By Sarah Page
My daughter chatters about her busy days, stringing one subject to the next without pause. It’s always been like that. Good stress is still stress and she’s a very sensitive person who takes every experience in with all of her senses in a deep way. And she is a verbal processor! So in the string of the this-happened, that-happened, it tumbled out: “Oh, and we had a Lockdown Drill today…”
We had just gotten off the bus and were waiting to transfer to the next line. I was grateful there was a bench. Having only been in school communities that refused to incorporate gun violence into the consciousness of the minds of the students, she had never experienced a lockdown drill before.
“Yeah, I guess the faculty realized they hadn’t gone over disasters yet, so Sister Carol asked us if we knew about the drills and we said no so she said, ‘Okay, I’ll just tell you about all of them then and she started with earthquakes…’”
She can’t die from gun violence in her school
The bench was blue metal and grated so rain wouldn’t puddle and it was designed to seat two people, one on either side of the information pole which tells the bus lines at that stop and also has a QR code. I scanned the code with my phone to see when the bus would arrive. 3 minutes.
“…And no one expects a shooter to be able to get to the third floor because of all of the stops in place at every floor. And the doors are all locked once class starts. We have to all go against the wall, away from the door and be silent, so it looks like there’s no one in the room, because you can see through the window.”
I forced myself to look at her and promised myself I could cry about this later, but not now.
“…And you can’t open the door once it starts. We’re just supposed to stay there until someone comes and unlocks the door. Someone did come around and they rattled the doorknob, pretending to try to get in the room. And we have to stay quiet.”
I felt weightless as cars raced by in my periphery. I focused my vision on the way her honey-colored hair falls around her face and the twitchy way she was telling me this information. I could hear her false confidence at having memorized every detail of the experience: her incredible mind being a blessing and curse. I could hear the fear in her voice as she swallowed the words she was saying aloud, resolving -not for the first time that day- that she would get through this. I can see the reel of memory running through her mind of her best friend whose class didn’t know they were in a drill a month ago, and the terror that went through that class as kids frantically texted their parents, thinking they were doing so for the last time; her friend begging god to let her see her family again.
My daughter’s hazel eyes weren’t focused on anything in particular except for the quick glances she chanced in my direction. She might end the conversation if I start to cry, I know, but I can hear the metal doorknob echoing inside my body; danger coming, an active shooter outside her classroom, and my body betrayed my weak promise to myself about crying later as warm pools started filling my lower eyelids.
I see myself at her funeral saying, “She was your best friend. She was your staunchest advocate. She was your smartest student. She was kind, she was gentle. She was your next musical lead, your broadway star. She was the next president.”
My head spins thoughts. All parents feel this way. No, I’ve learned enough to know they don’t. Some adults who create life actually don’t love their children. I do. I love her. Every mother like me loves their child like I do and thinks their child is amazing. I know. Except, I tell myself, it’s not hyperbole – my daughter actually is that incredible. She is exceptional. She has things to do in this life.
She can’t die from gun violence in her school.
What is the value of a life?
I remember a time in high school when I found out a friend’s dad was a surgeon. The conversation with friends was a discussion about the amazing realization that his hands were insured.
Because his hands were that valued; he was that valuable. He saved lives.
What is the value of a life? How do we measure potential? Insurance companies are very systematic about it. But not us. No, we consider all of the what-ifs and could-bes. Our hearts break at what might have been.
The month before high school started was a roller coaster screaming through a fun house. Up, down, high, low, joy, worry, excitement, fear.
As the first day of school approached, Irie blurted out one afternoon that she was tired of people telling her how terrible high schoolers are and she spat out the stereotypes she’d been suffering over. The last sentence carried the most weight; and it wasn’t a character assessment. It is the American teenage experience: “I’m going to be shot!” And what she didn’t say, couldn’t say: killed.
The weight of the fear she was carrying crushed every thought that preceded it. We had entered the new reality of our lives: high school now brings with it the shadow of death. Not in the rare, horrible way some of us experienced the death of a classmate in high school, but in the new reality of American teenagers. It arrived, unwelcome and relentlessly present. I turned my body toward her and we sat side by side on my bed, to unearth the fear and name this reality. We sat in the same position as we sat now on that blue metal bench.
Cars sped by, blurred in the sideways world.
I know life moves in cycles, and human development is fairly predictable. I know I can expect certain hallmarks of teenage life and high school.
Active shooters? Lockdown drills? Children dead in mass shootings in their own schools; their own classrooms?
