Thoughts and reflections on the Newtown, CT school shooting.
In mid April of 1999, I was approaching the end of my first year teaching and summer couldn’t come fast enough. The school year had exhausted me to no end thus far, and I was lucky to have to have this week in April, spring break. Here I could come up for air, let my nerves relax, before plunging back in for the school year’s home stretch, resuming my duties as the chorus and general music teacher at Rogers Park Middle School in Danbury, CT.
I lived just a mile or so from the Danbury Fair Mall, an enormous, bilevel complex surrounded by parking lots, big box stores and I-84 roaring past on one side. It was a Tuesday, and I just had lunch at the food court and headed into Sears at the far end of the mall. Among the many things I needed for my new place was a new TV, so I headed into the electronic section and it was there I immediately noticed something was amiss.
People were huddled in uneasy knots around the TV displays, dozens of TVs, all turned on for demonstration, in various shapes, sizes, makes, from tiny 13 inch models to huge projection TVs that took up an entire wall. Nobody was saying anything, just standing; watching in silent shock. I managed to get a view of one of the smaller TVs and was able to catch a glimpse of a line of people being led out of a low, flat building, and realized very quickly, that a special news report was in progress.
It was the shooting at Columbine High School in Littleton, CO: the kickoff of a series of school shootings that have left us on edge, shaking our heads, wondering each time if this was the new reality. It was not the first time this kind of thing happened; in the 70s, shortly after I was born, it happened in California, and just a year before Columbine it happened in Jonesboro Arkansas, but both were extremely isolated events. And so, after the shock wore off, we were able to dismiss this too, as a fluke that happened over a thousand miles away.
When I returned to school after break, there was a rightful and understandable edginess in the air that was not there before. I am sure an announcement was made to the students on that Monday morning by our principal: a Mr. William Spielberg: a tall, serious, soft-spoken, articulate man who, with his short white beard carried an air of gravitas. We teachers spoke in hushed tones, and tried, with varying degrees of success and failure, to resume our classes as though nothing happened. But something had, and we all knew it.
Later in the week was the inevitable district-wide faculty meeting in the cafeteria of the high school. The first thing I noticed was that the tables, which had always been arranged laterally in the oblong cafeteria were turned so they abutted each other in just a few long straight rows the length of the cafeteria. And I realized immediately it was to enable one to look down the tables with little obstruction to facilitate the observation of any irregular activities. I seem to remember all lockers had also been searched in both middle schools and the high school, no mean feat, considering the size of the Danbury Public Schools (the 2nd largest district in Connecticut)
The superintendent was at the faculty meeting. “Our schools are safe” he insisted, in a voice that sounded as though by repeating it as a mantra he could convince himself of that. “Our schools are safe,” He repeated again at the parent meeting that packed the auditorium at the high school. We were in Connecticut, over a thousand miles from the shooting, and had no reason at all to believe this would happen here in Danbury, halfway up the state of Connecticut on the westernmost edge. He didn’t sound very convinced. Or convincing, for that matter. Nonetheless, we felt safe. It’s amazing what a little geographical distance will do.
It was not lost on me that this most recent shooting in Newtown, CT happened about ten miles from where I taught in 1999. Many of my colleagues, with whom I sat in the teachers lounge, from whom I received veteran teacher’s advice, made their homes in Newtown CT. They had children, and possibly grandchildren enrolled in the school district there. Newtown was one of those sleepy towns you’d pass the exit for on the way to New Haven or Hartford, barely on the map. Sadly, that has all changed. It is now on the map. In red.
It further did not escape me that my son Zack is enrolled in the school district in Milford, CT where he lives with his mom and stepdad. Milford is a middle class suburb of New Haven, not twenty-five miles from Newtown. Zack is autistic, and were such a thing to happen in his school, I know he would not recognize the danger. Nor would he have the comprehension or motor skills to make a safe escape.
Not only is this most recent tragedy the largest public school shooting in history; the victims were the youngest. This also is the closest school shooting to New York. It is ten miles down the highway from Danbury, where I taught. I have a child in school. Many, if not most of my friends who are my age have elementary age children. So this has hit incredibly close to home, not just for me, but everyone around me. The thousand-mile distance from here to Colorado is no longer here to protect us.
iPhones were out, everyone checking for news updates in horrified disbelief. Increasing frustration as the media, in an effort to be the first to report on this inchoate tragedy, were spectacularly failing to get a straight story. And the body count continued to rise.
“What kind of sick person, ”I wondered aloud, ”Would think that whatever problems they had could somehow be remedied by shooting a bunch of elementary school kids?”
