THE WORLD BEFORE
It sounds so quaint now, almost like a piece of fantasy, that there was once a time in this country when kids went to school without ever imagining that someone would burst in with a gun and start shooting. Because no one ever did. We had fire drills, which in my case turned out to be prophetic — my school was evacuated in the 1961 Bel Air fire just hours before the entire school went up in flames. But that was the only disaster we needed to prepare for.
I used to laugh at adults who waxed nostalgic and said things like, “It was a different time then.” Now I’m deep into adulthood, and I want the children and teenagers who think adulthood is miles away to know what it used to be like here. Because someday my generation will be gone and there won’t be anyone to tell the stories of a time before bullets and blood came to schools, churches, concerts. Before fear was everywhere and people in government could only offer mealy-mouthed rationalizations and impotent Hallmark-card platitudes.
It wasn’t an idyllic time — no time in history has been. Crowds of African Americans were mowed down with fire hoses, beaten, arrested for no reason. There was violence on campuses and in the streets because of the Vietnam War. Four students were shot by the National Guard at Kent State in 1970.
But in neighborhoods all over America, children picked up lunchboxes and book bags, trundled off to school, either behaved or misbehaved, learned or sluffed off, and then returned home to parents who had never wondered for an instant if their child would live through the day.
For those who never knew a world before Columbine, I want to tell you that mornings dawned without dread of what horror the day might bring. School dramas happened — there was bullying, and competition, and unfairness. But students didn’t lie dead in classrooms, while others had to live the rest of their lives haunted by images of shredded bodies. Fourteen year olds didn’t have to get help for PTSD. I want to tell you that there was childhood; there were years when you could just be innocent, and playful, and not have to think about death and violence.
And I want to tell you that millions of us weep at the fact that you will never know what that world was like. We failed to preserve it for you. We looked away, became too complacent, while the business of guns became a multi-billion dollar bonanza and America became littered with bodies, some so young they still had some of their baby teeth. And men in crisp dark suits who ran campaigns funded by NRA money watched tragedy after tragedy unfold, knowing they were never going to do anything about it because, to them, money matters more than decency.
But the human spirit blazes with a desire for peace and safety. Seventeen year olds are speaking out, demanding that elected officials stop being impotent. Seventeen year olds who just witnessed carnage that is usually reserved for soldiers in a war zone. Seventeen year olds who have proven more eloquent, more compelling, and more clear-headed than the adults entrusted with running this country. They are bold enough to not back down, they are courageous enough to call out those who say, This isn’t about guns. And they are hopeful enough to dream of a world in which going to school is no longer one of the most dangerous things you can do.