Welcome Back to School (Shootings)

By Rachael Maddux


It’s barely September, and the afternoon light has finally mellowed enough that it no longer seems preposterous that the kids in my neighborhood are back in school. For weeks now I’ve watched as they walk out in the mornings, already sweating in the heavy air of a far-from-over Atlanta summer, their backpacks still light on their shoulders. I envy them, almost. But then I hear the bus’s diesel engine burbling and straining down the block and my envy turns to gratefulness, then settles back into dread.

I am a childless grownup; I should be able to embrace the start of a new school year like any other harbinger of fall, like the first honking skein of Canada geese overhead or the increasing crunch of leaves underfoot. Instead I steel myself for the inevitable, for the boys and their guns that I know are yet to come.

Already, in California, police have intercepted two rising seniors’ plans to “kill as many people as possible” at their high school at some point after classes started last week. Once the rest of the country catches up to the South’s early start dates (we’re ahead on this, at least), I know it’s only a matter of time before we see the headlines, or the trending topics, or the vague posts of dismay and disgust, or however we get our news now. The summer was a reprieve, but here we are again, seemingly helpless in the face of what by now appears to be as much a feature of the American school year as report cards and field trips and homecoming dances.

We’ve had school shootings as long as we’ve had schools, which is not quite as long as we’ve had guns. But for a while they were so baffling and so infrequent, just once a decade or so, that they were never quite incorporated into any permanent sense of reality. And so the idea of the American school as a safe space — free of violence, free of threat — was carried along through the years in a bubble.

There is a tacit agreement among children to wait until they are grown to start killing one another, and when this is violated we call it “the unimaginable.” We say, “I never thought this kind of thing could happen here.” But at some point in the past 20 years, it began to seem not just imaginable, but inevitable. I happened to be inside the bubble when it finally burst. By my count, between my first day of kindergarten, in August 1990, and my first day of middle school, in August 1996, 23 people — children and teachers and staff — were killed and 20 were wounded in 12 shootings done by students at primary and secondary schools across the United States. By the time I graduated from high school, in May 2003, those numbers had more than doubled: 24 shootings in six years, 110 wounded, 43 dead. In the 11 years since I graduated from high school, 42 have died and 92 have been wounded in 69 shootings committed by students. Since then, too, the less frequent but generally more deadly trend of outside shooters entering schools has spiked: In 16 incidents, 16 wounded and 46 dead — more than half of those at Sandy Hook Elementary in December 2012, one of the deadliest mass shootings in U.S. history. You can plot it all out on a chart and the red line goes up and up and it does not stop.

This year’s high school seniors, born in 1998 or 1997 or maybe 1996, have lived their entire lives in the aftermath of that burst bubble in a world with few illusions about what their mere presence in school might protect them from. The kids just starting kindergarten, I suspect, will have even fewer. Twenty states now require their public schools to perform regular lockdown drills. The Department of Homeland Security offers downloadable materials for classroom use — posters and pocket cards, in English and Spanish, about how to behave in an active shooter situation — and even a webinar: “Conducting Security Assessments: A Guide for Schools and Houses of Worship.” School systems ready teachers with elaborate staged scenarios involving real law enforcement and rubber bullets. Perhaps the net effect of all this is, in fact, safer schools. But enacting these means of protection requires an acknowledgement of the threat itself, which begins a certain sort of unraveling no drill can really stop.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Active Shooter Educational Booklet

Tennessee, where I grew up, is one state to require lockdown drills. In Georgia, where I live, no drills are required, but as of this July public schools do have the ability to decide for themselves whether to allow their teachers and administrators to be armed — this, part of a broader piece of legislation that also allows firearms to be carried at bars, churches, airports, and government buildings. Last year, a bookkeeper at an elementary school five miles from my house was held hostage in the front office by a 20-year-old gunman. He had a rifle and 500 rounds of ammunition and had recently gone off his medication. She successfully talked him out of killing her and who knows how many others, and got him to lie down on the floor with his pockets emptied until police arrived. This is not a recommended tactic. I’m surprised she is still alive. I’m surprised anyone there is still alive. Sometimes, I’m surprised I’m still alive. Sometimes I find myself joking about surviving high school and I realize I’m only half joking.

I had never heard of any of the towns where the shootings happened, just like nobody would have heard of Ooltewah, Tennessee, but the schools they showed on the news — bricky and beige and prisonlike, scraggly bushes out front and pickup trucks in the parking lot — were as familiar to me as the boys who got the schools on TV to begin with. And they were always boys. In the photos that flashed on screen they were almost uniformly babyfaced with greasy hair, ruddy cheeks, braces detectable behind unsmiling lips, eyes a little dead, but whose aren’t when popped with that Olan Mills flash? The photos were always a little bit out of date — even a few months can make a difference when you’re 14 or 15 or 16. Acne clears or drifts, jaws square off, faint mustaches descend to haunt upper lips. That’s how young they were: They had not even been themselves long enough for anyone to know who they would turn out to be.

