Enough Is Enough

This past Saturday, I participated in an elective four-hour Active Shooter Training Workshop led by the Virginia Beach Police Department and organized by the Junior League of Norfolk-Virginia Beach at our local library. While, admittedly, I could think of far more exciting ways to spend four hours on a Saturday morning, I felt strongly that this was an exercise I could not miss, because sadly, active shooter situations have become a “new normal.” Yet, it feels hardly normal at all, doesn’t it? It feels wrong. As I sat there attentively, next to dozens of others, learning about the statistics, the tactics, the signs and the defenses, I felt on edge. Fully receptive to every bit of information relayed by the police sergeant, I began imagining myself in a movie theater (the exercise took place within an auditorium), then in a classroom, at a mall, in my office… When the first blank gunshot went off, just feet away from us from the top of the theater, I yelled, loudly; the seconds that followed were frozen in time, as though hours long. All I heard was my scream. Then, the second blank gunshot was fired, and I leaped over seats and up the stairs and into the closest exit, as sergeant Fuentes had advised us during the training portion of the workshop. There we were, knowingly training, and yet, that moment stunned us. We knew it was coming eventually; we had the luxury of participating in a safe active shooter simulation. But we were afraid. We were uncertain. And when it came to getting as far away from those blank shots, we ran intentionally, with purpose. Blank shots that pierced the room, silenced our conversations and froze the moment. Blank shots. If only the “new normal” was just a simulation…

Yesterday, at the end of their school day, on Valentine’s Day, 17 high school students were killed by a fellow high schooler. These were kids at a school, a place that should be, if nothing else, safe from this type of harm. They heard shots, far from blanks, fired by someone who had once walked those same halls alongside them, someone who despite his alleged unstable mental health legally owned a weapon. Semiautomatic rifles are apparently the trend these days. And who needs one? Not a single civilian, most definitely not a kid with disciplinary issues and a mental health record. Argue what you will with me and feel free to cite the second amendments as though you’re somehow more educated on constitutional rights than I am (I had to test to become a naturalized U.S. citizen; don’t you forget that – and yes, I scored a 10/10). I’m also a proud military wife and a staunch supporter of America, a nation to which I formally swore my loyalty as a naturalized citizen. But this, this violence, this isn’t the America my parents had in mind when they moved their children here. This isn’t the America I envision for my own future children. This America, this bipartisan, issues-driven, second-amendment-defending, biased-news reading, blind-following-the-blind America isn’t well. This America needs some help. This America needs to talk, heart to heart, and tighten its shit up.

You see, those kids. Those could’ve been my friends (several of my own graduated from that very high school). That mother who heart-wrenchingly pled for updates about her daughter on the local news; that could’ve been my own mom. Those hallways lined with abandoned backpacks, all too similar for all of us children of the public school system, those could’ve held our favorite books, our musings, our favorite pen, the valentine card given to us by our best friend or our crush, if we were so lucky. Those hallways, for the ones who survived the massacre, today are memories of the worst day of their lives, a reminder that among those killed – their friends, their teachers, their classmates – could’ve been one of them, too.

I could’ve been one of them too. In 1998, before “Columbine” became synonymous with what it is today, I discovered my name written on a piece of paper loosely tucked within a male classmate’s notebook in my seventh-grade classroom in Miami Beach. The specific details of how that piece of paper caught my eye now escape me 20 years later, but I’ll never forget what I felt when I saw it. I plucked the exposed paper from within the desk (90s kids certainly remember the cubby desks that lined our homerooms) at which I was sitting afterschool, volunteering as a math tutor with my friend, a fellow seventh-grader. There was my name, written in pencil, stacked against other familiar names, all classmates, each with a “reason,” seemingly, for being on this labeled “Hit List.” There I was – reason? “Being too perfect” While perfect I was most certainly not, it seems my straight-A report cards and extracurricular activities had given this seventh-grade boy enough reason to make me a target. The name of my friend and fellow math tutor was there too, with a similar reason – each reason just distinct enough, just immature enough to be reminded that this was a seventh-grader’s doing, yet specific enough to know we were on his radar (“Being gay,” “Walking like a duck,” “Having an annoying voice”).  There we were, in our homeroom classroom, looking at this list, unsure of what to think or say or do. But thankfully, we knew. We pulled the full sheet out, with it the notebook and flipped through it – gruesome, disturbing, violent caricatures, all sketched in full, vibrant detail. In a time disconnected from social media and reality television and mass shootings, we’d stumbled upon something foreign, something that felt strange and wrong. We knew what we had to do. We reported it to our teacher, who, looking back, was so attentive, so supportive and so equally concerned about an issue none of us had ever encountered, about a scenario that seemed so implausible just moments before.

