The heroism of a school worker, at once unfathomable and the most logical thing in the world

Yesterday in Sweden, a 20-year-old teaching assistant named Lavin Eskandar was stabbed to death while he was protecting children from a deranged sword-wielding assailant who was attacking the school where Eskandar worked. One other person was killed before police intervened.

A conspicuous number of teachers, professors, and school workers have put their lives on the line to protect students when such horrors have occurred. At one level, I am left speechless by such courage and sacrifice. Yet after all these years in the classroom, I kindof get it, too. We pour so much of our lives into our students. I find it quite sane and comprehensible that someone would make that split-second decision: If you’re coming for my students, you have to go through me first.

Lavin Eskandar, RIP
Lavin Eskandar, RIP

Below the fold is a piece I posted in 2012, remembering two other people who made similar sacrifices: Liviu Librescu and Victoria Soto. I wouldn’t change much in that piece. There is no greater love.

Liviu Librescu was a prominent engineering researcher who also happened to be a Holocaust survivor. He was shot to death in the Virginia Tech massacre. At age 76, Librescu was able to hold off the gunman long enough at his classroom door for all but one of his students to escape. It was a horrible death, but also such a heroic and meaningful one. Such heroism was sadly repeated by Victoria Soto and by several others in Connecticut protecting little children three days ago.

At one level, I cannot fathom the sacrificial heroism these men and women displayed. I hope I would display one tiny speck of such bravery, were I myself to confront such a horrifying moment. At another level, though–as a fellow teacher–I have some inkling of what may have motivated people to risk their lives. Scripture tells us: There is no greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for a friend. Many of us don’t actually think about it all too often, but we do love our students.

Of course they aren’t our children. But there are analogies. Most of us–particularly those of us who don’t make the annual buzz for Nobel prizes—will make our greatest impact through our students. However we personally age, every year we see our students’ young beautiful faces enter our classrooms, a new crop of people who will inherit our skills and carry on where we leave off. Whether we like it or not–whether we earn it or not—many will look to us for leadership, knowledge, for our personal example. We will live on, professionally, through them. In different ways, this is true at every level from your local pre-school to the most prestigious Harvard doctoral degree. It’s a huge responsibility, and a huge privilege, too.

I was thinking about this today at my daughter’s annual holiday choral concert at Homewood-Flossmoor high school. It has a great tradition. At the end of the concert, performers from previous years are invited to join in the Hallelujah chorus. Dozens of alumni ascend the stage. It’s an amazing sight and a wonderful performance.

I captured the moment and the transcendent music from my seat in the audience with my fancy new camera. My lack of a tripod or any semblance of videographic skill produced pretty much what you would expect: crummy, vertigo-inducing production values. But you get the point.

The choral conductor has been doing this for awhile now. Everyone on that stage, from the freshman choir to the paunchy middle-aged guy, has been touched in some way by this work. Watching that performance, scanning the sea of singing faces, one catches a glimpse of a good life’s work teaching young people the value of music, while providing many occasions of joy for a larger community.

As Handel’s music reaches its peak, the idea that you might be willing to put your life on the line for your students didn’t seem so strange. It seemed, in fact, for that moment, the most logical thing in the world.

Author: Harold Pollack

Harold Pollack is Helen Ross Professor of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. He has served on three expert committees of the National Academies of Science. His recent research appears in such journals as Addiction, Journal of the American Medical Association, and American Journal of Public Health. He writes regularly on HIV prevention, crime and drug policy, health reform, and disability policy for American Prospect,, and other news outlets. His essay, "Lessons from an Emergency Room Nightmare" was selected for the collection The Best American Medical Writing, 2009. He recently participated, with zero critical acclaim, in the University of Chicago's annual Latke-Hamentaschen debate.

14 thoughts on “The heroism of a school worker, at once unfathomable and the most logical thing in the world”

  1. Such courage is actually natural, if you don't train people out of it. Look at flight 93, for instance. As soon as it was discovered what the plane was being hijacked for, it was all over. That sort of attack could never be replicated, a number of would-be hijackers have been taken down by passengers since. If anything, locked cockpit doors have cost lives by protecting homicidal pilots from passengers.

    People are social animals, we have to be trained to be passive in the face of evil. The problem is, modern society does so train people.

    1. Odd claims, with, as far as I can tell, no support. It takes very little reading of military (or any) history to know that in fact passivity–indeed retreat–in the face of greater force is entirely natural. In fact, the point of military drilling is precisely that for the most part people have to be trained *into* moving towards danger.

      Flight 93 is a poor example, since we don't really know the details of what happened. What we do know is that four men, all of whom were athletes and had had significant training in teamwork and coordination, came up with a plan and were able to implement enough of it to keep the plane from traveling on to a likely target in D.C.

      1. It's also important to note that the folks on Flight 93 knew that they were effectively already dead when they took action. They did not, in any meaningful sense, move into danger. Yes, it was heroic, but it tells us nothing about how humans will behave in any situation in which heroic action increases the risks they face.

    1. Britain has the George Cross, awarded since 1940 for heroism by civilians and a conscious counterpart of the Victoria Cross, the ultimate military decoration. The Congressional Medal of Honor is strictly military. It's time for the USA to create a civilian equivalent. Perhaps call it the Sandy Hook Medal, or the Twin Towers Medal.

        1. Good to know. Canadians are also eligible. William Ayotte won his award for taking on a male polar bear attacking a woman walking at night along his street in Churchill, Manitoba. His only weapon was a shovel. Amazingly, both survived. The Carnegie Medal is a non-governmental initiative, and Carnegie was a robber baron as well as a philanthropist, but it may be better not to reinvent this particular wheel.

  2. Since Brett has charmingly broken the eirenic consensus Harold was trying for in his moving post, I feel I can raise political issues too.

    One: this was a racist attack. The student who also died, Ahmed Hassan, was of Somali origin. There's no reason to think Lavin Eskandar's Kurdish background made him a target, as he chose to intervene; but his heroism has had the opposite effect on the community to the one the apparently neo-Nazi killer was aiming for.

    Two: the neo-Nazi had a sword. He probably couldn't obtain a gun in Sweden. It is much more difficult to kill lots of people with edged weapons. Eight died in the Osaka school massacre in 2001, the record SFIK for a single killer (armed with a kitchen knife). 29 were killed in Kunming railway station in March 2014, but that took 10 attackers. It's hard to get hold of guns in China too.

      1. Right? That's just rude, calling our beliefs "political issues." We don't have politics. We just have common sense. The other fellow, his views are politics.

      2. "The problem is, modern society does so train people." I took this as either a Nietzschean rejection of the Christian challenge to "turn the other cheek", and/or an echo of the NRA's call for manly armed response. (Since Constantine, Christians have in fact been loyal supporters of war and punishment.) Correct me if I am wrong, and it is merely an entirely unsupported assertion of fact. In what schools and when do teachers inculcate passivity, and condemn people like Eskandar, de Soto, and Wallenberg for imprudence?

  3. Brett's comment is not even a particularly right-wing trope. The enervating effects of civilisation have been a common thread on discourse for millenia. This regardless of the fact that the score over the millennia is approaching civilised 17,142 to barbarians 37.

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