I can’t say exactly when the possibility of a shooting happening at my own school went from nonexistent consideration to unshakeable threat, but in time the likelihood seemed to increase with every time it happened somewhere else, as if this worked the same way as picking dodgeball teams: one by one until every last one of us had been called up. I’d never seen a real live gun outside a cop’s hip holster or a museum display case, which perhaps made me an oddity among my classmates, who largely hailed from the kind of white, conservative, churchgoing families that, rich or poor or middle class, were all pretty much weaponed by default — for backyard target practice or weekend deer hunting or general second-amendment flexing under the guise of “self defense.” I had no doubt I passed someone in the halls every day who had easy access to the means, at least, for an attack.

“He’s weird, but not, like, shoot-up-the-school weird,” my friends and I would say to reassure ourselves about peculiar characters, a distinction that now seems damning in its own way. Shoot-up-the-school: We had to say it fast like that, like it was all one word and without taking a breath or thinking too hard, the way you have to just rip off a bandage or run straight off a high dive — the way I imagine you have to pull a trigger — because otherwise you could never bring yourself to do it at all.

The boys did what they did, and everyone had an idea why: It was The Basketball Diaries or Marilyn Manson or video games or absentee parents or that trusty old whipping boy Satan himself. I favored the theory that it was other kids who’d driven them to it, up to and over the edge. I had seen every day for years how cruel we could be. I would not say this made me a kinder person, just more aware of all the ways I was not kind. In bed at night and on the bus in the morning and in the halls between classes I would run down the list of everything I could have done to possibly merit a bullet being lodged in my leg or my back or my head. I cataloged every snicker, every rolled eye, every offhanded blow I might have dealt, trying to summon the face of anyone who might at that exact moment be licking his wounds, making his own list of names, adding mine to it. I always came up empty, which was a relief but also not. It meant either I was safe or I would never see it coming.

For a while I tried to remember all the names of all the schools where all the shootings happened but eventually I gave up, the way I imagine dwellers of certain coasts lose track of all the once-looming hurricanes that eventually passed them by — there are just too many, and knowing the name of the last one won’t save you from the next. But some still stand out, or rather still stick: Frontier, where he opened fire on his algebra class the semester before I had an algebra class of my own. Thurston, where he had a name like aluminum foil on the tongue and murdered both his parents first. Pearl, where he killed his ex-girlfriend and later claimed to be possessed by demons. Heath, where he shot into the prayer circle. And then Columbine, which now sits among the so many other once-anonymous words (“Pearl Harbor,” “grassy knoll,” “September 11th”) so bloated with tragedy they’re almost impossible to maneuver without protective air-quotes. At first we called it “the Columbine shooting” or “the Columbine tragedy” but soon that came to seem redundant, like saying “the wet water” or “the actual fact.” It was the essence of all of its modifiers. It was anything anyone needed it to be.

I was in eighth grade when it happened, a month out from the end of middle school, bored of everything I knew of my life and greedy for everything to come. I was in class, but I know that only because it was a Tuesday in April and there’s nowhere else I could have been. Is it possible that my teachers stopped everything and turned on the televisions to let us watch it unfold live? This seems impossibly reckless, but the memory feels true: The reactions of my teachers and my friends and my parents and my sister, anything anyone might have said by way of explanation or reassurance or shared disbelief that day or the day after or the day after that — it’s all wiped out, everything except the memory of countless small square screens where grave-faced reporters used words like “massacre” and “triage” and “trenchcoat mafia,” where in endlessly looping footage students ran from the school building crying, their bodies bent double and their hands clasped against the backs of their heads, elbows up and out like wings of flightless birds.

In the days after Columbine — as in the wake of every now-forgotten shooting, just a little louder, a little more frantic this time — swelled up the chorus of ambient bickering about what might be done to keep what happened there (there after there after there) from happening here: Did our schools need metal detectors? Bag searches, pat-downs? Armed guards? Armed teachers? Most of us kids could hardly manage to pack our own lunches, let alone load a gun. But the way I had begun to look at the boys with the sullen eyes and the long jackets, everyone else now looked at all of us.

