Probability vs. Possibility

Although there is no absolute guarantee that something bad will never happen, it is important to understand the difference between the possibility of something happening and probability that it will affect you (our school community).

Talking to Children about Violence: Tips for Parents and Teachers

The morning after the school shooting in Texas, my principal shared a resource with information about how to talk with children about violence, and some of it I can’t quite believe anymore. (“Schools are safe places.”) But I glommed onto a sentence about possibility and probability and the idea that while it is possible something horrific could happen at the school where my husband and I spend our days, it is not probable. I shared this idea this with my adult daughter the day after the shooting, and she rejected it.

We were skating together at the mall where both of us now spend a good portion of our time, and I argued for optimistic probability even as I was remembering a moment only a few weeks ago when a noise that didn’t sound right caught my attention while I was skating, and my first thought was: Where do I go if someone starts shooting?

It’s not probable that someone would start shooting in the mall, but I know it’s possible because of the 2012 shooting that happened in a mall not far from the one where each us now goes several days a week. It was a mall that I regularly took my children to when they were young. I know it’s not probable that I will ever be directly involved in a mass shooting event, but when you have trained and drilled for years for that possibility, when the structures in which you have spent your working days for more than three decades have gradually been transformed into semi-fortresses, when so much of how you operate within those structures is shaped by potential threat, it is no wonder that my first thoughts on hearing a noise that didn’t sound right were: I’ll need to get off the ice, this space is an obvious target. I can’t run in skates. Where is a place with no windows? Where is a place with a locked door? Where can I get quickly with skates on? Are there children here who will need help?

I didn’t get off the ice that morning because I quickly determined that there was no threat and because I know–I truly do know–that it’s not probable that any unusual loud noises in public spaces are the beginnings of a mass shooting event. Still, I do know it’s possible to be directly involved because a principal I once worked for had previously been principal at a school when it was the site of an infamous shooting. I know it’s possible because a school I once taught at was the site of a shooting (and my former classroom there had windows that faced the field from which the shooter fired). I know it’s possible because of the school shooting at a high school two miles from my house in 2014, a school that some of my current students attend and that was the target of a threat (one deemed not credible, but still) on Friday. A colleague/friend had a child that was in attendance at that school that day in 2014, and I will never forget the sight of his face as one of our administrators walked him down the hall after pulling him out of class to tell him what was happening. I know it’s possible because of an event in 2019 that happened at the high school serving the neighborhood I now live in. I know it’s possible because in the US this year, we are averaging 10 mass shootings a week.

Still, I argued with my child that it was not probable. She rejected that. What she was rejecting, I think, was a line of thought that can be used to dilute the horror of where we’re at with this, or to be in denial about it. Our debate grew a little heated, and I finally had to say: “I can’t talk about this any more right now.”

I needed some denial to be OK on Wednesday.

Later that day I de-activated my Facebook account because I don’t know that I can listen any more, either. We seem to have moved past thoughts and prayers as a primary response (unless you’re a politician who takes NRA money), but it was the earnest pleas from so many that I care for and respect (but who don’t work in schools) to call senators and give money to activist groups, and the assertions that now, finally, something will be done that did me in. I just couldn’t listen to it this week. How can anyone who is paying any real attention to what’s happening in our government believe that our calls are the thing that will make something change? It is so clear–on so many fronts–that the desires of the majority are not what’s driving too many of our lawmakers, on so many issues.

I couldn’t listen because the next day I had to go to school and do my job, and I couldn’t do the latter if I had done the former. I cannot teach well when I’m dis-regulated from fear, anger, and hopelessness, and when seeing our responses to this latest massacre of children, those are the emotions I felt. I chose doing my job (because what other choice is there?), where the threat of violence is such a constant hum in the background of what we do–it’s in the badges that we wear, the locks on all the outer doors, the reminders not to prop the doors open, the drills, the security camera footage playing on a big screen in the front lobby, the small shot of adrenaline we get if we see an unaccompanied stranger in the building who isn’t wearing a badge–that we don’t really notice it until something like this (temporarily) turns up the volume of it.

So what do we do? I don’t know what we need to do, but more of what we’ve been doing since Sandy Hook to no meaningful effect feels futile. Of course I will continue to vote, and I will do what I need to do to remain informed, and I might give some money, too, but I’m well aware that while it is possible that our government will reform itself, it is not probable that it is going to happen now. While I know it is possible that large numbers of people will remain activated on this issue past this weekend, I don’t think it’s probable that they will. I think we should all get grounded in these realities and what they probably mean for us, and make our choices–about what to fight for, and how–accordingly.


(The only thing that gave me any real solace this week was this, grim and cynical as it is. Because at least it felt honest and true.)

