How a Seattle kindergarten teacher broached the Texas shooting with his students
Kevin Gallagher wore all black to teach his kindergarteners on Wednesday.
Slim black pants, smart blazer, pointed leather shoes with silver buckles – thrift store finds. The tie, though, was his husband’s.
Gallagher, 66, was in mourning. Nineteen children and two teachers had been shot to death the day before at Robb Elementary in Uvalde, Texas. Gallagher was driving home that evening from Bryant Elementary in northeast Seattle when he heard the news. The first words he processed were “school shooting.” Then, “elementary.” He shoved his fist in his mouth and pulled over.
He stayed up most of the night, resolved to take a stand.
“Every time a school shooting happens, I immediately think, ‘Whenever a law enforcement officer is killed in the line of duty – an armed employee – officers from around the country go to that city and stand,” Gallagher said. “Teachers never do that. And we're unarmed in our jobs.”
Around 3 a.m. on Wednesday, he had a plan for the school day. He sent an email to the families of his former students – he’s taught nearly 1,300 kindergartners, he said.
Several hours later, Gallagher told his 5- and 6-year-olds they would have a serious conversation after lunch.
“Anybody here watch or listen to the news ever at your house?” he asked. About 10 kids raised their hands.
“I’m not going to talk about the news as a group,” he continued. “But if you’d like to talk with me later, when we’re having choice time, come back to my desk, and we’ll talk.”
Before the children left for lunch, Gallagher looked each child in the eye, said their name, and said, “I care about you.” The children were laser focused on him, he said, even as he addressed the others.
“They knew, and they heard, so that whenever they hear the rest of the story" — about the shooting in Texas — "they’ll know that in 2022, their kindergarten teacher said that to them."
News of shootings picks at old wounds for Gallagher. “Unfortunately, throughout my life, I’ve been the subject of innumerable attacks, anti-gay attacks,” he said.
One of the worst was when a friend of his was robbed. “I impulsively chased this person, because I was furious, and the Bronx blood was flowing,” he said. “Just before I got to him, about seven feet away, he just calmly turned and pointed the gun at my chest and said, ‘Want to die tonight –” and here the man used a homophobic slur.
“Every time I hear about these people being shot – in Buffalo, the church – I immediately have that kind of muscle and spiritual memory,” Gallagher said. He can imagine how they felt before they died.
When the kindergartners finished their lunch, it was choice time, and most of the children played, although a few went back to Gallagher’s desk.
“I know what happened,” one boy said. Gallagher questioned him gently. The child responded with keywords: “Texas.” “People were hurt." "A bad man.”
Another child said he was happy that the shooter had died, because that meant it wouldn’t happen again. In a way, the child was right, Gallagher thought sadly. That particular man would not shoot again.
Other children came by to debrief other news: A girl walked over to discuss Covid. Another boy wanted to talk about Ukraine.
After school, at 1:10 p.m., Gallagher walked out the front door of the cheery brick school building, and stood in front of the American flag, which was at half-mast. Standing there were parents, teachers, and children. It was impossible to look at the children and not think of those who had just been killed.
Gallagher gave a short speech, placed an open rainbow umbrella on the grass at his feet, and asked for five minutes of silence. He closed his eyes, clasped his hands before him, and faced the sun.
Voices quieted and neighborhood sounds picked up: A gravel truck backing up, warm wind blowing through willow trees across the street, a reporter’s notebook crinkling. A baby cried, and so did the adults. The elementary school children, though, didn’t make a sound.
Gallagher’s husband, Norbert Sorg, was there, too. Sorg is a German immigrant who met Gallagher years ago as a tourist visiting Seattle.
“For me, the obsession with guns in this country is completely unfathomable,” Sorg said. He shared a recent thought: “We will not get a change to the Second Amendment,” he said.
“But maybe we could learn from the anti-abortion movement and have state by state laws that say, ‘Well, of course, you can bear arms, but you must go through a psychologist to be evaluated before you can buy one, and oh, there's just one psychologist for all of Washington State, so you have to get on a waitlist.’”
When the five minutes were up, Gallagher asked for hugs. He was delighted to see a 32-year-old former student named Anthony, who had been delivering something nearby, and another student who had graduated high school on Friday. After the embraces, Gallagher found Sorg, and gave him a kiss.
“I am promising to myself, and to the world, that with each shooting, I'm going to do the same thing,” he said. He would stand at school to honor the fallen teachers, the children, the survivors. “I'm going to do this because it's that place of public recognition.”