Meghan Perez is a University of Oregon alumna and a Bay Area native who currently lives in Chicago. There she is a part of the 2011 corps and teaches preschool in the south side neighborhood of Englewood.
As my students packed up their belongings to go home on Friday, one of my three-year-olds excitedly pulled out a bright green squirt gun from his book bag. With a huge grin on his face, he exclaimed, “Look, Ms. Perez! This is my gun!” A wave of anxiety rushed over me as I quickly took the toy and returned it to his backpack, the heartbreaking images and horrific details from the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting running through my mind. He furrowed his brow and looked up in confusion, his innocent eyes awaiting a reason for my reaction. “That is not a school toy, Christopher. We don’t play with guns at school.”
On some level, I was relieved that Christopher was unable to make a connection between the plastic toy and a real gun. It was nice, for a minute, to think of my students living happily as three and four-year-olds, unaware of the dangers of the world. Just then, Samiyah, another student of mine, brought me back to reality.
“Yeah ‘cause guns hurt people. They always shooting here. They shoot on my street. They shoot on Jania’s street. Like, ‘bang! bang! bang!’ — shooting every day.” Her words hit me straight in my gut, knocking the composure right out of me. How could I respond knowing so many children today learn about violence, poverty, and injustice even before they learn their ABCs? Too often, this is the case in the Englewood neighborhood of Chicago where my students live, go to school, and develop their young understandings of the world.
That evening, I drove home listening to accounts on the radio from children and parents who had witnessed the tragic shooting in Connecticut. Samiyah’s words echoed in my head and tears streamed down my cheeks. How can teachers expect their students to excel in school when such evil abounds? How can parents take comfort in knowing that their kids are safe at school in the face of a tragedy like Sandy Hook? Days later, I grapple with these questions still.
Yet the more I reflect on my own experience teaching preschool, the more empowered I feel. I cannot shield my kids from all the dangers they face. But I, like all educators, can teach my students to overcome adversity and rise to meet their challenges no matter how monumental or miniscule they may be.
I am grateful that early childhood education emphasizes social-emotional development, as it helps ensure that students will mature into self-regulating and independent individuals. And I strongly believe that teaching preschool students (and all students, for that matter) to connect meaningfully with each other is vital. Only when students learn the power of empathy can they develop genuine relationships.
More than anything, I am thankful to work in a field built on the ideals of joy and love. I am proud that my kids feel safe in my classroom and that they know that they are loved by me. And while I understand that they may sometimes face things no child should, I take solace in knowing that, aside from the occasional tantrum, my kids have had positive experiences in our school thus far. This reaffirmed my response to Samiyah on Friday.“Yes, guns hurt people, and we don’t hurt each other in school. Instead… we… tickle each other!” Their innocent laughter filled my heart as we played on the carpet, a sound that serves as a hopeful reminder of the joy of this work.
Meghan Perez is a University of Oregon alumna and a Bay Area native who currently lives in Chicago. There she is a part of the 2011 corps and teaches preschool in the south side neighborhood of Englewood. When she’s not teaching her adorable kiddos, she loves discovering new red wines and cheering on her Oregon Ducks!