31 March 2023
The Statue of Liberty, a gift to the United States from France on the centennial of American independence, has long been held to be the most iconic American symbol. Standing an impressive 305 feet tall from base to crown tip, Lady Liberty was a beacon of freedom, peace and opportunity, famously welcoming in immigrants as they teamed to our shores at the height of chasing the American dream.
Engraved at its base is a sonnet penned by Emma Lazarus in 1883, written for an auction designed to raise funds for building the base of America’s most well-known lady. It’s one of my favorite poems. It feels powerful, and hopeful. The words feel meaty in a short stanza.
When I was in high school and on the speech and debate team, Lazarus’ words rounded out my competition portfolio. “‘Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!’ cries she with silent lips.” — a challenge to lay aside vanity and embrace new values that a young country promised to provide.
But, I think maybe it’s time for a new statue of Americana. Perhaps the torch of freedom and liberty has been dimmed, its light extinguished by the bloodshed of our unending stream of mass shootings that has so definitively outlined the American experience.
In the wake of his son’s murder at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, in which a classmate opened fire and killed 17 students and staff members in February 2018, Manuel Oliver created a statue called “The Last Lockdown.” The art project, one of an installation of projects sponsored by the Gifford Foundation, depicts a small child, cowering under a school desk, gripping its leg while the bronze face has a permanent mask of fear etched across delicate features. The child is our school children; the fear on her face is the lived reality for students and school staff across the country.
And we seem to be OK with it.
On March 27, 2023, yet another school shooting occurred in Tennessee at a small, Christian elementary school. Among the dead were the head of school, a teacher, a beloved custodian, and three 9-year-olds, including the daughter of the pastor who shepherded the school community. Thoughts and prayers for a school where prayer was already a cornerstone.
I imagine that those three small children who lost their lives could have been that little bronze statue, gripping the leg of their desk in terror. I imagine that the children of Robb Elementary school could have been that bronze child. Or the children of Sandy Hook. Or of Marjory Stoneman Douglas, of Columbine, of Sante Fe, of Oxford, of the next school because we still cry thoughts and prayers over policy change and seem content to forget until it happens again.
As a teacher, I look at my students every day and worry about them, because they attend school in America and I do not want them to be another statistic, another tweet hashtagged by a politician who lines their pockets by the NRA and the blood of innocent children.
In September 2018, my school community was rocked by gun violence when 18-year-old student Dalvin Brown was shot on the baseball field of Canyon Springs High School. Thoughts and prayers, right? Because school was held the very next day as Dalvin’s friends sat broken, tear stained and fatigued in my classroom after watching their friend die. Ironically, I taught U.S. history that year. We were discussing what it meant to be an American. For my teenagers, it was wearing the suit they bought for homecoming to a funeral instead.
Step down, Lady Liberty. You had a good run; but our country has decided it is time for retirement. Instead we are going to install “The Last Lockdown,” the real symbol of Americana today. Sorry, Ms. Lazarus, your words have inspired people for 139 years, but it’s time for a new stanza. A new, new colossus to be etched on a bronze plaque and mounted under America’s child.
A new, new Colossus
Give me your tired, your scared, your huddled students yearning to learn free.
The wretched refuse of a government who cares more for money than for thee.
Send these, the innocent, political pawns to me.
I lift my rifle outside the classroom door.
Our students deserve better.
Jamie Tadrzynski is a teacher with the Clark County School District.