When I was eight
two boys walked into their high school and killed twelve students one teacher and themselves
destroyed childhoods around the country.
Columbine became a whispered curse, trench coats a warning, we projected our fears of an unsafe world onto a small town in Colorado
kept a watchful eye on video game ratings
and assumed that was tragic,
When I was fifteen
a man parked his pickup at an Amish schoolhouse and killed five little girls
injured three little girls
I had no way to comprehend this and buried it in my mind and eventually they tore down that schoolhouse and I sifted the memory away like rubble.
When I was sixteen
and starting to think about college a boy who had once thought about college like me came to campus killed thirty-two people
injured twenty-one people
Tech was a six hour drive away but my high school alternated between lock-down and high-alert for the next two weeks, every day a new rumor that this would be the day for a copy-cat shooting.
We were teenagers so we pretended not to notice but in sex ed one day someone dropped a textbook
a hard thick useless textbook
and we instinctively cowered to our desktops
and covered our heads to ward off inevitable bullets.
Our teacher yelled at us to focus on the outdated documentary he was showing us, about how not to get AIDS,
because AIDS was scary and we should be worried about it.
The following week someone vandalized the music hall and slashed the school bus tires and the air in the dingy florescent halls felt angry. My peers now noted mass homicide alongside in-state tuition and air-conditioned dorms on their college pro and con lists.
(While writing this poem I double-checked my facts, made sure I had my dates correct, I am a student by nature. Turns out there were a dozen-odd mass shootings in my lifetime that I don’t even remember, probably because if you’re black or brown or poor or trans or we’ve stolen your land we care just a bit less about your death
and since I’m white and middle-class I have the luxury of ignoring much of that.)
When I was twenty-one
a man my age killed his mother
drove to an elementary school
killed twenty babies
killed six adults
I was working part-time as a teacher and we started practicing active shooter drills at staff meetings. We learned the most perverse rules of hide-and-seek,
how to keep fifteen scared five-year-olds quiet, how many second-graders plus a teacher could fit in the first floor bathroom, how to shut and lock the classroom door immediately if an alarm were raised
even if a child were left outside that door
even if they knocked
at that door
to be let in
even if they were shot
outside that door
because after all we teachers now had to become dispensers of life as well as knowledge,
weighing the worth of a classroom full of hushed hiding children against that of one child with poor timing
and after all the knocking could just be a ruse.
Our weary-eyed boss begged us to follow these rules because there is no perfect way to protect your children while also protecting the people who would die to protect your children and so we all nodded at each other in agreement, silently understanding that in actuality none of us could do this thing we were being asked to do and still live with ourselves afterwards.
That same year twelve people were killed at a movie premiere
And I spent the day phone in hand
Accounting for family and friends
Counting and recounting fingers and toes
Over and over
Adding up my loved ones against seventy injured.
When I was twenty-three
a man drove around campus killed six people
injured fourteen people
because women wouldn’t go out with him and I had known that being a woman made me more vulnerable in this world but I now also learned I could become a victim of men I didn’t date as well as men I did date and I could just be a silly girl
but that seems like a no-win situation.
I graduated college but the threat seemed to follow.
When I was twenty-four
a man much older than me killed two patients
killed one police officer
injured nine people
in a clinic waiting room
turned that waiting room into a warning,
Later that year
a man younger than me walked into a church and easy as the Lord’s Prayer killed nine people he hated simply for the sake of hating.
I was working overseas at the time and my British supervisor asked me why us Americans couldn’t seem to stop killing each other and I didn’t have a good answer so I asked him to review my latest report instead.
And when I was twenty-five
a man killed forty-nine people
injured fifty-three people
People who were just dancing just enjoying life and now a night out is never just a night out and between schools, universities, shopping malls, movie theatres, doctor’s offices, Army bases, Navy Yards, churches, and clubs I’m running out of places I’m allowed to go
Add concerts to that list because
when I was twenty-six
a man in a window killed fifty-eight people
injured five hundred forty six people
killed himself and much like the shooting in that little Amish schoolhouse I again couldn’t comprehend it and my mind shut down,
except now I am an adult and then I was a child and now I am supposed to be able to do something.
This isn’t the only death I’ve known.
When I was ten
two towers in New York crumbled and my grandfather slipped away and a boy in my class died in a car crash and since then I’ve lost friends and family yearly and I thought I knew death but I never thought it would come to me.
Now I know nothing about death except that it lives everywhere.
I know that the chances may be one in a thousand and there are thousands of schools and hundreds of days that go by with no violence or threat
but I’m twenty-six and I could fill a yearbook with faces
with victims of shootings
with tragedies tangentially related
six degrees or so away and
seventeen students were killed at a Florida high school.
I can handle my memories. I can’t handle the reality of
another generation of scared students in school
like I once was
feeling grateful and feeling guilty that my life has not killed me.