It Tolls for Thee

Redux . . .

Too many martyrs and too many dead
Too many lies, too many empty words were said
Too many times for too many angry men
Oh, let it never be again.
Phil OchsA U.S. flag flies at half staff in front of the Reed Intermediate School in Newtown, Connecticut, following a shooting nearby at Sandy Hook Elementary School

I was in my classroom when the call came.

The school was brand new, a vast industrial, accidentally brutalist building, with long, silent corridors, poorly lit because bulbs were forever burning out.  Video monitors in every hallway streamed endless loops of Channel 1 News, but except at passing time, the halls were empty.  No one monitored the comings and goings at the multiple entrances and exits, and no stood watch to ask if a newcomer belonged there.

The day of our incident, just before the holiday, I remember many of my own students being absent.  The four or five present members of my drama class and I were watching a film, whiling away the countdown to early dismissal.  And then my phone rang.

“This is Principal M____.” My usually friendly boss spoke from what sounded like a great distance,  in a manner that was forced, cold.  She was actually talking to every classroom at once, trying to be quiet so that she stirred no reprisal, caused no reactions.  “You are to lock your door from the inside, sit with your students on the floor, and stay put until further notice.”  She paused.  “There is a gunman in the building.  No shots have been fired, but we are working to apprehend him without incident.”

As is my wont in crises, I did not feel any specific emotion right away.  I made light of the situation, sat with my kids playing a game.  I was distracted by the niggling, infuriating awareness of the myriad inconveniences this could portend.  My children required transportation to and from their destinations, my husband’s dinner needed preparing, and I had no way to let anyone know what was going on.  All the mundane chores of the day loomed ahead, and I chafed at being delayed while I fretted that the kids might hear reports of the disturbance and worry for my safety.  Only then did I even begin to think about the gunman roaming the halls.

A shot rang out.  Well, we assumed it was a shot fired. Through the institutional walls, the sound could have come just as well from outside and been a car backfiring, but we knew it was a gun.  The kids huddled close to one another and trembled.  Some of the girls were sobbing.  The two boys in the class were tapping their feet, drumming, flicking lighters imbedded in their pockets.  I was impatient, thinking about catching up with my life.

The end result was an anticlimax.  Altogether, we heard three shots fired, none aimed at human beings, and then no sounds at all.  After a couple hours, the person was apprehended, and we were released.  Physically released anyway.

Columbine had happened only a few months before, and as the realities sank in, the images of that day began to play over and over in every level of my consciousness.  By the time I got home, I found myself shaking.  I was furious, disempowered, terrified.  That night brought the first of many nightmare-disrupted sleeps, my dreams perverted by the many possible consequences my waking brain refused to acknowledge.

I left teaching soon thereafter, and I am sure that the afternoon of the gun propelled my premature exit from the profession; I couldn’t continue to face the terrible vulnerability that visited me in those horrific nightmares.   My then husband scoffed at my dread, reminded me endlessly that nothing had happened.  And that was how I knew I couldn’t live with him anymore.

My memory of that trauma haunts me still, and I am willing to bet that it haunts every person who was there that day.  Looking into the eye of violence is unforgettably agonizing.

I cannot imagine what it feels like to have survived in Newtown today.  I would be willing to bet that there is no one in that town or its environs who will go about his/her life unscathed.   The events in that elementary school, where a troubled young man killed the hopes and dreams of twenty-nine families in less than ten minutes are senseless, infuriating, immobilizing.  No words adequately describe any of it, though newspeople, texters, im-ers, FB subscribers, bloggers will keep trying to find some. Because to capture this giant poison and get it into a verbal jar helps us sort through, seek the peace we will probably never find.

What makes it hardest of all is that the solutions are not clear.  President Obama is criticized for giving lip service to the horror, but the truth is that that is all we have. imgres-1

The knee-jerk reaction of the liberals among us was to scream for gun control, to decry the hold the NRA has on the nation.  I’m one of those hippies who wouldn’t give my children toy guns; no one is more anti-gun than I am.  But the sad truth is that gun control would not have prevented Newtown.  The guns were duly registered in the name of the gunman’s mother, who was legally entitled to own the gun that killed her.

The second reaction among us was to blame the health care system.  A friend of mine, who is a health care professional with a family history of mental illness, sobbed, “The system puts these kids out of treatment, out of physicians’ watchful eyes as soon as they are 18, turning them into health care orphans.”  She is right.  Our health care system is terrible, but, again, in this case, the shooter was not without support and care.

The problem is deeply ensconced somewhere in our American psyche, perhaps in the cowboy/mafia/noir fetishes we have nurtured in ourselves, perhaps in our collective isolation from the civilizations across the waters.  I don’t know where it is or what causes it, but I do know that in other countries where citizens own guns, crimes like Newtown, like the Oregon mall, like Aurora are far less frequent, and the threat of violence is far less omnipresent.   I spent a month in Thailand, and at no time when I was walking did anyone point his car at me and threaten to kill me as a man did here in New York the other day.  There is an anger, a seething ire that bubbles forth in unthinkable ways.  And it explodes, kills our children and grandparents and uncles and friends not only with guns but with vehicles driven drunkenly, with fists wielded in stadium fights, with cruel words that drive the fragile to suicide.

