“Pedagogy of Conflict”
When I was a child,
I learnt to count:
one, two, three, four, five.
But these days, I’ve been counting lives, so I count
Because each time is the first time that that life has been taken.
has sixteen letters
Pádraig Ó Tuama is a poet, theologian, and the leader of Corrymeela, a spiritual community in Northern Ireland, which was instrumental in the peace process that brought a ceasefire to their nation. Don’t let the big word in the title intimidate you. “Pedagogy” is an academic term, which simply means the method of instruction. Here, the poet is suggesting we might find peace if this was what we taught our children about the cost of conflict.
I grew up in a time of peace, in a country at peace. There might have been a few “conflicts,” or “scandals”, but by the time I got to high school even the Cold War was thawing and walls were falling down. I used to look around the world and feel sorry for all those “other places,” including Ireland, where violence was an everyday fact of life that took place in the streets and schools and shopping malls.
But then the Oklahoma City Bombing happened (1995) and Columbine (1999) took place and 9/11 (2001) brought foreign terrorism to my everyday consciousness and there were no more illusions that things like that happened to “other people” in “other places.” They happen here in places I frequent and frequently love like churches and schools and concerts and nightclubs and places of business. It happens to people who look like me and to people I might know and love: white, latinx, African-American, Asian, straight, gay, old, young, Christian, Muslim, Hindi, Buddhist, rich, poor, conservative, liberal, immigrant, or American.
In the hours following the Parkland shooting this year, O’ Tuama’s poem haunted me:
I was “counting lives” seventeen times that day for each of those fourteen children and the three adults who dedicated their lives to serving them. I wept in grief, but also in gratitude for every single day my kids have come home from school alive. Each school shooting deepens my understanding that what I took as a right feels more like a privilege and deepens my sorrow that we as a nation seem unwilling to find solutions to prevent that from becoming more and more true. Perhaps if we started counting as O’ Tuama does, we’d change that.
This is one of those poems that must be read aloud to experience the full impact. Read it aloud while you hold the faces of victims of gun violence, of any kind, in your mind’s eye. And finally, you can hear the poet read it himself here.