The August after that April, I started ninth grade at a high school that sat between a dairy farm and a warehouse of unclear industrial function on a hillside overlooking I-24, a Frankenstein’s monster of a building circled by a 10-foot security fence topped with rusted barbed wire that angled inward. The fence was long-standing, but a few adjustments had been made over the summer in regards to what by then fully appeared to be our new and unbudging reality. The dress code, already strict for a public school, had been tightened so that our choices were down to two colors of pants (khaki or navy, belted at all times) and four colors of polo shirts (red, white, gray or navy, tucked in at all times). We were not allowed to wear coats or jackets or any sort of outerwear inside the building, with the exception of the hooded sweatshirts made available exclusively to members of the school’s sports teams. We were not allowed to wear sandals or patterned socks or shorts shorter than knee-length. We were not allowed to carry beepers or pagers or cell phones. We were not allowed to have backpacks with us anywhere except on the way to and from our lockers, where they were supposed to stay shuttered away during the day — so that we couldn’t tote our guns around in them — but the building’s various wings were so far-flung and the hallways so crowded between classes that the rule was unofficially suspended to avoid an epidemic of chronic tardiness.

Guns had been illegal on campus for years, and it was hard to imagine someone being discouraged by the dress code but not state law, so as far as I was concerned all these new rules did was increase the likelihood of my classmates and I being killed while wearing the same outfit.

I wanted to feel protected, just not in any of the ways anyone wanted to protect me. I understood, or at least I understand now, that the principals and teachers and all the rest of the adults in charge felt a great need to show that they meant business — to prove that they were not just feebly grasping at straws, terrified like the rest of us. They had 1,200 teenagers to keep from shooting one another and were working against what seemed like a viral madness that was creeping closer every day. We hadn’t been prepared for this, and neither had they. But good intentions were never going to stop a bullet.

In the spring of my freshman year, at the behest of the county superintendent, our long-running regimen of quarterly fire and tornado drills was augmented with an active shooter drill, although great pains were taken to avoid the words “active” and “shooter.” On a not entirely random day in the middle of a not entirely random class period, the school-wide intercom would crackle on and the disembodied voice of one of our four assistant principals would signal the commencement of the drill in the same soporific drawl used to announce bus route changes and field trip cancellations. “This is a safety drill,” the voice would would say. “This — is a safety drill.” At this signal we were supposed to drop to the floor and make our way to the corner of the classroom designated in advance as being least visible from the doorway, to remove us from the path of any bullets that might come flying in from the hall. Meanwhile, our teacher would run to the door, check the hallway for stray students, pull in any stragglers, then shut and lock the door and cover its inset window with a piece of poster-board they had been instructed to keep on hand for just this purpose. Somebody, maybe a nimble-fingered student, would yank down and twist shut the classroom’s mini-blinds, in case someone was prowling outside.

And then we would all wait there in the safe corner, huddled or crouched or piled or in whatever position we had arranged ourselves, for however long it was determined that we should wait.

After a while the intercom would crackle back on to tell us the coast was clear, and although we all knew the coast had never been anything but clear, it was with at least a small amount of relief that we pried ourselves from the safe corner and returned to our desks, often without speaking a direct word about what had just happened, or not-happened.

We were made to go through these motions frequently enough that I eventually developed opinions about which classrooms would make the best refuge on the occasion of an actual shooting. The room where my U.S. government class met struck me as the most ideal option, its stumpy L shape providing a spacious corner to huddle in at a generous remove from the door. My chemistry lab had heavy tables a group of us could easily slide up against the door, better than spindly metal desks for keeping a shooter at bay — not a sanctioned safety-drill maneuver, but it seemed worth keeping in the reserves. The semester I was assigned to study hall in the Junior ROTC rifle range was particularly comforting. The guns that lay all around were carved from two-by-fours and accented with duct tape but, I figured, could be sufficiently threatening in a pinch.

All of this was better than nothing, better than just shrugging and letting the bullets fly. But I had questions, ones I sensed I couldn’t ask or the whole thing would fall apart, or I’d be mistaken as the one lusting for my classmates’ spilled blood. Like: If the shooter we were practicing hiding ourselves from was one of our own — and, following the patterns of recent history, he most likely would be — wouldn’t he know all about the drill, and therefore know to work around it? Wouldn’t he try instead to exploit one of the many scenarios we never once prepared for: a shooter in the halls between classes, a shooter in the cafeteria during lunch, a shooter in the commons when everyone was flooding to and from the buses, a shooter in the stadium during one of the football pep rallies the entire student body was required to attend every fall? What about during a fire drill or a tornado drill? Once I thought that would be the ultimate irony, dying by one means while practicing how not to die by another, but then I decided, no, that would be an attack during the safety drill itself: all of us pre-corralled, pre-cowering, there for the taking, knowing those locked doors didn’t mean a thing if someone wanted in bad enough.

