Content Warning for trauma and active shooter precautions in a high school.
There comes a point in your life where you begin to realize that the things you thought were normal actually aren’t. This is among the first steps of what we frequently mean when we talk about “growing up.” It is one of the first times your understanding of the world is challenged. For a lot of people, this is usually tied to religion, the various myths of childhood, or even just the realization that people think about things differently than you do. It happens at various times, mostly depending on the person, the kind of life they live, the way they’re raised, and it doesn’t happen to everyone. I’ve had a lot of these moments in my life, thanks to the way my parents raised me, the various forms of abuse I suffered, and because I grew as a white kid living in the suburbs of the United States.
The first is tied mostly to religion and religious indoctrination. I’ve mentioned before about the way my parents raised and educated me (I was home schooled until high school) as if creationism was factual and evolution was some brand new idea that had yet to be proved, only for me to eventually learn that my parents didn’t even believe that. I have a hundred or so moments like this in my life that slowly accumulated to this moment and then happened rapidly after that because I realized most of what I’d been taught about the world was probably wrong or at least misrepresented.
The second is a massive, painful chain of events that is probably best represented by the realization in my sophomore year of college that I had no idea what “love” felt like. I’d always assumed that I loved my family since I was raised on a great deal of religious and blood-family propaganda that stated “you always love your family” as if it were an incontrovertible fact. Turns out I was wrong. I finally had people in my life that cared for me and who I genuinely cared for in return and it felt nothing like the way I felt about my family (who it turns out I couldn’t even bring myself to hate most of the time because it more emotionally energy than I was willing to spend on them once I’d finally gotten out).
The last was tied to gun violence, mass shootings, and the moment in my freshman year of high school when we all bundled into my math teacher’s supply closet. It was strange, to see this room and realize that the teacher’s large desk was arranged in such a way that it completely blocked the line of sight from any of the windows or the door to the closet until you crossed the long classroom and were stranding a few feet in front of the desk. To realize that the loud whispering that occasionally broke out as about thirty masculine freshman were forced to act without an explanation was actually dangerous.
None of us knew exactly what was going on, by design. The school had a code system in place that changed every year and there were no drills because doing a drill would reveal the systems and codes to anyone who might use that knowledge against the students, teachers, and administrators in the building. This was 2004, after all. Most schools had at least some kind of plans in place for active shooter situations by then.
I think I was the only kid in that room who understood the situation. This wasn’t my first rodeo, after all. It was my first active shooter in a school situation, sure (though the shooter was just in the neighborhood, seen heading in the direction of the school rather than anywhere in the immediate vicinity of the school or in the school it self). It was not, however, the first time I had hid in an effort to survive something entirely outside my own control. I did not realize what was happening at first, but as the seconds ticked past and I slowly put together all of the pieces, I figured it out.
Not many children at that time spent their idle thoughts considering sightlines, escape routes, defensive positions, and how to survive any implausible but not impossible way they might be attacked, but those things consumed my mind to the exclusion of almost everything else. It had only been a couple months since I had my first experience with hiding for my life, after all. Maybe less. I genuinely don’t remember most of the year and a half after that experience, except for a few things that shine through like this also traumatic moment of paralyzing fear mixed with the desire to never hide again as my classmates laughed and joked about helping themselves to the pencils and lollipops the teacher kept in his supply closet.
It took about ten or fifteen minutes to get the all-clear. I think class resumed after that, but I’m not sure. Like I said, I don’t remember most of that year or two of my life. I remember trying to look things up on a computer in the school, during my Microsoft Office class and running into the school’s internet filter, and then successfully googling things at home later on. My parents had sheltered their children from information about the wider world, so I learned quite a bit during that middle-of-the-night google session (google was brand-new in those days, but still very useful). I couldn’t do it at any other time, of course, since my parents didn’t want us using the computer without their supervision.
This moment represents me realizing that the country I lived in had a problem. Many parts of the world had their own mass-shooting moments, but they were all followed by swift changes to how easy it was to access firearms. It was still about a decade before The Onion published their first version of the “‘No Way To Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens” article, but I had enough reading comprehension to learn from my hours-long Google dive that there was something fundamentally wrong with the country I lived in. That moment also represents me realizing that most other children my age didn’t have experience hiding somewhere in the hopes that being difficult to find would convince someone to not bother with hurting you.
Today though, as I reflect on the world I live, the country I live in, and the yawning chasm of indifference between those who have power to make change and those who demand change, I find myself realizing that this is no longer true. Most kids of fourteen know what that is like now, either because they’ve lived through it or because they’ve trained for it. Even after multiple days of thinking about this, of trying to find words to express how I feel, nothing comes close to touching on the complete despair, anger, rage, and desperate sadness that wells up inside me every time that thought echoes around my head. At the realization that this is now normal.
Trauma changes a life. There is the time before it and the time after it. They’re so disconnected by that period of trauma that they feel like different lives entirely. People who survive major trauma frequently talk about who they were before that trauma and who they were after it. A lot of trauma therapy is about finding your way back to who you were before the trauma, of reconciling the past and present “you” so healing and processing can happen. Even if you recover, though, that sort of barrier between those times in your life never goes away. It can’t, after all. It actually happened. No amount of therapy can make it not have happened, it can only give you the tools you needed to deal with what happened that you lacked at the time.
I can’t stand that so many kids these days are going to know all about that. I hate that so many people think that more violence is the answer. I am filled with rage that so many people are content to say “thoughts and prayers” in response to tragedies that could have so easily been avoided by mere human decency. I am despairing at the thought that this might never change, given that it has been actively getting worse for my entire life. I am struggling to crawl out of the desperate sadness I feel at realizing that all I can do is participate in a system that has already failed so many people if I want to affect any small amount of change. I cannot let myself be halted by these feelings or else I will become everything I despise in this world. Action is the only answer, even if it takes a thousand tiny steps over a hundred years. Anything less is taking the side of the next killer.