Frankenstein, Schools, and Guns: A Modern Moral Quandry




Mary Shelley, portrait by Richard Rothwell
photo from wikipedia:

This morning I settled in at my home work station, looking out at a grey landscape, mug of cooling cafe au lait at my side. After I graded a student blog on Frankenstein, I clicked over to facebook to see how Monday morning was treating my friends. 

I already knew what I would find: the sadness and fear of parents of school-age children dreading the daily ritual of school bus pick-up or parent drop-off at local schools. I felt the company of fellow college profs who, like me, have spent the weekend pondering what we would do in our classrooms, on our college campuses, in active shooter situations. 

I didn’t want to go to campus at 11:00 to meet my students and pick up finals. It’s no exaggeration to say that finals week is the heaviest stress point of the semester for students and faculty alike. I’ve worried in the past about students, their fragile self-worth, their newly developed responsibility, and some, their unstable mental health, in the face of looming grades and often, missing assignments. 

I think back through my 15 years of teaching and can name specific students who concerned me, who I watched for any signs of something I couldn’t put my finger on, but suspected might lurk beneath the surface. I know I’m not alone. 

All weekend, I’ve read facebook posts where well-intentioned folks seek solace in platitudes and/or simple solutions to complex problems. My heart has broken, and seethed as predictable fault lines gaped. 

Is it really that difficult to reason this issue out? To not separate the threads but to look at how they intertwine? 

For every person advocating a ban on guns I saw someone else argue for arming folks in the schools. Both propositions miss the mark. 

I grew up in the country, in a family of hunters. We had guns in the house, and I remember watching my Dad clean his gun (don’t ask me what kind: simple hunting rifle or shotgun). I liked observing his attention to detail, and the process of oiling the cloth and slipping it up and down the inside of the barrel on a thin rod. Now, I appreciate his focus on safety and care. He and my uncles and brother hunt deer and rabbit, eating what they shoot. 

People I know and love have a concealed weapons permit. I don’t understand the allure, the need, but I know that I respect these men and trust them. I would like to talk to them and learn their rationale…can we discuss without retreating to our ideological home bases? I would like to think so. 

With that said, I am happy to live in a gun free home. I am comforted by the signs on the doors at my workplace, at my gym, that declare the buildings weapons-free zones. Yes, I know such signs are futile in the face of those bent on destruction. But it’s a modicum of comfort, and on days like today, I’ll take it. 

This post is as rambly and mixed up as my thoughts, but what I most want to say, to beg, to plead, is to find a way to recognize the contributing factors, the blind spots, the places where freedom and safety collide, and create a better way. 

Let’s begin by acknowledging that we live in a pluralistic society with competing, conflicting values and beliefs. Let’s further chip away at the stigma of mental illness, providing equal coverage for mental health preventative care and treatment. Let’s close loopholes on background checks on gun purchases. Let’s restrict access to military-style weapons and large capacity clips and magazines. Let’s revisit school security procedures and protocol. Let’s discuss the link between patriarchy and violence. 

As I read through my students’ blog projects on Frankenstein, I thought about Shelley’s warning in the text–that we create, out of good intentions, technological advancement, and human curiosity, something capable of unspeakable destruction. When you read Shelley’s compelling and prescient novel, you sense her sympathies extend to both the misguided creator, Victor Frankenstein, and his creation. Victor wanted power and renown, and desired to usurp female creative power. The creature wanted love, companionship, community; abandoned by his creator, he turned murderous, causing pain to match his own pain. At the end of the novel, Shelley suggests we abandon our obsession with progress, and take care of each other. 

We can start now, moving beyond memorials and facebook memes and into real action. But we must tackle the problem as the complex creation (of our own making) that it is. If an 18 year old novelist, pregnant, and still heartsick over the loss of her own child, can write such a complex moral novel as Frankenstein, surely we all can come together and talk. Really talk. And then act to create a better, safer community for all of us.