On Saturday, April 27, 2019, while putting away the leftovers from supper that night, a notification popped up on my phone. It was from CNN. The message text was simply “synagogue shooting in California leaves 1 dead and 3 wounded”. My first thought, I am ashamed to admit was, “Oh, only one dead.”
ONLY. ONE. DEAD.
Callous – a feeling of showing no emotion or sympathy for others. That what I was. Calloused. Indifferent. Unsympathetic. Hardened.
We are too used to this kind of news and we take these events for granted, as if they were a part of everyday life, along with traffic jams and long lines at movie premieres.
Last Sunday, April 20th, while we were celebrating Easter Sunday, many others observed the 20th anniversary of Columbine. That day introduced two new words into our vocabulary, “Active Shooter”.
I have been an educator for about the same amount of time. I began as a substitute teacher for Milwaukee Public Schools from 1990. I left that position in March of 1993 because I had been threatened by a student with a gun. The incident took place about ten minutes before the bell rang. I was overseeing a high school history class at a school within walking distance of the duplex where I lived with my wife and newborn son. Students were talking loudly but seated.
A young man stood up and walked over to the window on the far side of the room. Feeling like this was an obvious attempt to subvert my authority, I asked him to take his seat until the bell rang. He then reached behind his back and produced a small gun, which he then pointed at the foolish teacher who had made such an outrageous request.
“I apologize,” I quickly said, raising my hands (even though I was not instructed to do so). “I was WAY out of line. Upon further reflection, you have EVERY right to look out a window whenever you feel like it!”
The rest of the students gathered together in the part of the room where the student with the gun was not. The student positioned himself next to the door and blocked the class phone.
The time clicked by and the bell rang. The student turned and ran down the hall, with all his classmates following out the door, in the opposite direction. I quickly grabbed my belongings and walked (very fast) to the office. I walked past the secretaries and right into the Principal’s Office. He was on the phone.
“Excuse me,” I said, quite shaken now. “Johnny So and So has a gun and I quit!” The Principal begged me to stay until the Police came to give them a statement but I declined. I told him my information was on file and they could contact me at home.
They never did.
I left teaching and worked many odd jobs, eventually winding up as a Retail Sales Manager for American TV. In the summer of 2000, the company downsized and I was let go. Upon soul searching for what I wanted to be when I grew up, I decided to go back into teaching, this time in the field of Special Education.
My first day in a Special Ed Classroom was September 11th, 2001. Not particularly a good omen. Since that day there have been over 270 shootings of any kind, just in the United States alone. We recognize them by their locations: Columbine, Sandy Hook, Parkland, Las Vegas, Sikh Temple, and the list go on and on.
Part of our teacher in-services is dedicated to training for these events. We have CODE RED drills to train students what they are to do. We establish protocols and procedures for evacuation or isolation. One officer calmly gave me the best bit of advice I had ever heard. “If you can see a gun,” he said, “you can be shot”.
In 2007, I was involved in another incident. I was working at a high school in downtown Milwaukee. We were a small school and most of our students traveled to and from school on the city bus. We would dismiss students from the building, escort them to the bus stop 200 yards away and stay with them until they were all on the bus. We had about 75 students, so we staggered them in four groups of about 20 students. Staff were assigned to each group and were dismissed when all groups were away.
On this particular spring day, the first group went out to the stop. The second group would be escorted next by myself and another teacher. A few minutes after the first group left the building, the principal (who was at the bus stop) informed all staff by radio that at the bus stop was a student who had been sent home at lunch that day for starting a fight. Not only did he return, but he also brought a friend and each had a rifle in their hands.
The head secretary called 911 and the rest of us closed all the doors. I asked all the students to go to the cafeteria and sit down. On the way there, the other teacher, clearly not thinking, asked if I thought one of us should go outside and help.
“No,” I answered a little too loudly, “That’s where the Gun is”. I explained to him, as per our training, our responsibility was to keep all the people who were still inside, inside and all those outside, outside. He thought that sounded cold, but he eventually saw the logic and took up a position at the other exit. Fifteen minutes later, the crisis passed. The rifles were actually pellet guns and the two assailants were in police custody.
Those two incidents have told me a lot about myself. I always wondered that if the time came, would I have it in me to stand up and do the right thing for my students? Would I take a bullet or lay down my life? I believe the answer is “Yes” and that scares me.
I’m not scared for me. I know my final destination. Jesus said in John 15:13
“Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.”
I’m scared that my best won’t be “good enough” and I accomplish nothing! I’m scared because, despite my good intentions, I might fail! I’m afraid of becoming callous and letting my guard down.
I have discovered that God’s word is a great replenisher of my empathy. When I see God’s love come alive in scriptures, my love for others around me begins to bloom again.
There are many speculations as to why the number of “Active Shooter Situations” is increasing. Blame is placed on easy gun sales and weak weapon legislation. Some blame the media for broadcasting shooters with the “highest score”, while others point to shifts in societal norms such as single parenting and teen pregnancy. Some indicate a natural consequence of increase lawlessness due to illegal drugs and other crimes.
Let me throw my “Two Cents” in. I see this as a “Heart” problem. Somewhere along the line, we forgot that we are not the center of the universe. Humans have an annoying tendency to think of our own wants and needs before anyone else’s. This is a reflex action that kicks in at birth and never truly leaves us. A friend of mine refers to this as the “Disease of ME!” A majority of God’s word focuses on this. All of his commandments force us to focus on others first, before ourselves. God’s order for our decision-making tree is simply GOD, OTHERS, SELF.
Human beings are God’s Masterpiece. He cares for his children so much that he even told his children, through Moses, “THOU SHALL NOT MURDER”. Notice that there was not an asterisk * behind this one. He didn’t authorize abortion, euthanasia, or any of the many other ways we try to work around this.
A mass shooting is the ultimate selfish act. It tells the world that it’s all about the shooter. Many who attempt it or even contemplate such an act admit a desire in being seen as the center of attention. In several cases, the shooter’s identity, due to news coverage, is more recognizable than the victims. We, as a society, try to distance ourselves from both sides, as evident when we name the event after the location instead of the victim(s).
Upon reflection, the shooting at the synagogue in California on Saturday, April 27th, 2018 resulted in the loss of one life. And that is one life too many.
Let’s pray: Heavenly Father, please let me never assume that the evil in this world is simply “just the way it is.” Please peel the callouses off my heart and expose my empathy to the suffering of this world, both big and small. Let injustice never become commonplace or not my problem. Lord, let me see my fellow man as you do, your beloved children. Help me to become uncalloused! In Your Name. Amen.