What, indeed. I have often said that proof of insanity is often the insane act in itself. Crazy people aren’t known for their critical thinking skills. Normal, healthy, well adjusted people, with their whole life to look forward to simply do not do these things. They don’t premeditate them. They don’t execute them.
When it was reported that the gunman was dead, having taken his own life, I was relieved. I was not only relieved that the end of the gunman meant the end of the shootings. I did not rejoice, ”Ding dong, the witch is dead.” There is another reason I am relieved.
Without the gunman alive and well to stand trial, to be sent to prison for the rest of his life, or, to sit on death row for years before being sent to the gurney, we would have to find another way to close this. All the vengeful rhetoric in the world, all the punitive measures that we could theoretically do to this man were he alive will not make those kids any less dead. Therefore we cannot say it is over. Our question, ”What are we going to do to this person?” is useless. He’s gone. And so now, our question is, ”What are we going to do about this?”
This. What is this, you ask? Never has a more loaded word been typed. This.
Go back to 1999. Think, for example of the school shootings. How many, off the top of your head can you name? Conyers, Georgia. Virginia Tech. And a year before Columbine, we had Jonesboro, Arkansas. Why has this become something you see on the news on a semi regular basis?
What are we doing wrong? And what can we do to stop it? To suggest we are doing just fine and it is one nut job every now and then is a ridiculously simpletonic explanation. One I’ve heard every so often is, ”Well some people are just evil.”
Right. That’s going to solve the problem. So, why all the “evil” people all of a sudden? We’re doing just fine as a society, we just have an ever increasing ratio of “evilborn” people. We are not doing fine.
This discussion needs to be opened up. And it cannot stop, as many have before, at rhetoric. The US now has the highest rate of incarcerated people in the developed world. The US, while only five percent of the world’s population, has twenty five percent of the worlds incarcerated people. One quarter of the people in the world sitting in prison are in the United States. Or, another way to look at it, closer to home, fully 1% of the US population is currently in prison. That doesn’t sound like a lot, but it is. One out of every hundred people are sitting in prison, not being productive citizens, not contributing to the economy, not paying taxes. Worse, we view this as some kind of solution, as though we are somehow safer with all these people locked up. Or perhaps is it the threat of prison would deter those of us tempted to partake in dangerous acts to refrain? Well, it’s not doing too much good. And, again, it raises the question of what kind of people are we raising that we need to have so great a ratio of them locked up for our safety?
And, touchy of a subject as it is, the issue of gun control does indeed need to be a part of this equation. The most adamant of the gun control lobby would call for an immediate ban on any and all firearms. The powerful gun lobby would categorically deny that the availability of firearms have anything to do with this and other tragedies of this nature. But the 800 pound gorilla in the room, the one thing we cannot ignore, no matter how much we try is that these tragedies could not have been accomplished without firearms. Yes, our gunman could have walked into the elementary school armed with a baseball bat, but he might have been able to crack perhaps two skulls before someone would have taken him down. School shootings are, by nature, crimes of opportunity, and they would not have been possible without the presence of a firearm. But it is not realistic to expect immediate legislation to go into effect banning all firearms. These things take time, red tape. And they demand compliance. And that gives plenty of time for another tragedy of this magnitude, or worse to occur. Undeniably some kind of gun control needs to happen, but what will we do in the interim?
This conversation needs to include questions, such as why we feel so unsafe that we feel the need to have firearms? Why, in what has been touted as the safest community in America: Newtown CT, the mother of our gunman, another victim of the tragedy felt the need to have three weapons, two of them semiautomatic in her house? The truth is coming out that the gunman was disturbed, so then, why were the weapons so accessible to him? Why, as Americans, are guns tied up so much in our identity? Is our love affair with guns sending a tacit message that life is cheap?
Why are there people who keep guns in a statement of defiance? “Because I can.” “Because it’s my right.” “Nobody’s going to tell me what to do”. All these answers for doing something are a close and equally unattractive relative to the answers for not doing something: “Why should I?” “Because I don’t have to.” And these are all terrible reasons in that they abdicate responsibility.
The very fact that we feel so unsafe, that we need to protect what little we have against our neighbor with an instrument whose function is only successful when death is achieved is a very sad statement. It brings to mind the concept of “divide and conquer”, usually done at the behest of a third party, but have weapons and our perceived need for them already done this for us? The fact that people feel the need to have firearms because someone else might have one and shoot you first is tragic. Using that logic, the one with the biggest, most effective weapon wins. Bam. Does that sound dysfunctional to you? It sure does to me.
