Monday, November 12, 2012

Life Must Go On. No Matter What.

Gather ye rosebuds while ye may...
[This was originally written and posted on October 11, 2006.]

Tomorrow is a significant anniversary for me. I've dropped hints here and there to various ones of you that my life has been deeply affected by certain experiences. This is one of them. It's so much a part of me now that trying to pull it out in logical bits really wasn't easy, but I've done my best. It's long, and it's not a happy story. I won't think any less of you if you decide not to finish, or to skip it entirely. I've changed the names to protect people's privacy.

It was on tomorrow's date in 1995 - Thursday, October 12 - that one of the students in the high school where I worked as library media specialist was supposed to come back to school with his mother. The day before, I had been in the conference room next to the principal's office taking down a television set after a meeting. I saw Mr. Smith and the student (I'll call him Pete) go into Mr. Smith's office. Pete's bus driver had brought him back to the school after a parent stopped the school bus complaining that Pete was making obscene gestures at her, or, as we say, "shooting her the bird."

I wasn't trying to eavesdrop, but I heard a fair amount of Mr. Smith's side of the conversation: Mr. Smith: Pete, what were you thinking? You knew you were on probation. You knew you could get into a lot of trouble! Pete: [mumbled response] Mr. Smith: Okay, Pete. Come back in here tomorrow morning with your mother, and let's see what we can work out. Okay? Pete: [mumbled response] Mr. Smith and Pete left the office, and I thought nothing more about it.

The following morning, I went to work with a headache. Things were often quiet in the media center after the initial buzz before the start of the school day. Sometimes during first period, I'd go up to the front of the building to the teacher workroom in the office area to get a soft drink to wash down my headache medicine. But that day, I had some Mello Yello left in my little fridge from the previous day. Otherwise, I would've headed up to the school office right about 8:15.

While I was up in my own little office washing down my ibuprofen, I heard Mr. Smith's voice come over the intercom in a tone I'd never heard before: "Teachers, keep all students in the classroom. DO NOT LET STUDENTS LEAVE THE CLASSROOM FOR ANY REASON." There was more, but I didn't really hear the rest. I'm afraid that between the headache and the fact that I was upstairs in my office with the door closed, I missed the last part. I later learned that it was "Lock your doors and stay in the classroom!"

Now, I had two students in the media center at that particular time. Because in the school's emergency management plan, the male teachers were asked to report to the office, I took the two students and went next door to the auditorium where Coach H's students were listening to a guest speaker, Mrs. Fast. I asked Coach H if he was going to the office (he hadn't looked at the plan, apparently) and told him I'd stay with his students. Mrs. Fast and I did our best to keep the students seated and calm, but there were strange noises coming from the intercom, which hadn't been turned off after Mr. Smith's urgent announcement.

There was something about someone having been shot. Each time the students asked me what was going on, I had to say (honestly) that I didn't know. Eventually, one of the coaches came around and told me that a teacher had been shot, that another teacher (Mrs. Simpson) had had a fatal heart attack, and that Pete had been shot dead. Refusing to believe that people had been killed in my school until I heard it from Mr. Smith, I wasn't about to pass on this information to the students.

But they were getting pretty restless. We could see from the window in the door of the auditorium that law enforcement and other emergency vehicles were gathering in front of the school. After a while, the decision was made to send the students home, and someone was sent door-to-door letting the teachers know, but apparently they forgot about us in the auditorium. At last someone came around and we were out of there, trying to find out what was going on.

I found some other teachers wandering around at the back of the gym. I told them that I'd heard Mrs. Simpson and Pete were dead. Another teacher told me that Mr. Smith had confirmed it to her. With that info, I was forced to accept that this nightmare was real. By this time, most of the students had taken a bus, been picked up by concerned parents who were getting frantic phone calls or hearing things over the police scanner, or set off on foot, as so many of our students walked to school.

Teachers were asked to stay on campus for a discussion session before going home. Those were agonizing moments, waiting for that meeting. They said we'd be meeting in my library media center, so I headed in that direction. As I was walking, I heard the sound of an approaching helicopter. My first thought was that it was the media - vultures swooping in to take advantage of the chaos that had broken loose in our little corner of the world. I was incredibly angry. My first impulse on reaching the library was to start sweeping books off the shelves - you can't know what a great desire I had to do that! - but my rational side reminded me that if I did it, there'd be no one but me to pick them up and reorganize them. So I resisted the temptation.  At some point I went into the library office and called my (now ex-)husband to tell him that I was all right. (Later I learned that someone had called a colleague's husband and told him that a teacher had been killed, but didn't tell him who. He was frantic, but he was lucky - it wasn't his wife.)

