Four days, Annie Burke tells me, is the time it takes for people to stop caring. This, she attributes to there being such an onslaught of bad news.
“Whether it’s a school shooting here or it’s Ukraine or it’s the murder of George Floyd. There’s always something and because of our (American) news cycle - 24 hour news - it’s constant. After four days your brain goes; ‘I just can’t do it anymore’. It’s not that people want to stop caring, but to survive you can’t take on that kind of trauma constantly.”
Annie trained in the UK and taught in Dubai, London and Clondalkin before the opportunity arose to travel to America. So six years ago, the year Donald Trump was elected, she arrived in North Carolina (NC).
The elementary school system is the same as primary school in Ireland, kindergarten to fifth grade, four to 12 years of age. Annie worked in a small community just outside Raleigh, the NC Capitol teaching, second, third and fifth classes at different points.
Active shooter drill
“My first year there was the very first time, obviously, that I experienced an active shooter drill. So on top of doing fire drills, I was also trained in the steps involved in an active shooter drill.” Her words hang in the air but American schools have been doing these drills since the Sandy Hook shooting in 2012.
When Annie was teaching the second grade, the classes were taken in little modular buildings. “The campus is beautiful, surrounded by trees but we were doing these active shooter drills in a modular building, which they call a Villa to make them sound cute, but really they are just prefabs.
“So you’re aware that if somebody did come with an AR-15 or semi-automatic weapon, the walls are just cardboard, they’re not brick. It would be very easy to shoot through them.”
In comparison to Ireland the school system is different. In each state there is an umbrella Department of Education and each county has its own department. Annie says that the Public School System do their best with the resources available but with huge numbers of pupils attending, there are no armed guards at the elementary level.
“It’s not that it’s [safety] not a priority but with the funding provided, it would be impossible to provide those kinds of safety measures for every school in a school system” she explains.
“With the active shooter drill, you lock the doors, you are looking for where is safe. The alert level amber to red will come on the intercom. With a red alert drill, the local police will come around, check all the doors and windows are locked down.
So you’re practicing being a sitting duck at a firing range. You kind of block it out, keep everyone calm and be upbeat and then you move on. The light goes green and you go back to teaching math
“Then our job is to get the children into a spot in the classroom that is the safest. I put that in inverted commas, because there really is no spot that’s the safest. We are talking about seven year olds and although they know why you’re doing it, you’re trying to lessen the trauma of it. They are experiencing a lot of this on TV and hearing about it, particularly after a big event and that has an impact on small people. I have had many children express fear and anxiety around these drills because it is absolutely petrifying.”
Outside of Annie’s class is a wooden ramp to the door. She asks me to imagine hearing footsteps coming up that ramp and I shudder.
“During the drill, it’s just a policeman but your brain does go to a place where you think ‘this is what could happen’. So you’re practicing being a sitting duck at a firing range. You kind of block it out, keep everyone calm and be upbeat and then you move on. The light goes green and you go back to teaching math. It’s a really sad way for kids to grow up. The oldest kids in the elementary system have known active shooter drills all their school life and it’s normalised.
She notes that sadly people are also numb to it and after Uvalde, life went on as normal.
“The kids come into school and yes some were worried and anxious but if we were in Ireland there would be a national day of mourning. Here nobody missed a beat. I think there’s something really wrong that you would just plough ahead.”
Annie says that everyone she knows is horrified by what is happening but the issue of gun control becomes politicised when you challenge people in positions of power who are being funded by the gun lobby.
“In Ireland, we’re very lucky in so far as we don’t have that same kind of lobbying whereas here, it’s all about the lobbyists, it’s all about the money and where the money goes. Also for these big issues, in Ireland, we have referenda. The majority of Americans want sensible gun regulation but there is no referenda to ask the question”.
Like many Irish kids, Annie says that the only time growing up she ever saw a gun was when there were dogs attacking livestock on the farm.
“It had a very specific purpose but here there’s a different culture when it comes to guns. In our lovely small town, on our main street, there’s a massive big gun shop called Fuquay Gun and Gold. It’s a normal part of culture but you don’t even need a specific store, you can just go into Walmart and get one.
Although in NC, there has been no school shootings, this year alone there have been five mass shootings, which the Congressional Research Service and FBI define as “multiple, firearm, homicide incidents, involving four or more victims at locations close to one another”.
She says she read recently that, in the past year, there have been two mass shootings per day in the US. The horror of a school shooting or the racially motivated tragedy in Buffalo - they hit the headlines - but this is happening constantly.
Sadly Annie laments that sometimes it can feel like it can’t be stopped before saying “with any great change, somebody has to do something. So if you wash your hands of it, nothing ever changes. Mentally, I don’t know how I could walk back into the classroom again unless I thought it will change”.
“In Ireland, the INTO is a fantastic resource, they lobby for you, they take care of you, you can always turn to them for support. NC is a ‘right to work’ state so there isn’t technically a union because you’re not supposed to have an organisation lobbying politicians.” Annie tells me.
To this writer; with a very legal gun lobby in the US, this revelation seemed completely incredulous.
Despite this, Annie is a member of the North Carolina Association of Educators. This organisation does speak with legislators but she says the strength to really influence change is not there as “a lot of people are afraid to join because it’s a ‘Right to Work’ state. The reach of public servant unions is very limited as they have no collective bargaining power or strike options for employees”.
I ask her about ‘the solution to guns being more guns’ to which she replies “If I was asked to arm myself, I would leave the profession. I don’t know any teacher that would stay if that’s what’s coming next. I believe you couldn’t possibly, in all good conscience, be a teacher with a gun in the classroom. It’s not why I’m there.”