What can we do to stop the violence when we hardly understand it and have no remedies at hand?

For one thing, we can admit that we are all in this struggle together and cling to one another in more loving, positive ways.  What happened in Newtown was not perpetrated by an “other” out there threatening us; the devastation was wrought from within our own ranks, and we need to look within ourselves for ways to create a more loving environment with less alienation.  I realize I sound like a character in Volunteers, and I should be singing “We shall overcome,” but shouldn’t we at least begin here?

Then, too, we can reach out to the people of Newtown and let them know that we acknowledge that every one among them is a victim.  Every one of them has been traumatized and forced to carry a burden no one deserves.  Every man, woman and child in that community has been scarred for life.  Because there is no way to quantify grief, it is not for any of us who were spared to judge whose grief is heavier.  The people whose families are in tact tonight can be in as much pain as those who must bury theirs.  Acknowledging all the sufferers, validating the throbbing ache each will endure from now on must contribute to their healing.  Everyone touched by today’s horror needs to be heard, needs to be comforted, needs to be reassured that they will face no malice, no recrimination for having lived.

Of course, we must begin to seek ways to heal the ills that afflict the misguided, violently solipsistic people who solve their malaise by pointing guns.  If they are ill, their illnesses need to be recognized and dealt with before they explode; if they are simply grotesquely entitled, they need to be educated in how to become citizens.

Further, it is vital that we point our attention to a system that gives money and time to gun lobbyists but takes money and time away from education. Many an alienated soul has been saved by an arts education program, has discovered therein a way to express the need to murder and create without bloodshed.

This is not going away.  The people of Newtown, the people of Connecticut, the people of the East Coast and by tomorrow, the people of the entire country will live in the shadow of this day forever.

Question is, how can we protect the other Newtowns to come?  It’s already too late to begin, but better late than never. . . .

Ill Will Hunting

Someone tried to kill me today.

Did I incite the near violence?  Perhaps.  But I certainly meant my would-be murderer no harm.

Turning onto Broadway from 125th Street, clearly in a hurry, a young man behind the wheel of a white van failed to slow down for his turn and entered the crosswalk. I happen to know that it is illegal for a vehicle to enter a crosswalk when the walking icon is white, so I pointed to the traffic light in an effort to raise the driver’s awareness.    Then, in my best Dustin Hoffman voice, I admonished, “I’m walkin’ here,” and I smiled.  The driver was not impressed. In reply, he gunned his motor, pointed his vehicle right at me, and accelerated.

I managed to jump out of the way, and my daughter’s Chihuahua, toddling beside me, managed to evade the oncoming wheel, but it was close.  We did not survive because the driver meant to let us go.  He would have relished the kill.

I staggered to the curb and I caught my breath before I looked up to see if I could ID him, but he was already cresting the hill, about to be out of sight.  There was no license plate on the back of his van, so I had no choice but to watch him disappear into the ebbing traffic.

Witnesses abounded, but except for a young woman crossing near enough to us to have been concurrently endangered, no one so much as tsikached in disgust.  The co-walker blanched and shook her head over and over but said nothing to me.

I’ll be seeing that man’s face as I attempt to sleep tonight and for many nights to come.  As I nearly froze in the headlights of the man’s stare, glowing with delighted anticipation, I was aware of some prophets’ omens written on the subway walls.

First, this guy is not the first nor will he be the last to have a death wish for me.  We have never met, and I don’t know him personally, but I am sure he was thrilled at the notion of eliminating an old white woman.  I have lived in Harlem for a number of years, and I am aware that despite the fact that I am not in any way superior to my neighbors in income or quality of life, I look like I am, and I am often the object of their contempt.  It’s the inevitable result of the extraordinary disparity between the haves and have-nots, more salient here than anywhere in the country.  Resentment flourishes, and misunderstandings abound.  11_kensinger_west_harlem_pier_DSC_5936

Columbia University, viewed by the locals as the bastion of the high and the mighty, is spreading through the area, encroaching on any territory their eminent domain allows them.  Rents are rising just as quickly as affordable housing is disappearing.  We are approaching something called a fiscal cliff, which few understand but everyone fears.  People are desperate; unemployment is high, and there is little incentive to curb the natural impulse to take risks, to defy the law, to push the envelope to its tearing point because there is little to nothing to lose.  I often feel like an interloper.

Second, the incident was undoubtedly seen and ignored by the police.  There is never a dearth of officers on 125th Street, but the police simply do not patrol these streets for dangerous traffic violations.  Harlem roadways, especially 125th Street, Broadway, and Amsterdam Avenue are more like freeways than local streets.  Cars and trucks soar at high speeds, and police rarely give chase except after cars driven by the elderly and otherwise slow-moving operators, whom they get for expensive but nonthreatening infractions.  The big things, like speeding or wielding the car as a loaded weapon go unchecked.  Trucks and vans especially burn their rubber with abandon, heedless of posted limits, potholes, foot-draggin children and aged, or any other impediment to excessive speed.

Police are underpaid, overworked and apathetic.  Citizens are harried, worried, pressured by financial insecurities and faced with staggering unemployment. There’s a fiscal cliff that few understand but everyone fears. It’s a scary world out there.

And someone tried to kill me today.