Bear with me folks- this is about as personal as I'm going to get.
Some days I block it out, some days I don't. This is one of those days where I can't. This isn't about me- it's because of the students, faculty, and parents of Sandy Hook Elementary School that I'm writing this. Make no mistake, I don't like writing about tragedies. I hate it. I avoid it. It makes me sick to my stomach. I can't stand the need to sensationalize things on the news... mostly because it makes me remember something I'd prefer to forget.
It was 1996. I was a sophomore in high school and doing my best to be your standard, hormonal “wise fool” and giving my parents more headaches than they deserved. Our school didn't have the best temperament at the time, you could say- fights almost every day, kids pulling fire alarms to set up more fights, kids pulling fire alarms because they could, general mayhem, fisticuffs galore, and wackiness... in suburban Maryland, at that.
It wasn't a plot of some sort of inner-city school based drama starring Edward James Olmos or Michelle Pfeiffer, it was real life at the time. I used to joke that everyone we went to school with had watched Menace 2 Society or Boyz in the Hood one too many times 'cuz it seemed like EVERYONE was emulating what was portrayed on screen.
I don't make those jokes anymore.
It was the end of the day and school was being let out. I think I'd muttered something to a friend of mine about going home to play Donkey Kong Country (he was a senior, as I was somehow in a high level Spanish class and taking classes with older kids- I had a good brain, once...) and he said that he was just looking forward to getting home. There was always a mad dash to get a decent seat on my bus, so I turned on the jets and made my way there when I noticed something.
There was someone at the front of the school that didn't belong.
Camo jacket, black bandanna over his face- my first thought was to wonder who was getting jumped after school this time. Hell, maybe the dude was onto something fashion wise with the bandanna over his face- whatever, it was time to get on the bus and go. I'd hear about the impending fight tomorrow- more zaniness that happened at my odd, weird high school.
Of course, there was no fight.
The call came in over the bus driver's radio a few minutes after we'd pulled off of the school grounds- someone'd been shot. The voice on the other end was frantic and putting over the gravity of the situation as best as they could; stupid kids that we were, we wondered why they were literally spelling out the fact that someone got s-h-o-t.
You never know when things are going to go bad, you see. When the world gets all topsy-turvy and you have no idea how to even fathom the various twists and turns you face in life, but you end up feeling those moments after the fact. They stand out in your gut and you know that things are going to change. It happened for me at dinner that night- my homework was done, and I was sitting at the kitchen table with a bowl of spaghetti while watching the news. I wanted to see what exactly happened- I didn't expect to see the face of the classmate I talked to just two hours earlier about playing Donkey Kong Country on the news.
He was dead.
The story, as said and reiterated over the next week or so, was that the gunman- the same bandanna wearing oddity I'd seen when I was leaving school- robbed someone for their Eddie Bauer coat. According to witnesses, he was in the process of obtaining the coat in one hand and his gun went off, and the bullet went through the coat and hit my classmate.
Food goes sour in your mouth when shock kicks in. You can't really swallow, it just sits in your mouth, and you feel like you're going to choke. I felt like I had to avoid throwing up everywhere, and somehow managed to get my food down, keep it down, and lurch to my feet.
My mom asked if I knew him, and I just choked out something resembling an affirmation and went to my room. I cried in the dark for a long time. Eventually, I managed to ask my dad an odd, regressive, and innocent question along the lines of why something like what took place would happen. It was the first time he wasn't able to give me an answer that he probably knew I would have needed at the time- he didn't know, he had no idea, and he was sorry.
I think that's taking place across the nation and beyond today- the shock, the outrage, the helplessness, the confusion, the uncertainty, the questioning- a multitude of things that will be discussed by countless people for quite some time. My experience was a small and trivial thing compared to what's happened today; I was sixteen, so I had the inklings of knowing something about the world around me- those poor kids, parents, faculty, family, and friends involved with Sandy Hook that have to deal with this tragedy for weeks, months, and years to come don't get that luxury. The children that aren't home, the friends that some kids won't see anymore, the buddy a teacher had in the teachers' lounge, the dreams that were lost, the potential that's gone... I feel for them, and I wish them the best.
Did I talk to anyone about what happened? Not really- I've found that if a situation doesn't immediately concern someone, they usually say “I know” or “yeah” or “just let it go” or “you have to let it roll off your back”- and over the years, I've come to hate those responses- no matter what the situation is, they never help. If someone feels that they can confide in you about anything, swallow the snark or the dismissive attitude that you might be adopting and do your best to help them.
That's one of the cheapest gifts we can give- compassion and empathy. Friendship works wonders too.
There's not a whole lot I truly believe in anymore- time and society have done a good job at eroding what rumbles around in my heart and head- but I still believe in the fact that we're better than this. In fact, I know that we're better than this- look at our history; look at the good we've managed to do- whether it's sociological or technological advances or what have you, is amazing. When the bad stuff happens, we do what we do best- we work together and we persevere. Hell, I think we have to do just that- the alternative is much more depressing.
Sometimes, whether I'd like to admit it or not, I'm still that high school kid wondering why someone he knew once upon a time got shot and killed over a fucking Eddie Bauer coat, knowing full well that there will never be any answers for the senselessness that life hits us with every now and then. Other times, I'm pretending to be an adult while still trying to figure out why things like this happen.
Today, I'm just a guy that thinks that High School Me and Pretend Adult Me would agree on one thing: things can be better than this.
I know they can be.
We just need to work towards it.
Thanks for reading.