This week, the National Post reported there’s a high school in Ottawa that is forbidding veterans who come to speak to classrooms on remembrance day from bringing any military replica guns with them, something they have done for nineteen years. Making history “come alive,” as cheesy as it sounds, is hard enough for a teacher, and I can think of no better way than having someone who was there tell stories, gun in hand. If I held the veteran’s rifle and tried to imagine the trenches, I’d feel sheer terror, surely the point of it all. But this year the school changed its policy. “No tanks or guns.” “There are many students from the school who come from war-torn countries, and when they saw the replica gun, it did upset them.” The article doesn’t say if the committee, made up of school staff, actually received a direct complaint from a student or whether they changed the policy on their own initiative. A history teacher from the school resigned in response–a principled move, if somewhat dramatic.
This story is in line with the times, being as hyper-sensitive as possible to those perceived most vulnerable, though I would bet most schools would strongly criticize this policy. Here, the modern urge to “accommodate” is stronger than the urge to teach history. This is a problem. There are times in my writing where I fear I’m saying something painfully obvious, but this story forces my hand: the teaching of history needs to be the first priority in a history class.
If a student from a “war-torn country” is actually traumatized upon seeing either a replica gun or a real gun that’s disabled, they can leave the class. It’s not exactly the same as seeing the Luftwaffe hover the skies in formation or hearing a nearby bomb explode, but students are only kids and they can be fragile, especially if they have actually escaped war themselves. We need to remember war as vividly as possible to try and ensure it never happens again, but they may need to forget war to go on living a normal life. Fair enough. But this should be done only on a case-by-case basis in the event there’s an actual student with such a severely traumatizing past.
Before anyone is excused, consider that Canadian citizens sacrificed a lot more than a moment’s discomfort, and do still today. This is what the gun in class brings home: it is a gun that could have put a hole in the head of a mother’s child. It should be uncomfortable for everyone. If we forget this, what are we remembering? Over 45,000 Canadians died in WWII alone. Is there another symbol besides the gun that can be brought into class to evoke the horror of war? Short of a replica of “little boy,” no. Maybe the ubiquitous poppy should be replaced by a gun.
A gun in class does anything but glorify war. What kind of student is urged towards violence after seeing a weapon and hearing all the horror stories first hand from a soldier? Remembering can’t be a hollow moment of silence, but a meaningful reflection of what people actually did. It should cause revulsion, fear, and wonder that it actually happened. If it’s comfortable, it’s inadequate. It should be horrifying. How can it not be?
Perhaps this symbol of death is even more poignant for being in a classroom, the very last place a gun should ever be. War would be the most fundamentally absurd thing imaginable, if only it could be imagined. I literally can’t imagine hiding behind trenches and shooting at strangers with the understanding that killing them increases my own chance of survival. It’s too absurd. Seeing and actually holding a realistic gun, gently touching that cold trigger with a curled finger, would bring those points home better than any text book, or even a first hand story told by a brave old man in a uniform.
Lest we forget.