In 1989, I was writing a novel about being a school teacher and mirroring my story against real events when a school shooting took place in a nearby city. I wrote reality into the novel. This post is the third in an excerpt from Symphony in a Minor Key.
Neil drove to the mall after school and went to a department store where he had seen racks of televisions on display. He had no TV himself and he did not want to watch this with Carmen. He could either watch it alone, or in the anonymity of a public place, but not with someone he loved. He arrived at the store just in time to see the whole bloody scene on the news. All normal business had stopped in the store as clerks and customers stood riveted by the horror of it.
A second channel picked it up and Neil watched again. His fascination was like a private shame. He hated the newsman for the way he shoved his microphone into a child’s face to ask her how she had felt, but he could not turn away.
The next morning the Modesto Bee devoted five full pages to the tragedy. Neil, who did not subscribe, went out early to buy a copy and read it all. Five dead. Thirty wounded. That would be half of the kids he taught. And all the rest, the other three hundred students, would never feel safe again. Like a rape, it would tear them out of their childhoods and plunge them into a mad, adult world long before their time.
What would he say to his own students today?
As it turned out, he didn’t have to say very much. Less than half of them were aware of what had happened, and few of them were very interested. They were talking about it when they came in from the buses; those who had seen the news were telling those who had not. But it had come to them through the plastic reality of the television. It was no more real than a drug bust, famine in Ethiopia, or oil spills. Or Miami Vice. It was just another part of the endless effluvium of human suffering that washed about them every day; with marvelous sanity, most of them remained unmoved.
A few of them were affected. Tanya Michelson looked as if she had been crying when she came in and stayed unnaturally quiet all day. Lisa Cobb jumped at every sound. Oscar Teixeira had been thinking hard about what it all meant. He went straight to the fact that the children who had died had all been Asian. With a clarity of thought all out of proportion to his age, he made the connection to the celebration of Martin Luther King Day just before the shooting. Of course he did not speak of irony – not at eleven years old – but he did recognize the juxtaposition.
I taught for twenty-seven years – about 4000 students by my best estimate. Most of them are a blur now, but when they were with me, they were a joy that filled my room and my life. Black (there were a few), Anglo or Mexican, or the very few of other ethnicities, all were precious.
I grew up in a time and place when everyone looked alike, sounded alike, and went to the same church. As I said on Monday, the black people who marched in Selma showed me another way of thinking.
This memory of the assassination of Asian children has inserted itself into a series of posts largely on black history, just as it inserted itself, most unwelcomely, into the novel I was writing in 1989.
It’s all part of the same story.
On Monday I’ll tell you in more detail how a white guy came to be writing on race.