29: Here Too
What happened that April out in Colorado — two boys with guns and trench coats, thirteen dead, twenty-one wounded — quickly became known as Columbine. Just Columbine. I was in eighth grade and I didn’t yet know the word “synecdoche” but that’s what it was, the part become the whole. In May, a month to the day later, another boy with another gun shot six of his classmates in Conyers, Georgia. The school had its own name, of course, but this became another Columbine, and somehow all the others before it were Columbines too.
The name was retroactive and universal and the only thing anyone could agree about. Whose fault was it? Apparently it was too simple to blame the boys who did it, or the adults who helped them get the weapons they used. No, it had to be something else—the girls who rejected them, or the bullies who pushed them around, or the video games they played, or The Basketball Diaries or The Matrix or Marilyn Manson or Satan or Bill Clinton. Everyone was right and everyone else was wrong and if we didn’t know who to blame then we didn’t know who to punish, and if we didn’t know who to punish then we didn’t know how to keep it from happening again. We were all at the mercy of this unsolved and unsolvable mystery. I guess we agreed on that too.
On the far side of that summer I started ninth grade. Between August 1999 and May 2003, the forty-six months that comprised my high school career, there were twenty-three school shootings across the United States. Sometimes it felt like waiting to be picked for dodgeball. One by one, the chances going up every time it happened somewhere else. Even if you were dead last, you were bound to make the team.
We started freshman year with a dress code and by the spring they had us doing active-shooter drills — we called them “safety drills,” like safety itself was the threat — which soon became as commonplace as the fire drills and the tornado drills we’d been doing since kindergarten. But in the end, nothing happened. Once, during exams, somebody called in a bomb threat and we all had to stand outside the rain while cops searched the building, but that was the worst of it. A little damp.
In college, whenever I saw the news about another boy, another town, another gun, my first feeling was always sadness and my second was always relief. Because I was done with that. I’d made it through. I did my time and I didn’t have to worry about it anymore. As if my childhood exposure inoculated me against any future threat, like chicken pox.
I was three weeks away from graduation when I heard about Virginia Tech. The boy with the handgun had walked up and down the halls shooting into rooms full of students and professors hiding behind tables and doors. He took a break to mail a package of photos and videos and letters to NBC. He knew they’d want it. He’d seen it before. We’d all seen it before.
He was the same age as me: twenty-two, a senior, weeks away from being done with college. He was in eighth grade when Columbine happened too. He went through high school under that cloud. So had all the kids he killed. They all survived too, until they didn’t.
I was shocked, and ashamed that I was shocked. I cried so much that week. I kept thinking, It happens here too? It happens here too? As if I’d ever lived anywhere else but right here in this world.
I didn’t write that this week, I wrote it years ago; I’ve probably written it a few times, actually, because the story never changes. There’s another one, there’s always another one, and time collapses, and all I can see is all the other times I’ve seen it.
Sometimes I wonder if I’ve become numb to it all, which at this point seems like a more than reasonable response. But no, it’s more like I’ve come to take the feelings I do have for granted. They’ve been so familiar for such a long time. The intake of the headline, the stomach drop, the resistance to watching and clicking through and scrolling slowly eroded by the compulsion to know, to witness, to poke the old yellow bruise that never gets a chance to heal.
I remember looking up how many school shootings happened during my high school years and being stunned by the frequency: twenty-three in the span of forty-six months, one every other month. I remember having to do that tallying on my own. Now there are databases, trackers, perpetually-updating infographics. They tell me that there have been twenty-seven school shootings in 2022 so far. We are twenty-one weeks into the year.
The first half of my adult life, which I guess started that day three weeks before my graduation, was an awful series of realizations: first that college campuses aren’t safe, that movie theaters aren’t safe, offices, grocery stores, churches, festivals, concerts, on and on — each one a shock, to the point that after a while I was no longer ashamed to be surprised but actually impressed by my own continued shockability. Not numb at all, see?! And then the second half of my adult life so far has been a grudging acclimation to the big shitty fact that all those shocks add up to: that nothing is sacred, nobody and nowhere, unless it’s clutched in the precious fucking arms of the second amendment.
And so it could happen anywhere, at any time, to anyone. Could? Might? What are the actual chances? Probably lower than I fear but still higher than I’d prefer. The extremely broad category of “existing in public in this country” is enabled by an X-Games edition of the mental gymnastics that allow me to drive a car or fly in a plane or consume food that I didn’t watch being made or, lately, exist in an enclosed space with any number of people whose exact movements over the last fourteen days I can’t personally account for.
Is that denial, or is it hope? Is there a difference? Does it matter?
I hate asking these questions. I hate feeling the same feelings and writing the same words over and over again. I hate hating it.
The kids in the pictures used to remind me of the upperclassmen on my bus, then my own classmates, then kids I used to know. Now they remind me of my friends’ kids. Maybe my own one day. The story never changes, but of course it changes. We all survive, until we don’t. Things aren’t normal, until they are. Things don’t change, until they do. It happens here too. It only ever happens here.