By ERIC A. HOWALD
I’m fine, I tell myself while following an employee of the Salem-Keizer School District through the currently empty halls of Whiteaker Middle School in the minutes before students plan to walk out of class and join a nationwide protest and memorial for 17 teenagers and adults who were gunned down at a Florida high school.
It’s March 14, 2018, one month to the day after the last, devastating mass shooting at a school in America.
My daughter, Ameya, is a student here and planned to take part in what was happening. She told my wife and I that she wanted to be part of the walkout a week ago, neither of us said anything at the time. Two days earlier, I asked her to sit down and tell us why she wanted to participate.
“It could have been my friends,” Ameya said, and started retreating into herself as if on defense.
That was enough, I told her. I would support her, but she needed to understand that what she planned to do was a political act and not just an excuse to leave school for a few minutes against the wishes of adults.
I don’t know how often average parents worry about safety at school, but it is an ever-present, low-level concern in my life. If this violence arrives in Keizer, I will need to be on the front lines of it talking with survivors and the families of victims. I’ve worked with and around the students of this community for more than a decade. If a single student ends up dead on a Keizer campus, there is a better-than-average chance I might know them, or one of their siblings, or their parents, or maybe their best friend. I’m nearly certain it’s only a matter of time.
I’m fine, I repeat to myself as the students make their way out the classroom to the exits. Then I see who is leading this particular group of students: Paris, an eighth grader at the Whiteaker. Paris and one of her co-organizers lead the group down the hall. When the students falling in line behind her start to get louder than they should, Paris tries to hush them.
Paris and Ameya have attended the same school since first grade. Seeing the confidence and surety evident in her leading of this group makes me feel pride in the young woman she is becoming.
Then a wave of shame rolls in as she passes. In eighth grade students are 13 or 14 years old while adults in this country have chosen to do nothing for a generation after each and every mass shooting – at schools, workplaces, malls, clubs and churches. We’ve thrown up our hands and contend there is simply nothing we can do because a document written more than two centuries years ago says gun ownership of nearly any type is a right bestowed upon anyone older than 18. We’ve come up with all manner of defenses for the continued use of deadly force, but the last time I checked there was no asterisk by the Christian commandment “Thou shall not kill.”
It’s okay, I’m fine, I tell myself as I follow the students outside into the parking lot where they gather in a large mass. I continue to take pictures as what looks to be about a third of the school files out the doors. Some students have signs with the names of the victims from the Florida shooting. The ones who are obviously just there to miss out on class group together at the back and talk in outdoor voices. The ones nearer the front stand and whisper quietly waiting to see what happens.
Paris picks up a megaphone and launches into reading names and descriptions of the lives that were snuffed out in Florida. I learn later that she and the other organizers read through the obituaries and social media feeds of all 17 victims to compile brief biographies. She makes it through four or five names before her voice cracks for the first time. Tears follow soon after handing off the megaphone.
The megaphone passes from the next young woman to yet another that I know and was at my house as recently as a few months ago. From her it goes to the fourth student, Alyssa.
Last summer, I drove Ameya, Alyssa and another friend up to Portland so they could see Shawn Mendes perform at the Moda Center. They were aware that a concert represented a potential danger to their lives and asked me whether they should be worried. This was only two months after an Ariana Grande concert in the United Kingdom became the stage for a suicide bomber. I did my best to reassure them but, in retrospect, the weight of the question escaped me at the time.
At what point did we agree to trade our children’s sense of safety as they make their way through the world for the “right” of some people to choose to carry assault-style weapons? We vote on lesser trade-offs every year.
I am certain some who are reading this are already picking apart the last lines. They’re going to write to me and tell me how little I understand about guns because I didn’t use the right terminology. I don’t care. I first fired a rifle at a pie tin when I was 13. A few years later, my uncle took me out to hunt squirrels and I thrilled over shooting and killing my first one. Seven years later, the third person in my life killed himself with a gun, he was 13. I haven’t held a gun since and don’t intend to ever again. At any rate, this isn’t an issue of vocabulary, it’s about human lives.
I finish talking with Alyssa and get Paris’ attention for a quick interview before she heads back inside. Before Paris is able to make it over to me, Ameya comes up from behind, hugs me and begins weeping.
This. Is not. Fine, I think. I free my arm from Ameya’s hug and put it around her shoulder and pull her in tight. Alyssa sees her distress and comes over to both of us as tears begin to stream down my cheeks.
“I’m just glad it wasn’t one of you guys,” Ameya says between sobs.
“I’m glad it wasn’t you, too,” Alyssa says.
How do you explain survivor’s guilt to someone in eighth grade?
Before I know it, I have an arm around both of them and I tell them, the way adults always do, that we are going to make this better. The girls recover and walk away without another word. I’m left feeling like a fraud in a puddle of my own lies and wiping away the streaks on my face.
If I was one of the kids today, I would be disgusted with the idea of growing old. There are things that could be done to limit the volumes of blood in our streets – background checks on every gun sale, mandatory liability insurance for gun owners, increasing the age for gun purchases and, yes, better systems for engaging those who with struggle mental health problems – but adults choose to look the other way or resign ourselves to wishes of the well-armed militias. We raise our hackles for a brief span of time or hashtag a tweet and pretend we’ve done our hard part in the struggle until the next mass slaughter when we put off talking about solutions because that would be “a knee-jerk reaction.”
How can we expect the children of this country not to become cynics when the adults refuse to speak truth to monied interests? Silence begets helplessness begets hopelessness, and I know that isn’t the lesson I want my daughter and her friends to learn.
The problem is where to start. I can give money and my vote to candidates who tell me they will fight for gun control, but I don’t expect that to make a difference. We tell people every vote on a ballot matters, but the reality is that the vote you cast with your dollar matters more in this country.
How many parents have to lose children before anything actually changes? How many size small body bags will we let pile up in the meantime?
We shouldn’t be fine with asking either question. But, in the 48 hours since the walkout, the only conclusion I’ve come to is that we’re all fine, until we’re not, and the toll for our inaction is being levied on our sons and daughters.
(Eric A. Howald is managing editor of the Keizetimes.)