Rebecca Gamboa is a veteran fifth-grade teacher at Madison Elementary in west suburban Lombard. Reporter Susie An asked her to recount her reaction to Tuesday’s school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, and how she navigated the aftermath with her 11-year-old students on Wednesday. Gamboa’s recounting has been edited for brevity and clarity.
I got the CNN notification about five minutes before students were dismissed [on Tuesday] … so, in that crazy time when everyone’s packing up, I saw “Elementary school shooting.” And immediately I was like, “Again?”
Then I got in the car to drive home and turned on CNN to listen. They announced the first update, which was 14 students, and I was sitting at a red light and I just started sobbing. As an elementary teacher, you can picture it in your mind. I have 19 kids in my class.
A gray, heavy feeling
Today, as I walked into school, I was just like “Man, I should be thinking about ‘How are we going to get everything packed up and cleaned and like get all the fun stuff in [before the year ends]?” One of my students actually said the gray, the grayness of today outside kind of matches the mood. It’s that gray, heavy feeling.
I am incredibly lucky to teach where I do for many reasons. Today just spotlighted it because we have really put a focus this year on social emotional learning. We always start [our mornings] with, “How are you feeling?” Today, I had a student who was like, “Well, I’m feeling really sad for Texas.” I had one student who I think was up a lot of the night, looking online and researching because he made the comment, “Don’t research about school shooters.” My heart broke because at 11 years old, you should be up at night playing Among Us, or Roblox or Minecraft.
And then one student asked, “Would that happen here? And so we talked … [I told them] we have locked doors. We all carry walkie talkies. We do drills. We practice. [I told them] “You are in a building full of adults who will do whatever it takes to keep you safe.” They were like, “How do you know what to do? And I said, “We actually practice. And they were like “It is scary? And I was like, “Yeah, it’s scary. That’s a lot of responsibility.”
We talked about just being kind of gentle, more gentle with each other and with adults. There’s some people who had maybe some fear walking into school today. There are some people who were like, “Well, it was a long way away.” I was able to draw on when we talked about empathy and when we talked about reacting to situations differently and really listening to each other. So, it’s weird to say, but all of those lessons that we’ve done this year kind of came together today.
“I don’t see a lot of action”
I’m one of the directors for the Illinois Education Association. I sit on the National Education Association board of directors so I’ve talked with elected leaders about school safety. And it’s frustrating because I hear a lot of “We want to help,” but don’t see a lot of action. And I think that was what led to the tears, and the being almost to a point depressed, because I want to say we’re going to see things change going forward. But history has shown us that it doesn’t change. And so I’m trying to process through that, and not give into the hopelessness because if you give into the hopelessness, then we are just thinking that this is acceptable, which it isn’t.
I’ve heard a lot more educators this time being angry, that this isn’t how the end of the year is supposed to be. We have to go through this again. We have to mourn colleagues in Texas who, from what we’ve heard, tried to protect their students.
The next generation
I was talking to a college student who was about to graduate and be a teacher with me. She brought up that for her generation, it’s not a second thought that going into education, you might be risking your life. This is my 26th year teaching. I never would have thought in college, “Oh, yeah, I’m going to be a teacher. And that means I might have to give up my life because I’m going to have to protect my students.” I will do it in a heartbeat. And I would not hesitate, but that wasn’t in the forefront of my mind. And our college graduates now, that is something they consider. I am sure there are people out there that are like, “I would love to be a teacher, but I couldn’t put myself in that situation.”
It has helped to talk to colleagues. It has helped immensely to be around kids. They are very passionate about what they believe. And they’ve brought up that there needs to be laws to stop this. There needs to be people who say, “This is enough.” So it also gives me hope.
We are not going to let this pull us down. Teachers are going to fight, and we’re fighting for our kids. We’re fighting for ourselves. We’re fighting for our communities.
Susie An covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter @WBEZeducation and @soosieon.