I have few fond memories of Wightman School.
Most of my classmates were foul-mouthed bullies. Most of my teachers should have been doing something else.
The gym teacher threw tantrums. Some kid in the class would do or say something he didn't like, and he'd stamp across the room waving his arms and bellowing incoherently, like a giant 3-year-old. It happened often enough that I wonder, now, where he found the energy.
Kids intentionally provoked him sometimes. Watching a grown man stamp and yell was better than doing jumping jacks.
I thought about that gym teacher when the National Rifle Association brought out its list of recommendations for safer schools. First on the list was teachers with guns.
It was a good thing that gym teacher didn't feel the need to carry. It's easy to imagine him getting angry and shooting a couple of holes in the ceiling, just to get us to take him seriously.
I can't imagine the small, timid, woman who ran the school library having anything to do with a firearm, even a cap pistol. The math teacher had been in the service, I think. That would have explained the tattoo on his upper arm. He would have had some firearms training. He would have been wise enough to keep his gun in a locked drawer.
The art teacher maintained order in her class with a fraternity paddle. I can see her walking among the tables with a revolver in a shoulder holster where we could all see it, and be a little more afraid.
I can't imagine Mrs. Rosenbleet, the one good teacher I remember from my time there, facing down a gunman. I can see her leading her class to safety in a calm, orderly fashion. She never screamed or shouted. Which may be why we behaved in her class.
The Ellis School was a shock to my system after Wightman. It wasn't simply that all my classmates were girls, or that we were all dressed pretty much the same. The work was harder. There was more of it. The vocabulary tests were full of words I didn't know. But the library was full of books I hadn't read!
The teachers were a different breed, too. They behaved like adults. Which lead me to respect them. Many I also liked and even admired.
The tall, grim English woman, who taught biology, might have known how to shoot. She'd grown up in the countryside, where even the British have guns. I don't think she would have had many qualms about killing someone. I'm not sure if she would have seen carrying a gun as a necessary evil or an American weakness, like taking aspirin when you had a headache. She often scolded us for our American weaknesses.
Most of the others were urban ladies who had had no experience with firearms and no interest in them.
Miss Belknap, the well-loved head of the lower school, would have explained that she didn't want to carry a gun -- it would scare the smaller girls -- or leave it in her desk where it might be stolen. Like the principal at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, she would have faced down anyone who threatened us, but not with a gun.
Mrs. McVicker, who spent her life getting girls excited about math and science, would have said you were crazy if you told her she should carry a gun.
Mrs. Jones, who put together the wonderful school library almost on her own, would have responded with a "NO" that would have echoed through the bookshelves.
Miss Hickman, the English teacher who taught me most of what I know about writing, would have laughed and asked, "Why a gun? Why not a bazooka? Or some hand grenades?" Then she would have referred you to the poems of Thomas Hardy, "The Man He Killed" or "Channel Firing."
Mrs. Melvin, the gentlewoman from Lexington, Ky., would have explained that she didn't think it wise for teachers to have guns, and she would have waited until you left the room before she started laughing.
Mrs. Wennecker, the aristocratic Greek woman who taught drama, would have looked down her long nose and responded in tones worthy of Jocasta, or Medea, "You want me to do what!"
Mrs. Calloman, who had been one of the first Jewish girls to graduate from Ellis and came back to teach history and political science, would have dissected pro-gun arguments with the precision of a neurosurgeon and then thrown them open to her classes so they could do the same.
It all sounds facetious. But I grew up in turbulent times. I remember the riots that followed Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination, and the angry summer that followed. I remember the Weathermen's Days of Rage. The riots after Kent State. The Symbionese Liberation Army.
No one thought of teachers carrying guns, but I'm sure that more than one concerned parent suggested the school hire armed security guards. After all, they were right near East Liberty, center of much unrest in the African-American community. Mrs. Moore, who was headmistress during most of my time at Ellis, almost certainly responded with a polite but firm "no."
Having armed guards at the school would be admitting to the world that it wasn't a safe place. It would be telling the girls, and their parents, that going to school was dangerous. So we had a crossing guard and safety-patrol girls who opened car doors for people.
The only real threat to our well-being when I was at Ellis was the horde of rats that invaded the parking lot one year. It was bad enough that for a while you didn't go to the parking lot by yourself.
I suppose the school might have saved money if they'd told the maintenance man to shoot them instead of hiring an exterminator. But nobody thought of that.
I have seen teachers on television who announce that they're going to bring guns with them to school. I always wonder what kind of teachers they are. Are they patient or quick to anger? Do they consider their actions or follow their impulses? Do they really see their schools as so dangerous that they have to be armed?
What kind of people are we that our children aren't safe at school ?
How lucky I was to grow up feeling safe in a dangerous age.
Jean Martin is a writer living in Swissvale (LadyJeandeBurg@aol.com). First Published April 13, 2013 12:00 AM