The 48 hours that followed were hard. The boy in question was immediately suspended for further investigation. My classmates and I were interviewed for hours, as were our parents. Had we seen any signs? Had he ever been physical with us? Had we felt unsafe in his presence? Had we been mean to him? No. No. No. No. After further review, the school expelled him. My parents received calls from other parents, in disbelief that their daughter would’ve been one of the students responsible for this boy’s expulsion, that she and a friend would’ve blown this so out of proportion. I wanted to crawl into a hole, bring in my favorite book and stay there for the rest of my life. I wished that I ‘d returned the piece of paper to its spot and kept quiet. I wish I had never seen it. I wish it hadn’t been me in that classroom that day. I wish we’d pinky-swore to one another that we’d never speak of this. But then what?

Less than a year later, Columbine happened. That. Then, that. The unthinkable happened. America’s largest mass shooting happened on school grounds. After that, everyone seemed to understand. Classmates relived the investigation we’d personally been through, we talked about the signs, parents apologized to our parents… we were suddenly allowed to believe that what we did was purposeful. We believed that, damn, that could have been us. That could’ve been us.

I’ve wondered about this boy often over the years, particularly as so many of us, then seventh-graders, now reconnect on social media. I never disliked him, much less hated him. He was a quiet boy, yes, but he was observant and smart. I could tell he thought I was cheesy (but who didn’t? who doesn’t?), but I found myself making him smile often. I thought we were on good terms, maybe not besties, not friends, but certainly solid fellow classmates. To think that that same boy – with his unstable, disturbing thoughts, with his potential call for attention – could’ve, in some other reality, gained access to a weapon, to multiple weapons and harmed us – right there, in that same homeroom classroom, in that school that held our days and our dares and our dreams – it haunts me, just as it did on 4/20/1999 when we all learned about Columbine for the first time. What if?

That what-if, that fear, resurfaces every time I receive a news alert about a mass shooting at a school. And today, “there have been 25 fatal, active school shooting incidents at elementary and high schools in America…” In fact, in the first seven weeks of 2018, there have been at least five school shootings. Just one is one too many. I’m over it. I’m as over it as I’ve ever been over something with conviction.

My prayers have been lifted and my thoughts have been shared – time and time again. It’s time for action people. It’s time to talk this out, parties and politics aside, and take action – action that limits the ease with which guns enter our homes, action that prohibits the ownership of certain guns, action that thoroughly shakes up our gun laws to be consistent with the 21st Century, action that improves our mental health system, just to name a few imperatives – action that requires all of us to look this disease in the eye and eradicate it. Call 1-844-241-1141, provide your zip code and tell your State Representatives that enough is enough.

It could’ve been me then. And it is me today – a law-abiding, educated, country-loving, determined and fed-up U.S. citizen whose heart is in Parkland, Fla. today and whose fingers, here in Virginia Beach, are typing away with the goal of making a difference. If you read this through all the way, perhaps I already have.

Thank you.

 

 My sentiment, as illustrated by the talented Katie Zhu on Instagram

My sentiment, as illustrated by the talented Katie Zhu on Instagram