be done except hope that Democrats turn out big in the midterm elections in November.

Politicians will not save us, not when they’re more committed to holding onto power than telling the truth, but that doesn’t mean we can’t continue to organize, to hold those politicians accountable and to believe that a different future is possible. Our children aren’t expendable. They should get the opportunity to reach adulthood, whatever it takes to get them there. Amid this endless sea of grief, we should step away to care for ourselves and then return to continue the fight, lest we, our grandparents or our children face a similar fate. We must keep putting one foot in front of the other until we see the scales tip in the direction of justice — not just enacting gun-control measures, but decriminalizing abortion, forgiving student loans and creating a more humane immigration process, all policies that most Americans support.

That same hope fueled abolitionists when ending slavery seemed impossible. That same hope fueled suffragists, civil rights movement activists, labor organizers, members of the Black Freedom Movement — and it will carry us through now. It’s not an individual effort; it’s a collective one, and artists like Gorman are essential to capturing that vision and spreading it to the masses. Or, as Morrison said so poignantly, so beautifully, “I know the world is bruised and bleeding, and though it is important not to ignore its pain, it is also critical to refuse to succumb to its malevolence. Like failure, chaos contains information that can lead to knowledge—even wisdom. Like art.”