In the fall of 1968, I was a sophomore attending Stamford Catholic High School. In was a tumultuous time in our history with the Viet Nam War, demonstrations and over reactions by the National Guard, assassinations and more. It was also a personally tumultuous and traumatic time for me, being bullied incessantly both at home and at school. Although there was a lot going on in the world and in the country, none of it affected me directly.
One morning, I arrived at school and started going about my normal routine when suddenly we were told to stay in our classrooms. Apparently, there was someone on the roof of the building who shot at the office of the disciplinarian. When the police came, they stormed the roof, and the shooter shot himself and died. We weren’t told what was happening at the time, though I remember hearing shots. There was no announcement made, no counseling, no formal acknowledgement that this had happened except for a funeral mass that the entire school attended. I found out all the details when I got home because my dad was the newspaper editor and heard all the news, and my mom also always knew everything that happened in town.
Here it is 2019, and I got a whispered phone call from my granddaughter this morning saying, “Nana, can you come and get me? There’s a shooter at the school.” She’s fine and eventually took the bus home where both of her parents were there to meet her. She also had a plan. “Don’t worry, I’m on the first floor and can hop out the window, if I need to.” After I knew she was safe, all of my own old trauma came rushing back. It wasn’t just the incident at my school, it was everything that was happening at that time. There was a general disquiet, and it just felt unsafe, for a long time, for me and for people I knew. Young men were being drafted and sent to Viet Nam where they would come home changed forever or not come home at all. Luckily, my brother was too young at the time, but I knew others who never came back. I’ve known some who made it back alive but were never the same. Riots were happening, and peaceful demonstrations were getting out of control. I’ve lived through “duck and cover” during The Cold War, then the wild and crazy 60s and 70s, the serial killers of the 80s, and plenty of other terrifying events. Now, all these years later, we have to deal with people targeting our children and grandchildren. I have had enough! When will we wise up and make real substantial changes?
People are angry, and rightly so. In this modern day and age there are enough resources to ensure that everyone can have a decent lifestyle, but not everyone has that. People are falling further and further into debt. Home lives are stressful because we have to struggle to make ends meet. I have been one of those people that had to struggle just to make rent and put food on the table. I’ve been lucky enough to have the support of my friends and managed to crawl my way out of that extreme poverty, but not everyone has those same resources.
Something has to shift, or we will destroy ourselves. We are on that path to self-destruction now, not only with gun violence but with climate change as well. I don’t think it’s too late to turn the tide. Compassion and understanding should be the rule today, if we want lasting change. That has to start at home and in our communities. Everyone of us can do something small in our own community, whether it’s in our neighborhoods, or within our community of friends or family. Everyone of us can be on our phones less and engage in meaningful interactions with the people around us, smile and say hello to the people we pass on the street, compliment parents on their wonderful children, acknowledge the homeless, and the list goes on. Do you use reusable bags when you shop? Bring your own coffee mug? Refuse plastic straws? It’s all of those little things that add up.
I always try to remind myself that I can make a difference every day. When I engage that aggravated mom in the grocery store or engage her rambunctious child, I make a difference in that one small moment. Maybe that moment will last for the day, maybe more than one day. When I was visiting someone at Albany County Jail every week for 6 months, I made a difference with the moms and young children waiting in line for over an hour by just playing with the kids or entertaining them with string figures or playing peek-a-boo. Suddenly, the yelling and crying stopped. Everyone there was stressed, and it’s set up to create even more stress. A little compassion and engagement went a long, long way. We can all make a difference.