8 thoughts on “Probability vs. Possibility

  1. Marian says:

    I’ve been at a near complete loss for words for the past couple of years (one thing after another leading to overwhelm plus a paralyzing fear of saying the wrong thing and making matters worse), and it feels like I can add nothing useful to this conversation—you already know that the US is an outlier with its gun violence, and that it doesn’t have to be this way. I think that when lies and excuses (and conspiracy theories—WTAF) start swirling, even the clear-eyed and rational can start to doubt what the evidence shows. So, for what it’s worth, I just wanted to tell you I’m sitting in solidarity with you and I see what you see: the insanity, the cruelty, the shamelessness, and the complete immorality. I think the whole world sees it.

    As to what to fight for: A year or two ago I read Rutger Bregman’s Utopia for Realists. Research shows that the more inequality a nation has, the greater its social problems. The US is pretty much at the top of the list for inequality, and it’s only gotten worse during the pandemic. Gun control is most definitely needed, but I think experts would also advocate for measures that reduce inequality. (More taxes for the wealthy, and also more help for families so children don’t grow up to commit crimes. I found it incredible to hear some Republicans saying bad parenting and mental illness was to blame—as if they would be any more likely to provide help in those areas than they would be in controlling guns!)

    • Rita says:

      Thank you, Marian. I understand the fear of saying the wrong thing; I hesitated to hit “publish” on this one because of how hopeless and angry I am. I agree with you and Bregman that economic inequality–and the desire of some to maintain it–is at the root of many of our ills. I am old enough to remember a time when there was not such disparity, before the Reagan tax overhaul of the early 1980s. I know it doesn’t have to be this way.

      As for the Republican politicians and what they say: Well, I hardly listen to them. I know it’s never a good-faith dialogue anymore; everything they say is part of the game they are playing.

      I so appreciate your words here. Thank you for giving them to me. As you say, when you are swirling in lies and excuses, it can be easy to start doubting your perceptions and conclusions. I think it is important that we share what we’re seeing with each other, and letting each other know if we see things the way they do. That’s a thing that I also think it worth spending energy on.

  2. Kate says:

    I do agree with you in terms of probability vs possibility. Violet would probably agree with your daughter. It feels obscene to just going about living. It feels wrong not to. I’m fucking sick of feeling this way. I don’t think I’ll stop any time soon.

    • Rita says:

      I loved the post you wrote because it so beautifully acknowledged both truths. It is obscene to just go about living without any acknowledgement, but all the ways we have of acknowledging are problematic because the problem is so obscene. And it would be wrong not to keep on living. For all kinds of reasons, but mostly that it’s not possible to do otherwise. Life really does go on. I wrote that when I first heard the news, I didn’t know what to feel or do, and I really didn’t. I didn’t feel anything much more than two kinds of dread: One anticipating the typical kind of response (shock, awe, horror, anger, calls to various action), and one anticipating a lack of response (because we’re no longer shocked and awed). I wanted neither, but what else is there? (I’m sure there are others, but I don’t know yet what they are.)

      One thing I do know: I am sick of letting all the horrifying things steal my joy. We can mourn and rage AND feel joy. Not in the same moment, but in the same day. Sometimes in the same hour. Shitty as I felt on Wednesday, I went to school on Thursday and had a good day with my students. I showed up being the teacher they needed me to be, and it was all right. There was some laughter. Both/and. Both/and.

  3. Ally Bean says:

    I agree that there is a difference between probably versus possible. I know it’s possible I might be murdered but I don’t think it’s probable. That being said I’ll admit that last week just about did me in, trying to balance feelings of anger about the shooting and how it was handled, with appreciation of the good life I live. It’s a weird way to approach life acknowledging the horror of living in a country with yet another mass murder while refusing to let it destroy my personal happiness.
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    • Rita says:

      I didn’t do a very good job with that balance last week. Still working to regain it. In my school, we have students from 5 high schools. (They attend ours part-time). Yesterday, one of our partner schools went into lockdown, which students at our school knew about almost immediately. We did not know why and couldn’t get any information initially. I had two students with family members there. Their worry was palpable. I found myself reassuring them that there could be multiple reasons that texts were going unanswered, and that it was probably going to be fine, which I believed (but I was fighting my own tears, which surprised and alarmed me). We did not have to wait long to learn that everyone at the other school was fine and the lockdown had been lifted. (Never did find out what caused it.) What I realized, though, in my reaction and theirs, was that it wasn’t fine. None of us were really fine. We went on with class. We all went on with our days, and the rest of mine was fine. Sort of. I fell asleep at my keyboard while trying to prep for tomorrow’s class, had some trouble navigating traffic, and by the end of the day my entire body ached. (Back still does this morning.) But I had many moments of real happiness yesterday. Enjoyed the sun and watering flowers and eating dinner with my son. I think it’s good, in a way, that last week just about did many of us in. I don’t want to get to a place where it doesn’t, where the horror of murdered children doesn’t shake us and make us have to work at finding and holding onto our happiness. I’m trying to figure out how to process what’s happening (yesterday helped me see how much last week had gotten to me, and that I had been denying a good deal of my feelings about it) and not be taken under by it. Sadly, I’m pretty sure we’ll have more opportunities to figure this weird way of living out.

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