When the “Unimaginable” Becomes Imaginable Again and Again
Updated: Apr 6
By Allan Shedlin
DADvocacy Consulting Group Founder and Director, Daddying Film Festival & Forum (D3F)
During my years as an elementary school principal, I once asked a 4-year-old pre-kindergarten student what he thought the principal did. His answer provided the best definition of how I saw my job. It was better than any I had learned in graduate school:
“The principal is like the daddy of the school,” he responded.
As a dad and granddad, and after almost 30 years of qualitative research with dads, granddads, and great granddads, as well as with children and youth from 20 countries; and after providing daddying programs for a wide variety of groups and organizations, it’s not surprising I learned that one of the most widely accepted and desired qualities of a father is “protector.”
After more than a half-century as an educator, from graduate school up to nursery school, as well as a school consultant at the local, state, and national levels, there are several moments that stand out in light of the current lunacy. And with the recent shooting by a six-year-old of his teacher at Richneck Elementary School in Newport News, Virginia, those memories have come rushing back to me.
The first is from my second year as a classroom teacher. It was fall 1966. My school year began about a month after one of the first publicized school mass-shooting massacres known as the “University of Texas tower shooting.” At the time, it was the deadliest mass shooting by a lone gunman in U.S. history.
As we hear about one mass school-shooting after another and as we record “anniversaries” of the most widely known school massacres, school as a “safe haven” feels like an oxymoron.
I was employed by the New York City Board of Education at a “600 school” for “seriously emotionally disturbed” children in Brooklyn. All of the 10-year-old boys in my class – there were seven of them – had been expelled from “regular” schools because of various behavioral issues. Needless to say, they were a rambunctious handful. Just a few weeks into that school year, Billy, one of my students, spontaneously popped out of his seat, jumped onto his desk, pounded his chest, aimed an imaginary rifle, and bellowed, “I will destroy!” I promptly lifted him off the desk and plopped him back in his chair and said, “Not in our classroom.”
I still wonder what became of Billy.
The second moment that's come to mind after reading about the shooting by the six-year-old Richneck student is my recent observation of first-grade students reciting the pledge of allegiance in a Title I elementary school in Albuquerque, NM. As I listened to them, I felt aggrieved that our country (and its lawmakers) was not pledging its allegiance back to this group of chronically-underserved six- and seven-year-olds.
A third memory is the unthinkable massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, a town located only a few miles from where my own three daughters had attended elementary school.
And the fourth thought that hit me was for the safety of my middle granddaughter who recently began her career as a teacher of disabled elementary students in Los Angeles. As educators, most of us refer to our students as “our kids.” I think often of the many dedicated teachers and their heroic acts – big and small – I’ve witnessed as they’ve acted in loco parentis.
To those of us who pay attention to current events, there seems insufficient time between catastrophes to really process any one of them before the next one demands our attention. Our human capacities for empathy are being pushed to the limits with insufficient time to regain our emotional footing and equilibrium before the next stream of our traumatized and desperate brethren are seen escaping the suddenly imaginable “unimaginable” catastrophe.
“It just doesn’t happen here,” is happening here. And it seems to be happening everywhere: neighborhood to neighborhood, country to country, continent to continent. I’m not sure whether there is a limit to our capacity for empathy, but mine feels like it’s approaching.
Now even when my eyes are closed, I can picture the heartbreaking parade of dazed humanity escaping their catastrophe dragging their meager belongings in tattered suitcases or whatever containers they can find, heading to they know not where – to anywhere but here.
The manmade and natural structures that are meant to shelter and protect us are crumbling. It feels more and more like we are living during a time, as Ralph Waldo Emerson described, when “events are in the saddle riding mankind.”
In December 1776, Thomas Paine began his treatise The American Crisis, with the words “These are the times that try men’s souls.” Two hundred forty-six years later, the multiplier effect seems all too real. Since the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High five years ago – and despite school closures due to the pandemic – more than 338,000 K-12 children have endured a school shooting (source: Washington Post, 2/14/23)! That staggering statistic doesn't even take into account the devastating impact such trauma has had on all the educators, parents, and other loved ones.
I wish I had an answer to soften the impact. Perhaps acknowledging the craziness is step one and dedicating ourselves to what each of us can individually do is step two. The path we are currently on is simply not OK. It hasn't been for some time.
We must each step up. We must all act in loco parentis. We must act today.
On May 24, 2022, Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy asks colleagues an important question immediately following the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas. One for which many lawmakers still fail to provide an adequate answer.
If you too are ready to act today to do something in support of safer schools and public places for our children and families, please consider donating to one or more of the following organizations that have been fighting our country's unique gun addiction and gun-violence epidemic for decades:
Guns to Gardens, a nonprofit organization that has adapted the gun buyback model to use disabled gun parts for community healing and further engagement through the making of garden tools, art, jewelry, and other items that help us imagine. In addition to helping remove unwanted firearms, the Guns to Gardens Network connects to local artists and organizations that turn the disabled gun parts into items used to promote safe neighborhoods and nonviolent options for conflict resolution.
Allan Shedlin has devoted his life’s work to improving the odds for children and families. He has three daughters, and five grandchildren, as well as numerous "bonus" sons/daughters and grandchildren. Trained as an educator, Allan has alternated between classroom service, school leadership, parenting coaching, policy development, and advising at the local, state, and national levels. After eight years as an elementary school principal, Allan founded and headed the National Elementary School Center for 10 years. In the 1980s, he began writing about education and parenting for major news outlets and education trade publications, as well as appearing on radio and TV. In 2008, he was honored as a "Living Treasure" by Mothering Magazine and founded REEL Fathers in Santa Fe, NM, where he now serves as president emeritus. In 2017, he founded the DADvocacy Consulting Group. In 2018, he launched the DADDY Wishes Fund and Daddy Appleseed Fund. In 2019, he co-created and began co-facilitating the Armor Down/Daddy Up! and Mommy Up! programs. He has conducted daddying workshops in such diverse settings as Native American pueblos, veterans groups, nursery schools, penitentiaries, Head Start centers, corporate boardrooms, and various elementary schools, signifying the widespread interest in men in becoming the best possible dad. In 2022, Allan founded and co-directed the Daddying Film Festival & Forum to enable students, dads, and other indie filmmakers to use film as a vehicle to communicate the importance of fathers or father figures in each others' lives. Allan earned his elementary and high school diplomas from NYC’s Ethical Culture Schools, BA at Colgate University, MA at Columbia University’s Teachers College, and an ABD at Fordham University. But he considers his D-A-D and GRAND D-A-D the most important “degrees” of all.