Symphony 91

There is an explanation of how this piece of Symphony came about in today’s post over in A Writing Life.


Life is not a well told tale. Things come out of nowhere, and in their wake, everything is changed. There is frequently no warning, and even afterward, those events may make no sense.

In Stockton, thirty miles north of Kiernan School, at about eleven thirty in the morning, a distracted young loner named Patrick Purdy parked his car outside Cleveland Elementary School. As he left his car, he used a fourth-of-July sparkler to light a pipe bomb in the front seat, and entered the school yard through an unlocked gate in the fence. He crossed a grassy field, rounded a classroom building and waited there watching the playground where the students were at recess. He was wearing a 9mm automatic pistol and carrying an assault rifle.

Purdy had attended that school for four years when he was a child. At that time it had been a white, middle class neighborhood. Now the community was filled with southeast Asian refugees. Most of the children in the playground were Asian. Purdy had told acquaintances how much he hated Asians.

Two things happened almost at once. The bomb Purdy had left in his car exploded, and the bell ending the recess period rang. The children turned from their play and ran back toward their classrooms. Purdy raised his AK-47 and calmly, matter-of-factly, fired a burst of thirty rounds into the mass of students. They fell, screaming and bleeding, or silent and already dead.

He replaced the ammunition clip and fired again. A teacher herding her children toward safety was shot down, and more students fell. Teachers inside the building at Purdy’s back huddled on the floor with their students, but he did not turn in their direction. He walked to his right, crossing in front of them, still firing into a school yard now littered with huddled heaps of the dead and wounded.

He rounded the far corner of the building just as the first sirens began to sound in the distance. Laying aside his assault rifle, he pulled out his pistol, put the barrel of it to his chin, and fired once.

He was dead when the first officers arrived at the scene. Five students lay dead. Twenty-nine students and a teacher lay wounded.

# # #

Neil had not had a good day. He had obtained a video of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech to show to his students in connection with the holiday. His morning class had responded with very little enthusiasm when he tried to get them to discuss what it meant. There were no black children at Kiernan, and Neil had not been able to convince them that the civil rights Dr. King had fought for were for all of them. To these children the events of the fifties and sixties were another world, as foreign as ancient Athens. They were indifferent to it all.

His afternoon class was even worse. He had almost reached the point of giving up in disgust and trying some other tactic, when Bill Campbell came to the door of his classroom and motioned for Neil to join him outside. The look on Bill’s face alerted Neil that something serious had happened.

“I just got a phone call from Elaine Sanders. There has been a shooting at one of the elementary schools in Stockton. Apparently, there were a bunch of dead and wounded. Elaine wanted us to be on the alert.”

Bill’s words were just words. The reality of them did not hit Neil at once. He said, “On the alert for what?”

“I don’t know. Strangers on campus; anything like that.” more Monday


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