There was a shooting at my school. It was about a week ago and I am just now able to try to write about it. Last Friday a terribly disturbed young man -- yes, another terribly disturbed young man, with a rifle, in this case a homemade semi automatic rifle -- let loose on innocent people and ended up killing five of them before he himself was shot dead by the campus police of Santa Monica College, right in front of the library.
Santa Monica College is my school. I take great pride in saying that. I believe I am a sophomore but have to check with my adviser on that. I am eternally grateful that he didn't answer the email I sent him early last week asking to schedule an appointment with him by asking me to come in last Friday or I would have been on campus at the time of the shootings.
I went back to college at age 60. "Went back" implies a bit more than the truth. I did a short stint at Penn years ago, and was fortunate to have spent five years in the writing program at UCLA Extension with Eve LaSalle Caram and Kerry Madden, both of whom I consider mentors, but as far as doing the real deal, I didn't. Nor truthfully, did I ever have a desire to.
So who knew the bug would bite me at 60. I guess it makes sense in an odd way. At 40, I got a tattoo on my ankle. At 50 I dunked under water at the Micvah converting me to Judaism. So again, in an odd way, I suppose turning 60 it was shave my head or go to college. Thank God I'm vain.
There was a shooting at my school. You see, it's still too soon. I keep avoiding the subject, going on about tattoos and shaving my head. It is still inside my stomach, twisting and turning. It's stuck under my rib cage on the right side. Before I could say it aloud I kept saying it inside and it reverberated causing distress. Unlike all things that happen out there or to someone else, someone you've never met, and none of your friends and family have ever met, when it happens to you or in your own neighborhood it becomes real. It becomes a living tangible organism with power to hurt you. That is what the shooting at my school has done to me. It brought the random surge of violence that we as a country, as a world, and we as human beings are experiencing at this point in time, straight to my door and laid it at my feet.
I love my school. I love the campus; it's the perfect size for me. There have been several new buildings built since the '90s. The library which sits smack dab in the middle of campus, was expanded, updated and nicely tricked out with private study rooms and new computers in 2003. We have an eco-friendly waterfall surrounded by café tables and chairs, usually filled with studying students. Not once have I seen a stray candy wrapper or discarded cigarette butt swimming, begging to be rescued from our eco-friendly waterfall.
The thing about the school is that it is the most diverse world I've ever inhabited, if only for a few hours at a time several days a week. A rainbow coalition of noisy, excited, youth-driven activity. Going from Lit 14 in Dresher Hall mid-campus to the library is like walking through the halls of the UN, only the wardrobes have been switched. Want to know what's hip, trendy or happening in fashion with the early 20's crowd? Walk from one end of SMC to the other and you'll have the beat. And the music, there's always music coming from somewhere. Sometimes from a band out on the quad, or a lone guitarist strolling across the lawn, or a hip-hop cell phone ring. There is always laughter and yelling, joking and jousting. The sounds of young men and women emerging from their teenage shells, noisily shaking off the remains in different areas of the campus, trying on for size their "college student strides." It is alive. It is vibrant. It was hopeful.
But now there has been a shooting at my school. Things have changed. Monday morning the lockdown lifted and school re-opened for finals. I had a final from noon to 3 on Monday. To my surprise I woke up at 5 in the morning Monday with my heart racing and the clear concise sentence was back: there's been a shooting at my school. I sat up in bed and allowed myself to be with that thought, that feeling, that sentence that had looped through me all weekend and I began to pray. Pray for the teachers I knew there, Mary Fonseca and Jackie Horowitz, brilliant teachers who have inspired me and teach like they are teaching at Harvard or Yale and treat all of their students with respect. I pray for my first-year classmate whose political activism gave me great faith for the future and for the girl in Lit class with the short red hair and Doc Martens who works at Book Soup and will be published someday soon. I prayed for them and for all of us.
Later that morning, paying close attention to my nerves, I parked my car by the main entrance to campus at 11:45, taking note of the five -- five, mind you -- police officers sitting on their motorcycles out front as I walked back on campus. The campus resembled a village hit by the plague. A few stragglers and walking wounded plodded along in a loud silence, eyes cast down. The hallway to my classroom, once bustling with bodies rushing to class, bodies sprawled on the floor leaning over laptops, bodies coming and going, wanting to be somebody in this world, was now silent. That is all the hallway offered me on Monday morning. Silence that screamed Everything has Changed.
The few students I passed couldn't look me in the eye. Their heads hung low and suspicion replaced laughter. I walked into my classroom, saw the faces of the kids I've been with since the beginning of February and realized that my heart had been broken.
That is what an act of violence such as what happened years ago at Columbine, what happened last December in Newtown, and what happened in my school last Friday does to the survivors. It literally breaks one's heart.
I don't know how we stop this. But we must or we will be a nation of brokenhearted individuals, joyless and hopeless, open to none, suspicious of all. Now it doesn't take a sophomore at Santa Monica College to tell you what a nation of brokenhearted hopeless people can achieve. Not a damn thing.