Between what I saw on the news and the version of reality the safety drills asked us to imagine, it wasn’t hard to see how it might all go down. I imagined my friends and my classmates and my teachers scattering, crying, bleeding out; I imagined seeing a boy I had seen every day for years suddenly standing there with a gun, or two, or more. I imagined what it would be like to be shot and die: the sudden explosion of rearranging pain, the dark draining slide into nothingness. But mostly I imagined what it would be like to be shot and live. When I would come across descriptions of gunshot wounds in books or magazines or on the news, I would tuck away anything that seemed reassuring. It was like getting punched or pinched hard, it was like getting poked with something hard and hot, it was like getting stung by a very large bee. I had felt a little bit of all these things before, I reminded myself; maybe it wouldn’t be so bad. I let myself forget all the times I cried over a stubbed toe, all the days I’d ruined with a paper cut.

Sometimes I tried to imagine what it would be like to be the shooter myself — to be stalking the halls I knew so well and blasting away anyone in my path, to be soaked with blood and not even know whose, to be so full of whatever a person needed to be full of for this to become his life. But I could never get far. I had never even held a gun. I just wanted to make sure the idea did not somehow appeal to me. It did not.

And then, with a walk across a stage and a flip of a tassel, I left it all behind. I went away to a tiny college in a big city where if I ever wondered which of my classmates was most likely to go on a shooting rampage or what classroom would be the best to hide in or which professor would be most likely to throw themselves between their students and a spray of bullets, it was from sheer force of habit. There was no barbed wire, no dress code, no drills. I was no longer afraid, at least not of what I used to be afraid of.

When I would see on the news that it had happened again — another boy, another gun, another bricky beige school in some little town no one had ever heard of — I would tsk in shock and sorrow along with everyone else, but mostly what I felt was relief. That could have been me once, I knew. That could have been any of us. But you’re safe now, I told myself. You’re safe.

And I believed it — believed that I had aged out of this threat, that my childhood exposure had somehow inoculated me against it, like chicken pox — right up until that April morning in when the news came down from Blacksburg: 17 wounded, 32 dead at Virginia Tech. The senior business major had moved through the residence halls and the classroom buildings, unloading his handguns into rooms full of professors and students, shooting them down through the doors they’d barricaded themselves behind. He took a break to mail a package of photos and videos and letters to NBC. He knew they would want it. He had seen all this before.

And we had seen all this before. We had not seen it at a single college or university in the past four years, somehow, but we had seen it in the 16 dead, eight wounded, in eight campus shootings over the previous decade, and we had seen it, or would see it soon, so many other times in so many other places: shopping malls, movie theaters, train stations, post offices, hospitals, churches — everywhere a person might go in the course of living their life. I was a month away from graduation, four hundred miles away, and I felt the terrible rude clarity of the world splitting itself open to show me everything I hadn’t let myself believe was there all along.

I had left behind nothing but the haphazard rituals that had once given shape to my fear, and now I found myself teetering on the edge of the rest of my life, gasping and ashamed to not have seen how much danger I’d always been in — how much danger I was in still — how there were no safe corners, never had been, and never would be again.

But still I look for them, those places that might give me some comfort — if not when bullets are flying then at least in all the quiet waiting hours before. I angle for back booths in restaurants, scan for exits while waiting in checkout lines, make note of nooks and alcoves like I make note of sullen-eyed strangers. Depending on the day or the hour I make vague plans to run, or to play dead. But I don’t know. After all this time, I don’t know what I would do, or should do.

I think of the little girl I read about in the New York Times earlier this year, in an article about school lockdowns:

In Louisville, Ky., the school where Rachel Hurd Anger’s daughter, Ella, attends second grade was locked down after a man with five BB guns walked onto the campus. A few days later, Ms. Hurd Anger said her daughter drew a red-and-yellow emergency button and taped it to her bedroom wall. When she presses it, she and her 4-year-old brother run to the basement to hide. “It’s kind of like a security blanket,” Ms. Hurd Anger said. “She doesn’t want to take it down.”

In high school, after a while I decided that if something did go down — something the narrow imagination of the safety drill had not prepared us for, as I suspected would be the case — I would just hide under a table and everything would be all right. I’m not sure why I ever thought this. I got the idea from a girl who had been killed at Columbine. I heard that she had crouched under a table in the library to hide from the shooters, that one of the boys found her there and asked her if she believed in God, that she said yes and he shot her anyway. Or maybe not “anyway” — maybe she said exactly what he wanted to hear. Years later I learned that the story was probably not even true, that none of the other kids from the library that morning remember the exchange that way, but by then I had thought about it so much that the reality hardly mattered. So many times I had thought about what I would do if it were me under that table, with a 17-year-old in a trench coat pointing a rifle at my face and asking me if I believed in God. I think I know what I would have said back then. I’m not sure I know what I would say now.

Photo-collage sources, from top: Randy Faris (Corbis); Jetta Productions (Getty); Gallery Stock; Hero Images Inc. (Corbis).