What ensues also fits a pattern: an eruption of grief, followed by a brief, evanescent unity in our community, our nation. And then comes the finger-pointing. Pointing a finger--analogous, of course, to pointing a pistol.
Of Chardon, we've already heard about bullying, about a fracture of some sort in the home, about the proliferation of firearms, about the ocean of violence that washes over our country--television, movies, music, computer games. About our poisonous, polarized political climate. Our wars. Our ...
I don't want to write about any of this. Investigations are already underway, and it is the people of Chardon who must find ways to, simultaneously, forget and never forget.
Instead, it's the whole idea of fear in the schoolroom that has long appalled me--from my own boyhood and adolescence through my 45-year teaching career.
Some of my earliest school memories are scarlet with fear. I was not a big child--and I was afraid of bigger kids. The boy in fifth grade who kept hitting me on the legs with a stick until I had to fight or run; I fought and lost and wept. The high school boy (when I was in junior high) who would routinely wipe his feet on my white shoes. Daring me. I could do nothing. Trying to go unnoticed in the hallways when I was among the youngest in the building. Safety lay, I knew, in invisibility.
And, of course, I was no saint, either. I remember with great regret and horror the things I said and did to classmates farther down the totem pole of fear than I.
And as the Cold War accelerated, we practiced in our classrooms what we would do in the event of an atomic attack. As this photo very realistically shows, when the warning came, we had to get under our desks and cover our heads. I remember feeling somehow safe in that position. Nothing could hurt me there, hidden, covered.
Later, a teacher, I dreaded fire drills, as well. They always seemed to come when I had a busy agenda. I hated insisting on silence, on the military march to the playground. But I knew by then that I couldn't outrun fire. I couldn't outrun anything that could kill.
And then, at last, in the wake of the school shootings at Columbine High School: lockdowns.
When I was teaching at Western Reserve Academy, we had periodic lockdown drills. A piercing alarm. A step into the hall to lock the door. An order to the kids: move out of sight. Be silent. Wait. We would hear footsteps in the hall--we could not look. It was surely the security officers, just checking ... Right?
Even when I knew these drills were coming, they still frightened me. Death in a school hallway. A classroom. The very thought is obscene.
But I also knew this. No drills, no security, no technology can stop a determined killer. Presidents can fall. So can schoolchildren. A metal-detector at the doorway? It would mean only that the shooting would start sooner.
A few years ago, I was back in Enid for a visit. I wanted to walk through Adams School again, to see the halls, the classrooms, the playground. I wanted some pictures. I knew I would have to stop first in the school office and report.
I immediately tried to diminish the secretary's worry. I told her I'd been a student at Adams a half-century ago. My parents had met and married in Enid--my mother had gone to Adams. I told her I was a writer now. Had published some books. And I was at work on a memoir about my boyhood in Enid. She smiled, sort of. Handed me a visitor's badge. But then she saw my camera. "You cannot take any pictures," she said with school-secretary-sharpness. "We can't frighten the children."
We can't frighten the children.
I was out in the hallway when some classes changed. Third and fourth graders flooded out into the hall. Some looked at me with alarm. Is he dangerous?
There are few images that hurt and haunt us more than a frightened child. A wounded child. A murdered one.
We need to do everything we can to reduce fear in our homes, schools, communities and country. We need to teach--in every way we can--that violence against one another is no solution to anything. When we're afraid, we can't learn. We can't even live, not in ways we want to, the ways we dream of. And there are just so many things we need to do to diminish fear in our lives, in our children's and students' lives. We know what those things are.
But I am afraid--afraid--that we do not have anything like the will or the courage to enact any but the easiest of them.