Good Fences Make Good Neighbors

Land-of-the-FreeLike many of us, I once imagined myself as a poet. Verses scribbled in various states of emotional pain, angst, and despair—I wrote because I felt the well-spring of language lurking beneath the surface of my hum-drum life, convinced no one could capture my feelings except me. So I thought.

Then I read Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, and Marianne Moore and I realized my hastily scribbled verses were akin to a 6 year old finger painting. Certainly, I doubt any of those poets would, were they still around, argue that reading their poetry should stop someone from writing poetry, but they did. Reading these three pillars of American letters was something like viewing a Gaugin, reading James Joyce, listening to Billie Holiday, watching Nolan Ryan pitch or seeing Michael Jordan play basketball. Those moments of artistic beauty are what Frost argued poetry should be: a momentary stay from confusion.

I think when we see greatness, there’s a little voice in our heads that says, “So that’s how it’s done” (or, at least, there should be). I’m well past the days when I thought I could put pen to paper and write the great American poem. I have neither the talent nor work ethic for such a thing.

Admittedly, I’m not really a huge fan of poetry, much preferring big, fat novels, but this holiday season I’ve been thinking a good bit about Frost’s “Mending Wall.” Like much of America, the recent shooting in Connecticut isn’t far from my thoughts. Unlike 20 parents in Newtown, my two boys opened presents this Christmas. Unlike 12 parents in Columbine, my two boys opened presents this Christmas. Sadly, I could create a longer list.

As I’ve noted in other posts, I’m no gun control zealot. While the second amendment, mostly because of the way it’s written, is tough to interpret, eliminating gun ownership is not the answer.

But, I also think what most of us want is realistic and meaningful dialogue regarding the American soul and at some point we have to have a grownup conversation about guns. Mental illness is awful; violent television and video games can disgust us; but at the end of the day, no one killed 20 children and 7 adults with an X-box game. He used a military weapon designed for maximum damage and carnage.

That’s what makes the NRA proposal to place armed guards in every school across America so problematic. Beyond the obvious training, liability, economic, logistical issues with either paid or volunteer guards, we need to ask ourselves who we want to be as a nation.

Do we believe, as the narrator of Frost’s “Mending Wall” claims that “Good fences make good neighbors?” In Frost’s poem, the two men meet each year because “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” During the spring thaw, the rocks tumble and fall: nature, the poem seems to argue, abhors the barrier.

We know, of course, that walls (and walled cities) are a marker of civilization, but we also know that walls go up in order to protect us from the “old-stone savage.” In other words, the irony of the wall is that while it protects us, it also isolates us. We erect a barrier to keep out that which we fear and those borders and barriers mark people as us and them.

The NRA, quite frankly, brings nothing to the national conversation simply because “they will not go behind his father’s saying, / And he likes having thought of it so well / He says again, “Good fences make good neighbors.”

Certainly, the NRA is right. If we arm every teacher or put armed guards at every school, we can slow down school violence. We can build, figuratively speaking, a wall around each school that is built of bullets. Each day, our kids will go to school knowing they are safely protected. At what cost, though?

The idea itself seems so simple. And archaic. The last thousand years marked an evolution away from armed protection and walled cities. As culture grew, we recognized that diplomacy, language, compromise, and shared sacrifice were better markers of civil society.

We began to build figurative walls by developing laws that promote justice, order, and establish communal relationships. Laws have consistently worked to tear down artificial walls when “we do not need the wall: / He is all pine and I am apple orchard. / My apple trees will never get across / And eat the cones under his pines.”

There is no doubt that humanity is marked by our animalistic and violent impulses. But there is also no doubt that what separates us from the other animals is our ability to repress those urges and impulses in favor of our humanity. We have the ability to affirm individual rights within our shared social responsibility. Doing so re-affirms our humanity, our move beyond the walled city. The role of government is to help us organize and decide what those shared responsibilities will look like.

Placing armed guards in our schools sends us down the path of mutual distrust, arguing simply that every intruder is a danger.

Perhaps this is the goal for the NRA. We simply return to a day prior to shared social responsibility, a day where we all move, as the neighbor does, in the “darkness” of his father’s philosophy. I don’t think that is what most of us want to teach our children.

I’m not so naïve as to imagine we can completely protect our children from violence nor am I here to argue for the elimination of guns. But an intelligent conversation must begin by asking not just “Why good fences make good neighbors.” We must also start to ask what we are walling out and what we are walling in.

The history of social systems is a movement toward suppressing our violent impulses. We affirm our individual rights through the lens of our communal commitment. When we ask our children to walk past armed guards each day, we are turning our backs on our shared humanity and we teach our children to erect walls within the walls, devolving into the “old-stone savage” of our past.


About John Wegner
John Wegner is a Professor of English where he also serves as the Dean of the Freshman College. He and Lana, his wife, have been married over 25 years. They are the parents of two great sons who (so far) haven't ever needed bail money.

3 Responses to Good Fences Make Good Neighbors

  1. The Believer says:

    Beautiful. You expressed this so well. Thank you for sharing your thoughtful analysis – it will help me find the language to continue this dialogue with the people around me…

  2. momshieb says:

    Very thoughtful, and very well written (I think you should go back to that poetry……)
    Unlike you, I would love nothing more on earth than for us to live in a gun free society. But I understand that I am only dreaming.
    In terms of placing armed guards (or armed principals, or armed teachers) in schools, I totally agree with your premise, and would go even further.
    As a parent, a public school teacher, and a former Chair of my local School Committee, I know that an open and accessible public school should be the heart of every community. Because public schools are funded by, attended by and controlled by local citizens, we must be open and welcoming. We must invite that community in, to see what we do, and to feel a kinship with us as we work together to raise our children.
    The image of a man with a gun standing in the lobby, under the finger paintings and class photos, is just too sad for me to even contemplate.
    And I know with 100% certainty that I, all of my colleagues, and probably the vast majority of the children would NOT feel safer with a constant, visible reminder that “the bad guys are coming.”

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