Sissie Stevenson and Spud McKenna grew up in a much simpler time. There were no social media posts, smart phones, texts, selfies, or any high tech electronic gadgets and gizmos. Just the one black rotary-dial phone attached to a cord running to the telephone jack on the baseboard. Just the local radio station or an old black and white TV until the NBC peacock tail turned into rainbow colors on the screen of the new RCA color TV in Sissie's living room right before the Cartrights rode up in Bonanza. Kids played outside until dusk, and the greatest fear in their world was accidentally stepping on a venomous snake or getting struck by lightning in a summer storm. Or getting the full blast of Mama's evil eye.
But there were moments of awakening along the way. Spud's grandmother Sharon and his mother Rose explained that teen-aged girls in their day who found themselves "in the family way" were not allowed to complete their high school education, while the teen-aged fathers were often allowed to go on with life, often without consequences, unless their families forced them to marry each other. Sissie and Spud witnessed their friends at school being bullied by other students. Or, in Spud's case, he actually experienced bullying at school by students and by his teacher, Miss Maude Jones; and then he went home to be belittled even more by Aunt Pearl. They learned from their school friends Joe Borders and Jack Hammer what it was like to be physically abused and neglected by a parent and the lasting effects of constant mistreatment. Both Sissie and Spud experienced what it was like to have a relative or friend die suddenly without warning. They grew to understand the relentless power of a tornado or the painful effects an unexpected spider bite.
Along with Sissie and Spud, I grew up in those simpler times. Everything wasn't rosy and perfect. My school building had no real heating system, and there certainly was no air-conditioning. I suspect that some teachers said and did things back then that today would become viral videos on YouTube or CNN. And not for good reasons. On one day in particular I guess my fifth grade teacher had had enough of a student in our class and subsequently experienced a meltdown. She shoved the student against the blackboard, grabbed him by his shoulders, and shook him against the blackboard while repeatedly calling him a jackass. Like I said, no smart phones and viral videos back then. My classmate lived, and he's a nice guy.
But, overall, we never genuinely feared for our lives. There were no gunmen lurking around with an AR-15 ready to take us all out with a backpack full of bullets. We didn't need to lock ourselves in our classroom and hide quietly in a corner of the room waiting for a gunman to decide who lived and who died. In fact, throughout my school career, especially in high school, the only time a police officer ever came to our school was as a guest speaker.
I spent over forty years teaching students from kindergarten through university. The Columbine shooting happened on my birthday. Countless other shootings have taken place since then. I taught in open college classrooms that I could not lock. I have been surrounded by ground level classroom windows and doors with glass panels. As a college instructor, after Virginia Tech occurred, I wondered: What is my plan? How can I protect my students? Will I rise to the occasion should the unthinkable occur?
And here we are today, yet again, trying to make sense of something that will never make sense. Trying to understand what will never be understood, no matter how much pundits spin. No matter how much politicians try to blame the other party. Another school shooting. Another individual striking out against the sanctity and scholarship of a public school. A troubled man-child carrying a weapon of war into a place of peace. A weapon he should never have possessed at all.
Yesterday was both Ash Wednesday and Valentine's Day. I imagine there was lots of red throughout Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School ̶ hearts, carnations, roses, and balloons. Maybe small stuffed animals were exchanged between friends. Maybe the cheerleaders or the SGA or the Senior Class was selling flowers as a fundraiser. Yes, I imagine there was lots of red everywhere. And after the gunman completed his rampage, there was more red left in his wake.
Indulge me as I return to my past again. My graduating class had 67 students with an overall school population of 350 plus. All of the faculty knew us, and they knew our parents. Many of today's high schools have two or three thousand students who are herded from class to class throughout the day. It is easy for a troubled student to slip into complete anonymity in a crowded world where very few know many others, and small circles of friends become tight and exclusive. Teachers can't possibly know every student who passes through the crowded hallways. Social media provide relentless platforms for bullies to torment their victims and for shadowy groups to offer enticing dark websites where students do not need to venture.
Since the unthinkable events unfolded in Parkland yesterday afternoon, over and over I have heard weeping mothers and fathers on TV, their anguish palpable because they will never see their children grow up. They will never realize what their children would have become as adults. One mother grieved aloud because she wasn't there to protect her daughter. And all the seventeen souls did was simply go to school to teach or to learn.
Weapons have no place in our institutions of learning. Bullying has no place there either. It would be nice to live in "idyllic times," but those times do not exist. Perhaps they never really did. But once upon a time innocence lived. It lived in the hearts and minds of learners of all ages who carry their pencils, notebooks, textbooks, and hopes to their schools in search of an education. Innocence lived in the hearts and minds of parents who put their trust in the American government to keep their precious ones safe. Innocence lived in the hearts and minds of educators who work long hours and care about their students, even though those educators are often underpaid and disrespected.
Innocence died yesterday. It has, in fact, already died a number of times in 2018 in schools all around America, with dozens more school shootings in just the past few years. Innocence has also died at concerts, clubs, and churches.
Spud finally had enough of bullies. He had enough of people in power who did nothing. Some of those powerful people made his life even more difficult. We find ourselves in the same predicament on a much larger scale. In Chinaberry Summer /On the Other Side, he sums up the loss of innocence after a very troubling encounter with a violent bully at school.
"You know, Sissie, I just don't understand it. Why can't we go to school to learn in peace? Why is there always someone there who just wants to start trouble? Why is that? You shouldn't have to risk your life to go to school."
Innocence, may you rest in peace.