An essay, written two years ago, that should no longer be relevant.
In the Aftermath of Grief
On the day that Christopher Harper-Mercer shot and killed members of his English composition class, I was applying for a job as a writing teacher in a local hospital. While the supervisor and I discussed specific job duties and the emotional detachment that necessitated working with sick children, Umpqua Community College students huddled together, in the aftermath of one man’s rage, in grief. Later, I picked up my six year old daughter from school and held her too tightly until she complained and squirmed away. She is still young enough to live unaware of the dangers she faces every time she walks through her school door.
Like many Americans, I’ve seen too many depictions of shootings. I’ve seen them acted out in movies and on YouTube with sad music in the background. I’ve looked at low quality images taken from a phone, secreted beneath a desk. It is too easy to imagine what happened at Umpqua. A typical day that starts with roll call, the teachers goes over the lesson plans, there are papers to turn in, please gather into small groups now for discussion. Someone walks in late and you don’t pay any attention because college students are nothing if not notoriously late. But then the atmosphere changes, things are suddenly charged and there is a sense that something very bad is about to happen. Your classmate, the guy no one really likes, the one you try to avoid after class because he makes you feel weird, is standing in the doorway with a gun. You think this should be a joke. You’re waiting for the part where he takes off the angry mask, acknowledges the poor joke, and then sits in his seat to discuss critical essays. But he begins yelling and suddenly everyone understands the joke was in believing such a thing as safety existed.
Media following the shooting shows students clinging to each other in grief, shoulders hunched forward as they attempt to bear the weight of death without relief. I watched those clippings on my phone while waiting for my own college classes to start. Later I would walk to my car with my mace unlocked and clenched in my fist.
I was raised in a world filled with the boogeymen parents warn their children about, the same monsters I teach my daughter about now. I have listened to Amber Alerts, read obituaries of classmates, and watched students on TV huddled together for comfort in grief. I live in a world inundated with events called horrific, unjust, and deplorable, but each day, when I pull through the valet line at my daughter’s school and watch as her braid and pink backpack disappear into the mob of other small children, and I wonder if my last words to her, that I will see her after school, are true. This chill of uncertainty settles over me like an impenetrable mist that no amount of logic can eradicate.
I struggle to find comfort here.
The names run together in a stream of nightmarish flashbacks: Columbine, Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook, Umpqua, Oikos, and Red Lake. Knowing even half of these names means I have become accustomed to the possibility that my life, or the lives of those I know, might end within the safety of a school classroom.
The shootings are often used for platforms to launch political agenda. Politicians and angry parents stand in front of cameras and make declarative statements with attempts to sway a nation to change. This is a gun control issue, this is mental health awareness, this is having parents in the home, this is knowing what your teens are doing with their free time, video games, media, gangs, culture, self-protection, constitutional rights, human rights, inalienable rights, you have the right to remain silent, you have the right to a fair trial, you have the right to a last meal.
Where is the right for safety?
I have sat in my own Graduate English classes, ones that now include a lock on every door, and struggled to remember exactly when they were installed. I have overheard teachers recount stories of calling security on angry students, and then dismiss the event with a shrug or joke.
The real story is this. A man once walked by my class. He was good looking and tall, hardly someone I expected to walk in and start shooting. He held a paper in his hand and peered into the room. His face was taught and grim and I became distracted by the intensity of his stare. He walked away from the window and I was drawn back towards the lecture. He’d reappeared in the corner of my eye and I felt the familiar fears from a lifetime of horror stories fall over me like a shield.
What would I have done if he’d walked in and started shooting?
I like to pretend that I am just paranoid, one of those helicopter moms who would rather insert their child into a protective bubble than send them into a world that hurts without remorse. Or someone with an overactive imagination that runs unlikely scenarios through my head as a form of entertainment. But when I live in a world where I have to ask myself if the images I’ve seen, of college students crouched together in front of buildings, will someday be a picture of someone I know, or if the lockdown drills my daughter practices at school will ever be necessary, I don’t know that I can blame all of my fear on strict paranoia.
Instead, each shooting seems to reinforce my inability to understand the world. So I watch the news clippings of Umpqua students huddled together, their college sweaters the only thing distinguishing them from any of the other school shootings, I sit in my own college classes and struggle to focus on the discussions when the loud voices of students down the hall startle my heart into overtime, and I watch my daughters small figure recede into the montage of bright jackets and sneakers, and hope, that I will see her again soon.