It has been almost two decades since Columbine. I remember watching those events unfold on TV with a college roommate, feeling shocked, bewildered, outraged, overwhelmed. It was not normal. It is not normal. Yet, it is normal for today’s schools to practice lockdown drills from pre-school through twelfth grade in case such terror reoccurs. Yesterday, terror returned, but, for most of us, it seems distant, far away, surreal.
My first year after college, I taught at a private school and we took our students to the neighboring park every afternoon. One spring day I was watching my fourth through sixth grade students play basketball when I heard what I thought was a car backfiring. A few seconds later, a teenager yelled, “Hey lady! Get your kids off the court! Someone’s been shot!” at which point I ran with my students towards the school, corralling them, counting heads, as I called to the front-office on my walkie-talkie. “Call 911!” That day, a fourteen-year-old boy was shot and killed.
As educators, we were told to keep our everyday routines normal, that this would help our students to feel safe. School opened the next day as normally scheduled. We went outside and played in the same park. However, for the remainder of the school year, any time there was a loud noise outside of the school building, the kids who had been outside with me that fateful afternoon jumped to the floor. What had happened was not normal, and the kids knew better.
I was twenty-three. I was practically a kid, too. I knew it was not normal. Of course, this was not a large-scale school shooting, nor was it a school shooting at all. The violence was not aimed at the school, but we were its witnesses. The incident did not draw news headlines, but it took a life and impacted many more.
I cannot help but think of this tragic day every time a school shooting occurs. After yesterday’s assault in Parkland, FL, news reporters and politicians once again (rightly) recognized teachers, students, and first-responders for their bravery. Survivors and witnesses are just beginning to recount stories of running away, hiding, trying to reach loved ones. These news stories trigger my own memories: the loud bang, the voice urging us to flee, running across the field, shuttling my students to safety. Of course, my experience is profoundly different than that of Parkland or Columbine or Sandy Hook. I can only begin to imagine the terror wreaked when a shooter deliberately aims at a school community.
Soon after the Sandy Hook massacre, my pre-school aged son came home and asked why a “bad man” would ever want to come into a school. He reasoned, “Schools don’t have money like banks.” His five-year-old brain could not understand what a person would be able to gain by breaking into a school. Neither could mine. He’d recently had a lockdown drill and wondered why he and his fifteen preschool classmates had to sit quietly in a corner of the classroom under the teacher’s desk and not make a sound. I couldn’t even begin to explain why. I tried to explain it in an age-appropriate way. I cried. And, I gave him a big hug.
This morning I noticed some moms and dads giving their kids bigger hugs than usual. Several lingered as they watched their children line up and walk into school. I made sure to give each one of my kids an extra hug this morning.
But, now what? Do we send our condolences to Parkland, Florida as we watch the aftermath of the shooting unfold on TV? Do we continue to convince ourselves that Parkland, FL, Newtown, CT, and Columbine, CO are far-away places; that such unimaginable terror could not happen closer to home? Do we continue to distance ourselves from communities that have experienced such horror—whether on a large or small-scale—or do we embrace them?
Politicians have failed to make adequate change. Grassroots organizations have formed, yet more still needs to be done.
We must demand cultural change now. We must be proactive instead of reactive. We must recognize that these large-scale tragedies cannot be boiled down to mental health breakdowns, just as smaller-scale tragedies cannot be cast aside, ignored as symptoms of poverty. We must show the world and ourselves that we have the will to stop gun violence, that we will begin by protecting our children, and that we recognize that none of this is normal.