Eventually the rest of the faculty joined me in the library. It was a totally surreal experience, because in addition to this situation that only happens somewhere else to other people, it was our Homecoming Spirit Week, when students and any faculty who cared to participate dressed for the daily theme; Thursday had been designated "Tacky Day." The students enjoyed seeing teachers lighten up a bit, and it was fun, so I participated when I could find something appropriate to wear - and Tacky Day was easy. When this day and its reverberations were over, I threw away the clothes I had worn that day. I never could bring myself to put them on again. And while I eventually participated in Spirit Week in later years, I could never again bring myself to dress up for Tacky Day.

In the meeting, our principal Mr. Smith did his best to explain what had happened. Pete shot a teacher in the face, and that teacher was still alive. Mrs. Simpson opened the door to the teacher workroom, stepped in, saying, "He's got a gun. I've been shot." Then she collapsed and died. (At the time, we were told she'd had a heart attack. Later we learned that Pete had shot her as well. The entry wound hadn't been found at first because it was under her arm and the bullet apparently cauterized the wound - so there was no blood.)  Then Pete shot and killed himself.  Also in the meeting, we were asked not to talk with the press. School would be closed the following day, but teachers were asked to come for counseling sessions and to offer support to any students who wanted or needed it.

On Friday, we met first at the school. Everyone waited for others and walked in in groups of three or more, because no one was quite ready to go walking through those halls alone. Then we were bused to the community center, where we met with the entire school district - only three schools. I felt rather lost, because Mrs. Simpson was one of the people I usually sat with, and went to lunch with, on days when we didn't have students. And though I was so terribly sad, I couldn't cry. My headache from the previous morning had never gone away, my heart was breaking, and I couldn't cry.

I remember a little about that day of meetings and debriefings, nothing of the weekend, and not much clearly for a long time after the shooting. But here's one thing I remember very well: On Monday after the shooting on Thursday, the students came back. We all agreed that it was best to get them back to a "normal" routine as much as possible, as soon as possible. My library was being used as a counseling center. I just sort of ran errands and did anything I could to help. At lunchtime, I went to the cafeteria. I saw that we had a choice of puddings for dessert... chocolate, and what I thought was vanilla. I was in a very vanilla mood, so I took the yellowish pudding. After eating the rest of my meal, I took a bite of the pudding. It wasn't vanilla; it was banana.

And that's when the dam burst. I started to cry, after all this trauma, over being given banana pudding which I had thought was vanilla. And I couldn't stop. I left the cafeteria and went into my little office and I must've cried for more than an hour. That was the only time for months, maybe even years after the shooting, that I was able to have a normal cry. On the wall in my bedroom I still have a souvenir of those days after the shooting. It's a framed greeting card from a guidance counselor by the name of DT (I remember because he has the same name as the Wendy's guy) who used my library as his center of operations. And he sent this card to say "Thank you" to ME! He may never know just how much it meant to me, how much it still means to me.

Those days were so hard. I got to a point where I didn't want to go to any conferences or any other extracurricular activities, because every time I mentioned where I was from, people wanted to talk about the shooting, and I just couldn't deal with it. But I learned something from all this. I learned, whether it's the right lesson or not, that we can do everything right, the best we can, and one day we still won't come home, for whatever reason. A plane could fall out of the sky, a bomb could go off... there are a gazillion things that could happen. And so, because anything can happen to anybody at any time, it's useless to sit locked into a little room somewhere waiting for it to happen - if we do that, we might as well be dead already. We MUST NOT allow ourselves to be controlled by fear. We have to LIVE our lives while we have the chance.

So much has happened since that day in 1995. For as long as I could, I took roses to Mrs. Simpson's grave on the anniversary of her death. For a while, I was clinically depressed. but I've recovered; I got a divorce and later remarried, and now I live a great distance away from where it all happened. Our district superintendent retired at the end of that year. Mr. Smith, the principal, moved into the superintendent's position, then died in 1997 of a massive heart attack. His successor died of a massive stroke, after less than a year in the position. A series of deaths of our students (five died in automobile accidents or due to injuries sustained in such accidents) and faculty (an exemplary teacher died of cancer) followed.

Since then, there have also been numerous school shooting incidents in the USA, three of them in the last couple of weeks. It makes me incredibly sad that apparently we've still learned nothing. Deranged people still have easy access to guns. We still send our young men and women off to kill other mothers' children and to come home whole if they're lucky, in body bags if they're not. We still have a long way to go.

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