Elementary School Teachers and the Apocalypse

My favorite scene in the Harry Potter series of films happens towards the end of the third film, Prisoner of Azkaban, when the very-unlikable Professor Snape finds the three protagonists at the base of the Whomping Willow tree. He is about to bust them for rule-breaking when Ron Weasley points out that another teacher (Lupin) has just turned into a werewolf and is about to attack them. Alan Rickman does a remarkable performance as Snape: in a heartbeat, he turns around to face the advancing horror and shield the children from harm. He even takes a full-on blow from the werewolf before Sirius Black draws off the werewolf.

Snape protects Hermione, Ron, and Harry from Lupin the werewolf

Snape faces imminent death…

The teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary School did not hesitate. They took action immediately, locking doors, sequestering the children, getting them quiet. Apparently the teachers died shielding the children, in the two classrooms where children were killed. Rickman’s portrayal (shown above) has a quality of truth that may be a useful way of explaining the Newtown massacre to children.

Once I could bring myself to read the descriptions of this incident, what surprised me was that Adam Lanza’s mother, Nancy, was a survivalist. The weapons were legally registered to her, including the Bushmaster rifle (a non-military precursor to the M-16) that Adam used in the massacre. Gender matters little here; what matters is that Nancy Lanza was a ‘Doomsday Prepper,’ fortifying her house against a coming Apocalypse.

However, Apocalypse does not mean ‘doomsday.’ A good translation from the original Greek is ‘revelation,’ or ‘the revealing.’ Since the mid-nineteenth century, many Americans have interpreted this to mean the coming of the end of the world. This sentiment is expressed in the extreme popularity of post-catastrophe films, from Omega Man through the Terminator and Road Warrior franchises to The Postman and I am Legend. Zombies are the most recent addition to this End Times genre. They might be campy, but they still show the prevalence of this American fascination with a sudden and violent collapse of civilization. Survivalists may extremists, but they are only the extreme extension of a very mainstream American sentiment.

This American fascination with the Apocalypse involves dread and anxiety, but also desire. There is almost a hope for a sudden ‘sweeping away’ of modern life’s distractions, complications, and irritations. There is an anticipation for a refreshing, violent renewal. This line of thinking today correlates with a deep suspicion of government, of ‘The State’ as the creeping threat against liberty. It fits with Nancy Lanza’s decision to home-school Adam. For some people, home-schooling is a sound choice. One of the finest students I ever taught had been home-schooled, but then she came to the very public UC Berkeley for her college education. In the case of the Lanzas, and many survivalists, home-schooling is part of a process of secession from society, and a withdrawal from public institutions.

And when Adam went on a rampage, a public institution was the target. What is ‘The Government’ that survivalists hate/fear? In actual practice, it is not a monolithic, conspiratorial syndicate. A very real expression of government is the public schoolteachers at Sandy Hook Elementary. Yes, public employees, paid with tax dollars, indoctrinating children with ideas like the 3 Bs: “Be Safe, Be Respectful, Be Responsible” (I just quoted my nine-year-old son). In reality, in daily practice, ‘The State’ turns out to be a mosaic of very human public servants. This is a very different Revelation. It is a Revelation of the everyday, the mundane, the human. And what do these everyday schoolteachers do in the face of lethal danger? They behave with supreme courage, without hesitation.

Adam was mentally ill; his actions were extreme. But his actions are an extreme expression of a popular American myth. Scepticism about government can be healthy; that is one of the core themes running through the Bill of Rights. However, a desire for the collapse of civilian order is not the same as scepticism about government power. It is a kind of romantic shadow-hope for liberation from the constraints of modern society. A person experiencing a psychotic break often expresses popular sentiment in a disturbing variant; maybe to push for that Apocalypse, try to get it to arrive a little sooner.

I don’t think this Apocalypse-myth is an inevitable psychological counterpoint to the prevailing reality of mundane, civilian order. The fascination with end-times prophecies surged in the first century AD, and before 1000 AD as well. This most recent surge, starting in the 19th century, seems to be unusually persistent and intense. What may be different now is that we can market this story to ourselves through books, film, video-games, and military-grade weapons. We literally sell this myth to ourselves.

In our daily storytelling we need to clarify the distinction between a hoped-for Apocalypse and a healthy scepticism about government power. The Bill of Rights constrains government, but it also is government. Under these guidelines, how do we govern ourselves? It involves the patient work of paying bills, educating children, enduring rush-hour traffic. Even disaster-preparation means building systems where cooperation persists when normal infrastructure suddenly fails. Governments do involve coercive power; but most of the work that modern governments do–meaning most of what we do–is care for each other. Elementary schoolteachers are a quintessential example of such mutual care. We need to recognize that mutual care as our Revelation.

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