And another issue that needs to be addressed is that of mental health. Why do we have these people in our midst whose lives have so little value? One who does not value their own life sure as hell isn’t going to value yours, or that of your children. These things do not come out of left field, much as we would like to comfort ourselves with that. So how did we let it get this far? Who’s been minding the shop?
We might get some insight from the accessibility of mental health treatment, or lack thereof. Often the stigma of mental issues comes not from the issues themselves, but from the reception of treatment. We make rubber room jokes, lunatic and asylum jokes, schitzo jokes. We make jokes about “going postal” (and where do you think that term came from?). We tell people with very real problems to “suck it up and deal.” Parents are reluctant to get their children psychiatric treatment for fear of the label it might bequeath on them. And so they try to keep it in the house where it goes poorly treated or not treated at all, and is kept as a “dirty little secret”.
We cannot ignore the cost, either. All but the most high-end comprehensive insurance policies are loathe to cover things that are mental health related. This often results in unaffordable out of pocket costs, and given the choice between eating or paying for meds and counseling, if it comes down to that, guess which wins?
How about the fact that the vast majority mental health facilities today are outpatient, rather than inpatient? While many, if not most mental health issues can be handled on an outpatient basis, the switch to outpatient treatment was not done in the interests of the patients. Rather it was done as a cost cutting measure. Couple that with the stigma of “being institutionalized”, and you have people who are being inadequately, if at all, treated for their mental difficulties, when perhaps in better times, a healthier outlook and a more intensive effective treatment might have been in order. And did you know, most disgracefully, that there are more mentally ill people in prison in America than in mental health facilities? Read that again. It sounds every bit as unconscionable as it is! And it is a sad, sad, statement of how we view our mentally ill population. Do we really believe that prison: a place where people who choose to do the wrong thing are placed for punishment, is an appropriate place for our mentally ill population? Have prisons become the defacto mental hospitals? Unfortunately yes. Yes, they have. And that mentality might give us some insight as to why we have become so jaded and cynical that we feel the need to arm ourselves to the teeth into division. And that will be our undoing.
There is a term I like to use, and that term is critical mass. It is often used in physics, or in nuclear energy, but the context I like to use it is of a more colloquial nature:
Critical mass: 3. An amount or level needed for a specific result or new action to occur
You will notice it is numbered 3; that is the third definition down, after the more metaphysical definitions.
Well, this has reached critical mass:
the amount :
I don’t have an exact figure of the shootings in school, the workplace or in public venues that have happened since Columbine. But we all know it is far too high.
And the level: A bunch of elementary school kids, their teachers and principal.
And what remains to be seen is the specific result or new action. To wit: what exactly are we going to do about it? Talk? OK, great. But rhetoric is not going to solve this. For years, we have been trying to solve our problems with expedient quick fixes. Make this legislation. Make that legislation. Put this guy in jail. Call that legislation “So and So’s law”. Put metal detectors here. Stigmatize people there. Extend our thoughts and prayers to the people of Newtown, as though that was an end in itself. We are positively bubble gummed together with quick fixes, besmirched by agendas and political grandstanding. But those chickens have now come home to roost. And nobody likes where they are roosting.
Thoughts and prayers are nice and all; they are a nod to our theoretical empathy. But long after we have tired of putting memes with candles, angels, ribbons and flowers on Facebook, long after the prayer circles and candlelight vigils have dissipated, what’s next? After the President has gone home and we have gone back to watching Glee or America’s Got Talent and thinking about when the next iPad will come out, that elementary school is going to reopen.
It will reopen, and it will physically be cleaned up. Parents will still be reeling from the unimaginable horror having had to make funeral arrangement for their children instead of preparing for Christmas. Teachers will return to find a new principal, and empty desks once occupied by their students dispersed throughout the school. Children will return to find some of their classmates and friends gone, carrying a cross no elementary school child should ever have to bear. And somehow, the school will have to pick up with its normal operations.
But after all this, the people of Newtown are going to find out the answer to a very scary question: When we said our thoughts and prayers were with them, did we mean it? Or will we abandon them after a temporary, if cathartic diversion? And that remains to be seen. My mother always told me, ”Actions speak louder than words.” Well, what we have so far is words. That’s ok. It’s still fresh in our minds and we have yet to outfit ourselves with a proposed course of action. But the people of Newtown are going to be pioneers in finding the answer as to what, if anything, we, as Americans, are going to do together about this. Together has to be the operative word. Otherwise, we are divided and therefore conquered. It has to be something, it has to be.
Because it has now hit critical mass.