Understanding the Magnitude: Talking Tragedy in the Classroom

4639772572_7396e02019 (1)By Maureen Cummings – Our math class was interrupted with an announcement. I was in first grade learning how to tell time with little knowledge of how slowly time would seem to pass in the weeks to follow this interruption. It was September 11, 2001, and the first time I would be exposed to really miserable realities forced upon completely innocent people. Her face dropped in an animated way and my teacher’s eyes swelled with tears and became my first long-lasting memory of what unexpected human fear looked like. I went home that afternoon and the news became the only voice heard in my home for weeks. I knew something was off, but I couldn’t grasp the magnitude.

When I was a senior in high school news of a movie theater shooting came in the middle of the night and months later was echoed by a school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. I went home those days and the articles on CNN and the updates by the New York Times were the only pages open on my phone. I knew something was off, and I desperately tried to understand the magnitude.

Years later our evening was interrupted by a text message. I was visiting a close friend from high school, as we had both chosen the same semester to study abroad in Europe. I was a junior in college and learning what it felt like to be an independent, world-traveling adult with little knowledge of how quickly I’d need to grow up in the hours to follow that text message. It was November 13, 2015 and we were in Paris, France, terrified of the storm of terrorism that surrounded us. I texted anyone I’d thought would worry, and confirmed my safety to all who reached out to me.

I cried thinking of the numbing fear over the entire city and the mass murder occurring just a few miles away. I considered our last minute change of plans a blessed consequence of divine intervention, but the relief of giving my loved ones the, “I’m okay,” text was a painfully bittersweet reminder of those that wouldn’t be able to. In the weeks and months to follow I lost what it felt like to sleep through the night peacefully. For the first time I was exposed to really miserable realities forced upon completely innocent people, and in some ways, I understood the magnitude.

All this being true, let this not be a message to share the going-ons of that evening, nor a message to find the good in any of these tragedies. This is a message I plan to share with my students, not as response to any future tragedy, but as a message simply to share because that is what it is worth.


Dear Students,

I want to protect you and create a world that will leave you safe. I want not a moment to go by where you feel inadequate, unloved, or completely misunderstood. I want the best for you- that’s why I chose teaching, but much to my dismay, I cannot provide all these things. I would spend a lifetime trying, but the truth of the matter is that bad things happen, evils become manifested in the actions of others, and moments will pass you where you do not feel all the dignified decencies your humanity should entitle you to. Here is what I can give you: For moments when we feel lost or that the world is so bombarded with selfishness and downright evil, I want you to remember what I am telling you right now.

Good is only absent when you choose to stay silent. You have a voice. Let that be loud and educated and decent and empathetic and a worthwhile gift you may share with the world.

Read. Let Atticus Finch open your eyes to see the perspective of others and allow Holden Caulfield to remind you the importance of being honest with yourself. Learn patience from Gregor Samsa, and find beauty in small things as Mrs. Ramsay could do. See practicality from Huck Finn, but learn to dream from Nick Carraway.

Write. Practice communicating how you feel. Share your opinions. Learn how to share your unique outlooks through a medium that can be accessible to other people. Don’t fall victim to the temptation and false allusion of safety that silence can be.

Evil may be present in the world, the proximity may change, and the scale will often vary, but a constant we can have now is our refusal to stay quiet.

So I say this all with a very serious tone and a great deal of urgency. This is my plan for us.

We are going to build a community where we will learn to read and to write and to value the opinions of others while still respectively countering the ideas we don’t agree with. We will wake up every morning and we will challenge ourselves to become better, more well rounded citizens of the world. We will shape our schema of human dignity, self-worth, and reap all the benefits of peaceful togetherness that evil-doings serve to destroy.

There will be no day that anyone gets to take that from us. Should any unmentionable occur, we will talk about it. We will grieve over it, but then we will overcome it and become that much more compassionate to our fellow man. We will take it as a reminder of the preciousness of our lives and it will become the fire that burns within us to add more to the conversation of goodness.

I want you to know that your education can fuel this. Read. Write. Become an ambassador for kindness because there may be moments in your life where the world feels dark, you feel inadequate, unloved, or completely misunderstood. It is those moments that you most crave your own silence that I hope I will have given you tools to confidently share your voice, to share your goodness.

All my best,

Ms. Cummings.


We all have a part in the conversation of goodness. This year (2015) has had some scary days, but in all professions, and all walks of life there are opportunities to join this conversation. Seek them out.

1 Response to “Understanding the Magnitude: Talking Tragedy in the Classroom”

  1. 1 Monica December 23, 2015 at 8:25 am

    Amen Sista’ . Love you eternally, Reenie. You have vast wisdom for such a young woman. Merry Xmas to you. Remember belief in a higher power is the anecdote for fear….you will be a great educator for the next generation. Welcome to the best profession on the planet, behind motherhood.


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