No, those are not part of my teenage experience. My adult Oregon experience though. I’ve been studying this subject since Kip Kinkel shot his classmates in Springfield, Oregon.
If you’re like me looking back on it, you might remember the horrors of that shooting, but you might also be surprised only two students were killed. When I looked back just now to remind myself about the date, my mind responded with, huh, that’s nothing compared to…. the atrocities that followed in growing number and horrifying scope. Shooting after shooting. If you were me, you’d remember the shattered parents arriving to pick up our preschoolers in the Forest after hearing about children getting killed at school in Newtown, Connecticut. Babies, this time: six and seven year olds. Most of us were inconsolable and needed to stop it immediately so we didn’t terrify our own young children. It was a tall order.
But never once did those images, as horrifying as they were, cross the threshold into our actual lived experience. Our school communities were small, unique, private. Something in my brain disallowed the image of gunmen (and it is men by the way – white men. White men with histories of domestic violence.) into the inner pictures I carried of my daughter’s school.
“Then they unlocked the door and came in and said we did a good job being quiet, but that they could see three of us through the window and everyone needed to be more up against the wall, away from the door and the window.”
Our bus pulled up and stopped in front of the blue bench. Time to move on.
It’s what we must do, right? – move on with our lives? How do people carry on after tragedy? How do the children carry on?
Samantha Fuentes: shot at age 18.
I did the thing that you’re not supposed to do in a shooting: Go towards the back of the room. I panicked. I’m a huge supporter of the Second Amendment, but the moment you say that everyone can have a gun and that everyone should be able to roam the streets with one, you are completely negating the idea that people are cruel. “Guns don’t kill people; people kill people” is very true. It’s about regulating those people.
Isabel Chequer: shot at age 16.
We were doing this thing called Eyewitness on our computers. It’s a program with testimony from Holocaust survivors. Steven Spielberg has something to do with it. It still kind of weirds me out that I didn’t get more badly injured or even pass away, because I was directly exposed. It just doesn’t make any sense. There was a girl who was praying in Spanish, and I thought maybe I should pray too. This is a time when you pray. So I did, and then I looked over and saw one of my classmates with her head down. Then I sort of realized that she wasn’t alive anymore. It’s weird to say that when you look at someone who’s passed, you just kind of know.
William Olson: Shot at age 14.
William Olson: When I woke up at the hospital, I remember my mom and dad being there, and not knowing how to feel.
Lisa Olson, William’s mother: When I first saw him, he wasn’t even able to speak. He was just shaking, and in pain. I didn’t realize what had happened to him — I knew it was a school shooting, but I didn’t realize they were bullet injuries until we had seen the x-rays.
He was in such shock. He was covered in bloody clothes, and not all that blood was his, it was the blood of other children. He had to lay like that for a couple of hours, until the police came to collect it for evidence.
The next day, my husband and I shut the door. We sat on the bed, and we said, “William, a very tragic thing happened at your school.” We told him, “Nick, the captain of your swim team, died, Alex died, and Alaina, and Carmen, who you take piano lessons with.” He just stared out the window. I don’t think he could comprehend what really happened. He didn’t say a word. My husband and I were hysterical, sobbing.
William: I remember how upset they were.
Lisa: We have a very hard time talking about this [now]. We don’t know how to talk about it. There are things that I want to know, but can’t bring myself to ask him. He doesn’t use the word shooting, or killing. I don’t know if other families talk about it. We go to therapy. For a long time, we didn’t say anything, because I thought it would do more damage to him. What do you say? You try to still live. I am so grateful that William got to come home. But [so many] of his classmates didn’t. It’s unfathomable.
William is back in school, and has a therapy dog with him. William is not able to tell his story. He just can’t right now. But maybe one day he can use that dog to provide comfort to someone else who’s had something terrible happen to them.
Teachers have told me that they go in the closet and cry, and then come back and finish teaching their classes.
Alexander Dworet: Shot at age 15. His brother was killed in the shooting.
A bullet skimmed my head. There was blood, but it didn’t feel like it could be real. There had been a bunch of rumors that there was going to be a test, where they were going to use paintballs. Some days, I’ll be really sad. Usually, I’m all right. The friends that weren’t there don’t really ask about it. I’m glad they don’t. Sometimes it gets me in a really bad mood when they do. I haven’t gotten involved in too much of the activism. I don’t like to draw attention to myself. But it definitely changed how I feel about gun control. I think there should be more.
