Friday June 17 was the last day of school for students in my district.  On Monday, June 13, the day after the deadliest mass shooting in America at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, I began class by reading a letter I wrote to my students.  I decided to share it here as well      ~Christopher

I like to joke around with you a lot.  I often try to be funny, and you humor me by laughing at my corny jokes.  Today, there’s not a lot to laugh about.  Today, I’m filled with sadness, anger, and worry. I hope that throughout the course of this year we have built a sense of community in which it is okay to be with one another in whatever mood we are in.

UpStairs Lounge Arson Attack
This is a view inside the UpStairs bar taken June 25, 1973. (AP Photo/Jack Thornell)

In 1973, an arsonist set fire to the UpStairs nightclub, a gay bar, in New Orleans, LA.  Twenty patrons at the bar that night escaped, but 32 died.  Until yesterday, it was the largest killing of gay people in U.S. history.  Although a suspect was questioned, no charges were ever filed, and the vast majority of politicians declined to comment.  The  morning after the fire a radio host asked on air, “What do we bury them in?” The punch line: “Fruit jars.”

The reaction to the shooting at Pulse was swift and, in most cases, unambiguous in condemning the actions of the shooter.  Even President Obama addressed the nation, saying that “attacks on any American, regardless of race, ethnicity, religion or sexual orientation is an attack on all of us and on the fundamental values of equality and dignity that define us as a country.”  We have come a long way as a country since 1973, and it gives me hope.

The shooter in Orlando had been investigated in the past for possible ties to terrorist organizations.  During the attack, he called 911 and claimed to be doing the work of the Islamic state.  His ex-wife described him as a man plagued by mental instability.  He targeted a gay nightclub on the busiest night of the week, a night when many Latino individuals visited the club.

Pulse Nightclub
Pulse nightclub in Orlando, FL taken June 12, 2016.

In my opinion, this one event highlights several questions facing us as citizens of the United States in 2016. How do we deal with threats to our collective safety? How do we decrease the number of mass shootings in our country? How do we address the factors influencing mental illness? How do we grow to accept those who are different?

As young adults, you will be called on to discuss, debate, and find answers to these questions.  I know that you will bring your idealism, creativity, sense of humor, and courage to the conversations that will ensue.

Throughout this year, we have had many conversations about the American dream.  I would be derelict in my responsibilities if I did not encourage you to think about how an individual’s dream goes beyond personal fulfillment. It is true that finding the love of your life, having a nice place to live, and attaining success in your career are all important and worthy pursuits.  But as you dream of the future, I encourage you to think about the kind of country you want to live in and what you personally can do so that America becomes your reality, not just your dream. 

I have more questions today than I have answers.  It seems like this is not a great way to end our year.  I wish I could wrap up everything nice and neat and send you on your way with a smile. Hopefully by the end of the week, I can get to the smile; the nice and neat part isn’t going to happen.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once wrote “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

In his speech yesterday, President Obama seemed to echo those sentiments: “In the face of hate and violence, we will love one another.”

I’m going to end with the exhortation from Seattle mayor Ed Murray, an openly gay man, who spoke at a vigil held last night to honor the victims in Orlando:

To young people in particular, I urge you, despite this tragedy, not to give in to the sense that nothing can be done. Instead, I ask you to engage like never before. Our community looks to you, more than ever, to build on the gains that we’ve made and to offer a future of hope….(F)ind ways to make sure those who were murdered in the early hours of this morning did not die in vain. We will live in hope and not fear, and we will find ways to bridge what divides us.