As a parent, teacher and columnist, I was tempted this week to share my views on the horror that struck Newtown, Conn., but I decided I’d simply be restating the obvious.
Then I came to Hampstead Middle School the following Monday morning, expecting my students to be visibly shaken. They weren’t. I expected at least some of them to want to talk to me about what they’d seen or heard on the news, or what a parent had told them. No one said a word.
I’m not a psychologist, but I kept thinking as the day went on, what would a human behaviorist say about my students’ reaction to the events the previous Friday?
I was a sixth-grader in the spring of 1968, and I remember exactly where I was and what I was doing when Martin Luther King Jr. was felled by an assassin’s bullet — watching the event unfold in the television department at Penney’s while my mother shopped elsewhere in the store.
I was terrified. And that same feeling washed over me again only two months later when Bobby Kennedy was gunned down in Los Angeles after winning the California presidential primary.
Like many of my students, I was raised on television. But when I channel-surf today and find an old favorite show of mine, I realize how drastically times have changed.
Sheriff Andy Taylor kept the good citizens of Mayberry safe without even carrying a gun. His bumbling deputy, Barney Fife, did, but he kept his only bullet buttoned up in his front shirt pocket, just in case. Gunfire was never necessary to rein in the antics of Ernest T. Bass.
The Cartwrights rarely shot the bad guys on “Bonanza,” and when they did, blood never flowed. Marshal Dillon always seemed conflicted. He’d much rather counsel horse thieves than fill them full of lead. There were never many smoking guns on “Gunsmoke.”
I introduce my students to 1960s television with classic episodes of “The Twilight Zone.” I mostly use this program to teach irony and symbolism, and the basic structure of a fictional story. At first, the kids complain that the episodes are in black and white, but before long, most of them are entranced as they watch these literate little morality plays.
There’s no sex. Adult bedrooms, when shown at all, always had two single beds. There’s no swearing, but I always have to translate dated euphemisms like “Jiminy Christmas!” and one of my mother’s favorites, “What in the Sam Hill is going on here?”
And there’s no violence. At least not the realistic kind. Telly Savalas does take a talking doll down to his workshop, where he attempts to torture it with a vise, a blowtorch and a bandsaw. And, of course, he fails, because he’s the antagonist, not the doll who’s protecting its owner, a frightened little girl.
My students get it as they watch Ed Wynn, circa 1959, outsmart Mr. Death to save the life of a young girl. They understand the dangers of scapegoating as they watch Claude Akins and his suburban neighbors turn against each other.
But life in the 21st century is no ’60s era television show. Maybe it’s no wonder my students had a muted response to the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
John Edmondson is a teacher in Hampstead.