Tuesday, April 17, 2007

schools are sanctuaries

This week in April already marked the 12th anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing and the 8th anniversary of the shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, CO. More than enough nauseating memories (this week also marks Adolf Hitler's birthday) to haunt us for the rest of our lives, yet before we could even begin to memorialize these atrocities, Monday happened.

I spent the majority of Monday at Fremd, my former high school, working on a project. As news spread about the shooting massacre at Virginia Tech, more and more teachers in the English office sat at the row of computers and watched video newsreel footage on cnn.com. At first I wasn't quite sure what had happened...people were clearly shocked about something, but I wasn't in close enough proximity to eavesdrop.

When I finally got to check my e-mail later in the afternoon, there were three CNN Breaking News updates in my inbox.
"9:31 a.m....one person has been killed and one injured..."
"11:24 a.m....at least 20 people were fatally shot..."
"1:36 p.m....the death toll rises to 31, including the gunman..."

When I was in fourth grade, a sixth-grader named Asher brought a gun to school. I don't remember most of the details, except that my friend Melissa's sister was also a sixth-grader and claimed that he threatened her with the weapon. I think our parents were required to pick us up from school that day. And I'm pretty sure the police reported that Asher's gun hadn't even been loaded. Nevertheless, the event and subsequent arrest caused quite a stir among our normally undisrupted neighborhood. Kids even started inserting his name into Aerosmith's song "Janie's got a gun" (a song, until doing research today, i always thought belonged to Nirvana's repetoire).

The Oklahoma City bombing on April 19, 1995 occurred when I was in sixth grade. By the second half of the school year (early '95), my teacher and I had grown more and more intolerant of each other. One particularly awful day she kicked me out of the classroom for doing nothing. I stomped into the hall carrying with me a Teen magazine. After collapsing to the floor, my jaw clenched in anger, I ripped open the magazine. A story about a girl who took a gunshot to her leg while attempting to protect her classmates from a school shooter stared back at me. I thought about Asher and how different that day could have turned out. And I thought to myself that if someone was to come to my class right then with a gun, I'd probably do the same as the girl in the article--both to protect my friends and to get the h-e-l-l out of sixth grade.

April 20, 1999. I was a sophomore in high school sitting in our auditorium for Writers Week when we collectively heard about the shootings at Columbine. Flashbacks of this abounded as the Virginia Tech shootings reached the eyes and ears of the American public. As Wikipedia states, the shootings at Columbine caused "a moral panic in American high schools." Fremd definitely fell into that category. I don't think there was anyone--student nor staff--who didn't immediately recognize Columbine as a comparable school to Fremd. In P.E. class we had to break into small groups to discuss our fears and feelings. They told us we couldn't judge someone just because they chose to wear all black.

This is what bothered me on Monday. The media immediately turned on Virginia Tech, making the school into a scapegoat. I don't see how this event is in any way the fault of the school. The fault lies within Cho and his mental instability. He snapped and murdered over 30 people. The police even stated that a "lone gunmen out to kill himself is the hardest kind of criminal to catch." I don't think it's fair that the media has been blaming anyone but Cho, himself.

Before Cho's name and personal background were released, the news said they had reason to believe that the gunman was someone here on a student visa from South Korea. But before the details became known the following day, I worried that the repercussions of him being here on a student visa would, in the coming months and years, affect our already ridiculous immigration laws...that it might even affect general international travel. I believe this turned out to be false, that although Cho was a native South Korean, he was also a permanent resident of the U.S. Ironically, a lot of his victims happened to be international relations majors, keen on making the world a better place.

This immigration idea hearkens back to a movie I just watched two weeks ago, Children of Men, where any "alien" caught entering London (in the year 2027) was shoved into a cage and eventually killed or thrown into a ghetto. After watching an hour of news reports Tuesday morning, I made myself turn off the TV and all I could do was close my eyes and go back to sleep. Remnants of that movie, current events and influences from the post-apocolyptic novel I'm reading, The Road, by Cormac McCarthy (which, incidently, won the Pulitzer Prize last week) meshed together...and I had a dream that I was walking around brightly-colored Chicago, and there were bumper to bumper cars lining the streets. And every one of them had a person standing so they were half out of the sun roof. All of them holding different types of guns. I walked with my hands over my head, afraid that at any moment I'd be gunned down. Everyone was shooting at random. And laughing about it. One woman kept putting a pistol to different sides of her head and playing a game of Russian Roulette, except that she was the only player. And every time the gun didn't go off when she pulled the trigger, she'd laugh a haunting laugh.
My dreams the rest of the week proved to be vivid nightmares, one revolving around my family and I somehow surviving a fiery plane crash.

On Tuesday evening I drove Max to his orchestra concert in Hyde Park. Before going to the theater on U of Chicago's campus, I had to drop him off at the front door of his school--the Lab School, a K-12 private school linked with the university--to run inside and get the required sheet music from his locker. He returned 30 seconds later empty-handed.
"Where's the music?" I asked while scarfing down a Potbelly's sandwich.
Max, who gets frequently exasperated with incompetent authority figures (just as I did when I was 12), complained, "The stupid cop wouldn't let me get it because I didn't have my school ID!"
"Do you usually have a school ID?" I asked.
"No! That's why this is so stupid!"
I couldn't help wondering if this extra bit of security had anything to do with what happened the day before in Virginia, briefly recalling how NYU became super-strict about us showing our IDs [as i proof-read this posting i realized i had accidentallytyped "ideas" here, instead of IDs. i thought that was noteworthy. possible freudian slip?] to get in any building post-9/11.
I offered to go in there with him and see if a babysitter's presence could vouch for the kid's good-student status.
Max defiantly said, "No. I'll just go without it. Whatever. They'll have to bring me back if they want me to get it."
"Well alright," I said, pulling away from the curb.
"What does he think i'm going to do??" Max continued, getting more defensive by the second. "I'm twelve! I'm not gonna bomb the school or something if that's what he thinks!"

Before the 7th grade spring concert commenced, the conductor thanked everyone for coming. "Also," she said, her voice dropping to a solemn tone, "we'd like to dedicate this concert to those who lost their lives in Virginia."

As the orchestra played their final piece--"Dia de los Muertos" (Day of the dead)--I thought about what the President had said in his speech at VA Tech earlier that afternoon. How he referred to schools as "sanctuaries." I thought about how back in the day one of the only things that protected someone from being drafted into the war was being enrolled in a school. The school acting as a protective barrier from the barracks. Yet now we have to beware of those wars infiltrating our classrooms.

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