As so often happens, I always think a little bit more this time of year about my former life in the classroom, particularly at this time of year when teachers are just sweeping away the rest of the anxieties and apprehensions that come with each new school year and settling in for the day in and day out life of lesson plans and grading.
But, with those thoughts in these times, a baker’s dozen’s worth of years after my last class shuffled out of St. Marys Memorial’s Room 16, also comes some rather grim musings about schools. In over three decades of unlocking my classroom doors in the predawn hours of each school day in three different high schools — Perry, Allen East and Memorial — not once did I ever think that this might be the day I would hear gunfire.
I think about that every time I hear of yet another incident that has become all too common on school campuses, from elementary to junior high to high school to college. Last January, just a few hops and skips to our south in West Liberty, it happened yet again. Only the laudatory efforts of the staff at West Liberty-Salem High School and law enforcement prevented a further tragedy than what occurred to a random victim, a 16-year-old boy, shot by a 17-year-old, who disassembled a shotgun to get the weapon into school, reassembled it in a restroom and emerged with dark intentions.
My surmise is the tragic roll call of school shootings has lengthened proportionally to the gun violence off campuses over time. After all, when it comes to such violence, I suppose the “where’s” take a back seat to the undeniable facts involving the pervasiveness of guns and the propensity so many have to misuse them.
As far as schools and guns are concerned, some would be very surprised to see how far back such events go. While some in more recent times, such as the Sandy Hook shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012, the shootings at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia, in 2007, and those at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, in 1999, have become notorious, the fact is that schools and guns go back not just decades but centuries.
According to the website K12academics.com, the first occurred in 1764, when four Lenape American Indians entered a schoolhouse not far from where Greencastle, Pennsylvania, now is and shot and killed nine children and the schoolmaster.
For me, the first time I really became aware that schools certainly weren’t safe zones where students had little with which to worry except those occasional breakouts of acne and Wednesday’s biology test was just a few weeks before my sophomore year at Lima Central Catholic, when I was already dreading Algebra II and bitter about the fact that plain old algebra, which I’d already passed with a solid “C” my freshman year, apparently had somehow spawned a sequel.
It was on August’s first day in 1966 when a 25-year-old lone sniper named Charles Whitman climbed to the top of a University of Texas clock tower and, from an observation deck, over a 96-minute period methodically fired and reloaded a small arsenal of weapons, killing 16 and wounding 31, before being shot and killed himself by law enforcement.
While in Austin on a recent Texas vacation and on UT’s campus, I noticed that the tower was visible from almost every location Lady Jane and I went on the sprawling campus, as thoughts rolled through my head as to what the horror must have been like on that day.
Since then, the list has grown far too frequently, with a half dozen more incidents in the 1960s alone even before four students were felled by National Guard bullets at Kent State in May 1970 during my freshman year at sister Mid-American Conference school, Miami University.
There are those my age who will tell you that the West Liberty incident this past school year and so many others of recent vintage rarely happened back in the good old days. As many will tell you, the older we get, the better the old days become, that would surely be practicing revisionist history.
And, despite the fact that it never crossed my mind when I had my nose buried in grammar books, lit anthologies and stacks of student compositions during my classroom days, that certainly didn’t mean my charges and I were safe.
And, unlike the first glimpses of gun violence I saw as a boy on my beloved TV Westerns, such as Steve McQueen’s “Wanted, Dead or Alive” or Pat Conroy’s “Tombstone Territory,” when bushwhackers were shot in saloons, off horses and from the tops of porches yet never shed a discernible drop of blood, the moments when guns and schools intersect are indeed tragically real.
John Grindrod is a regular columnist for The Lima News and Our Generation’s Magazine, a freelance writer and editor and the author of two books. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.