April 20, 2008
One of the inevitable consequences of getting to be a certain age is that one finds it irresistible to notice the differences between what things were like “back in the day” and say, right now.
I saw a T-shirt recently that encapsulated these phenomena succinctly with the slogan “The older I get, the better I used to be.”
Everybody does this sort of thing as they age. A guy might remember the day he picked up a V-8 engine block and wrestled it onto the bed of a pickup truck. He does not remember that he spent the next few days moving very carefully and whimpering.
A funny thing happened the other day. I was at home, not planning to go into the newsroom until later in the day because I had a night meeting to cover.
My editor called my cell phone, and said to prepare myself. A high school in the district I cover was reportedly in lockdown. One of the students had text mailed his or her parent, who works for our company. Said parent called the school, but didn’t learn much, and also called the newsroom.
“You might have to drop everything and get over there,” Janet said. “I’ll call you when I know more.”
I said, OK, let me know and I’ll be on my way. I got everything together because I didn’t want to waste time…the school is more than an hour away from where I live.
I sat and thought about how I would cover the event; talk to neighbors, parents, cops and so on….
It turned out to be not much. Two former students were found to be hanging around and, these days being these days, the administration tucked everybody away until the two youths could be gotten off campus.
I relaxed and went back to whatever I had been doing. And then something hit me.
I think it was pretty professional. No panic. Getting my ducks in a row and bracing myself, knowing I might be dealing with some pretty distraught people.
But no shock. No surprise that something like that could happen here.
After Columbine, after Virginia Tech, the first anniversary of which was only a couple of days away, after too many other school shootings, we already know that it can happen. Something like that can happen “any-here.” Any time.
My mind was occupied with the mechanics of getting there, who to talk to, how to cover it. I felt no horror, though that would surely come as I went through the process.
The idea of a mass shooting at a school has become so commonplace in the pantheon of tragedy that it has become, in a sort of freakish way, commonplace. We know how to cover them, as we know now how to cover airplane, auto, and train crashes, building collapses, violent protests.
I spend a little time trudging down the hallways of public schools. I always marvel at how young the students are. I was married for the first time a year after I left high school. I felt mature enough. Everybody told me we were too young. They were right.
The schools today are bright, comfortable, with technological stuff I couldn’t even have imagined back then. Walking in my high school was like entering a crowded, sweaty cavern, dim and noisy and reeking of whatever colognes and perfumes were in vogue, usually applied, judging by their intensity, with a ladle.
I walk through these new schools and I want to go and do high school all over again. Except this time I would skip the bullies and the pimples, and have better luck with girls and math. Or so I like to think.
Our halls 40-some years ago were dark and crowded, but you didn’t worry about being killed at high school. Stomped in the boys’ room and humiliated, yes, called “Chubby” by the P.E. coach, who was the last vestige of the Neanderthal race known to exist, and called worse things by the jocks, but not killed outright.
Artsy bookworms like me could stew about revenge all we wanted to, but we never heard of any victim of bullying coming to school armed to the teeth, murder in his soul.
Keep in mind this was in the semi-rural South. If you’d look in the trunks or on the floorboards of most of the boys’ cars in the parking lot, including mine, you might well find rifles and/or shotguns, in case we decided to go out plinking cans or hunting small game.
So, I go to open houses at schools, see the shiny technologies and the bright rooms and feel a certain envy. And then I remember that I was not stunned at the idea there could have been another senseless tragedy at that high school, or anywhere, and I am not so certain at all that I’d want to be there, under that additional worry, ever.
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