When the shooting is in your school

I cried my eyes out in my car during my lunch break today.

It was because a young man brought an AR-15 rifle and pistol into the school I attended from grade school to graduation. He shot another student, a student who was not only a friend of his attacker but who himself had lost his own father in a tragic accident only a few months ago. The boy tried to stop the shooter, and was himself shot dead in the effort. My younger brother’s favorite teacher desperately tried to keep the wounded boy alive. He was not successful. Others were fired upon and lived. The shooter was arrested.

My childhood home is across the street from the victim’s. I used to spend time with the woman that lived there before them. She’d taken a special interest in me; she’d sometimes take me out to a Kiwanas meeting or lunch. I did chores for her on occasion. She was one of the people who encouraged me to write.

It’s probably fitting that the most recent book I completed was Stanislaw Lem’s science fiction masterpiece Solaris. It’s a book where a man visits a lonely outpost, is revisited by the embodiment of his most fond and tragic memories, only to repeat the mistakes of his past. It is a book frustratingly devoid of explanation, leaving only tragedy and unanswered questions.

I have a complicated relationship with my school. I felt I didn’t fit in at all. It was not always a good place for a kid who loved history and Star Trek. I remember being geeky and weird, and I often did not like myself very much. Some students were cruel; and my time there was anxious and uncertain. One group of teenage boys in particular would do things like put a dead deer on my girlfriend’s car.

It got so bad that I finally confronted their leader and spat in his face. There were four of them, and they were all bigger than me. I’d decided that I would take their beating, and in doing so, force them to realize their sadism with blood consequences, even if that blood was mine and mine alone. It was only their shock that saved me from their fists. But every time I visited my home town after that I was ready to spot them before they spotted me, and to fight with everything I had if any of them decided to belatedly settle scores.

I’ve changed physically in the years since. I’m bigger now due to an ongoing weightlifting regimen, much of which I owe to them. You see, I still see their faces when I lift. They scream at me and threaten me as I push harder and heavier and faster, oblivious to anything but the red in my vision and the pounding of my pulse in my ears. But I also like to imagine that they are now fathers, like me, and that they have found peace and joy in their lives, as I have. And I thank them for that too. I know what it feels like to be small and afraid, and this has made me gentle, because I refuse to make anyone else feel like I once felt.

I went back to my high school about 18 months ago as a guest speaker. I was still in the daze of new fatherhood and the publication of my first novel. They’d torn down the old school and put a new one in its place. The new school, the one broadcast across the nation with images of traumatized students out front, is a beautiful space.

I was so impressed with the students. They were bright, engaged, and seemed more comfortable with themselves and others than I’d ever imagined possible. These kids were better than we were. Looking at them, I felt certain nobody called each other faggot or smashed each other into lockers, or threatened to wire a bomb to the car that I used to drive my little brother home in.

Columbine happened when I was in school. So did Moses Lake. Aurora, Virginia Tech and Sandy Hook happened later.  It feels like it’s all faded into a low buzz. I’m not even sure if #Freeman even trended on Twitter. Part of me feels like I have failed, my generation has failed. We grew up with this and haven’t done anything about it, and now it is handed off to our children.

I’m too hurt and tired to talk about solutions. Even the idea of solutions is painful; no solution will ever bring back what was lost at Freeman High School. Today my internet connection was a lonely outpost, bringing me back to a fond and difficult place, mistakes repeated, frustratingly devoid of explanation, leaving only tragedy and unanswered questions.

But maybe the questions are worth something, even if they’re not unanswerable. How can we be better parents? How can we be kinder to each other? What good can come from that which is most senseless? I don’t know the answers to any of these. But I’m trying.


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