I’ve spent the last 20 years thinking about school shootings, and more recently mass shootings. Living through the experience of watching it. Living through three shootings in Oregon. Not wanting to go to a big screen movie -especially not on opening day-(Batman), not wanting to go to the mall -especially not at Christmas-(Clackamas), not wanting to close myself off from the world, but pulling my children closer.
I have learned a lot of unfortunate statistics about gun violence. It’s predictable, actually. I have asked a lot of questions of people around me – people with more experience than I have, people who work in law enforcement, people who work with supporting survivors of sexual violence. People who work with low-income and drug-addicted folks, people who work with people who need mental health support (spoiler: we all need mental health support.) I have a lot of ideas for preventing it. It’s complex and also simple. And among the easiest solutions is legislation.
If I had my choice, I would eradicate guns entirely. My kids aren’t allowed to play at houses where there are guns; My daughter isn’t allowed to babysit in houses where there are guns.
But that’s not even what is on the table here. What is being asked is legislation that requires background checks (like Oregon’s governor enacted last February in response to the shooting in Parkland, Florida) where you’re restricted if you have a history of abuse or a history of stalking, saving the lives of women and children. Legislation which raises the federal age of gun ownership and possession to 21, and restricts access of those with criminal histories and histories of mental illness. *If you think that’s being unfair to those with mental illness, my NAIMI friends assure me: no person with mental illness wants a gun nearby for fear they will use it on themselves. THAT’S the issue. Further, those with mental illness are far more likely to be abused than to abuse others. The perpetuation of shooters being labeled “mentally ill” is a huge problem, but a different conversation.
So, yeah. My uterus must be the problem
Some people actually try to say it’s just me! That I need to just deal with gun ownership and bring more guns into our public space. That I’m overreacting.
I know, I know – my uterus makes me feel this way. (It’s called being “hysterical”, right?) As in hysterectomy. As in the Greek word hysterika, meaning uterus. In Ancient Greece, it was believed that a “wandering and discontented Uterus” was blamed for excessive emotion, aka hysteria.
Oh. Woe. Is. Me.
Except that research shows that American women are 16 times more likely to be shot and killed with a gun than women in other high-income countries, and that the presence of a gun in a domestic violence situation makes it five times more likely that a woman will be shot and killed. And what about the kids? Gun violence is the third leading cause of death for children in the U.S. and teens 13-17 account for nearly 85 percent of child firearm fatalities. And toddlers? They kill a lot of people.
So, yeah. My uterus must be the problem.
Except you don’t see women doing the killing, and you know: facts.
But I digress. No citizen needs to have an assault rifle; an automatic weapon that can unleash dozens of bullets in seconds. This is not the same thing as taking all guns away from people (which again, I am fully free to say, is what I personally want.) But that’s not even what gun violence prevention legislation is asking. This is called common sense. Literally: the legislation is called ‘common sense guns laws’.
As teenager David Hogg put it, saying children’s lives are more valuable than guns shouldn’t be an unpopular opinion.
My daughter now knows how to press her body against a wall in an attempt to save her life. She now knows that her school is not a sanctuary, even though they promise to try really hard to keep her alive. My daughter has now joined the ranks of American high school students, who since 1998, have been wondering if today is the day they will die at school.
And she wants people to vote for common sense gun laws. It’s just really hard for her to talk about it, but she’s working on it. She has practiced speaking, and can memorize a remarkable number of facts. She can look directly at someone while talking to them. She seems bubbly and bright, and full of life. And she is. She is also fighting for that life – with every conversation, every practice at public speaking, and every single step she takes that can bring her closer to affecting real change and being able to do something about the mess(es) she sees. She is determined. Fear can be a mighty motivator.
When she’s telling me her run-on stories, she’s silently inviting me to support her. She’s pleading with me in those furtive glances to provide an answer that will comfort her, bolster her, inspire her.
And you might wonder why nothing has happened federally regarding changes to gun laws. The majority party won’t allow it. Or actually, the majority party’s major funder won’t allow it. The National Rifle Association owns most “public servants”. That’s not an opinion of mine, that’s just public donation record.
I made a commitment 10 years ago that had to do with regret. I promised to live fully present and fully appreciative so I didn’t feel regret later on at having missed an opportunity to love fully in the moment.
What I know is I will continue to be fierce in my love. I will continue to enforce boundaries where a line is being crossed.
What can I do to support my daughter and all the daughters and sons? Tuesday is the day people in the United States get to make changes in leadership.
In Oregon, we’ve had our ballots since mid-October and I’ve already voted. None of the people on my ticket take money from gun lobbyists. None.
My children are watching. And their lives depend on it.