What We Were Taught

Sunday, October 8, 2017 / 11:00 AM

We've always been a news-watching family, the kind that gather around the TV and consume silently as the anchors and reporters tell us what's happening in our city and in the world. On weekend mornings, my parents would read the paper over breakfast.

The news was a way for us to learn, in the same way that it was a vehicle for my parents to learn about the U.S. when they first came here at 10 years old. When big, historical things happened, the news was there to tell them what and why.

The first time I remember asking my mom about why something bad happened was in 1995. The Oklahoma City bombing was all over the TV, and I didn't quite understand – at 6 years old – why it had happened. "I don't really know," my mom said, pointing to the TV where Tom Brokaw was giving us facts, "but let's keep listening."

We did this every time a major story took over the nation.

I was 10 years old when Columbine happened. I still didn't understand why. All I remember was coming to school the next day and the teachers talked us through what a lockdown was and said we'd be practicing one soon, like a fire drill.

Turn off the lights and keep quiet. Lower blinds or shades, lock the windows and doors, and move away from them. Get under your desk or behind something solid – somewhere that could keep a bullet from getting you. Stay low.

At the time, we didn't think it would happen to us. How could it? School is supposed to be a safe place.

We did the lockdown drill a couple of times in the following weeks. About a month after Columbine, the flashing lights went off near the end of the day, signaling what we thought was another drill – only this time, it wasn't a drill, the teacher said. "Get under your desks."

I still remember the layout of the classroom, where I sat in it, and the look of my friend's face next to me as we got under our desks and pulled in the chairs. Nobody said anything for what felt like forever.

Eventually, the teacher said softly, "We had reports there's a possibly dangerous person on the loose around here, so we're just going to stay here until we're told otherwise."

When we were finally let out of school, my mom was waiting downstairs. She said the police had been chasing a robber with a gun. They caught him eventually on the roof of the office building down the street from our school, the same building where my orthodontist was. It made me nervous, but my mom was calm and said not to worry.

But she never said something like Columbine couldn't happen, and I was still shaken from that.

Columbine wasn't the first school shooting in the U.S., it just happened to be the deadliest – until 2007, when Virginia Tech happened. I was in my last year in high school. Earlier in the year, there was a possible incident at my school, but it was a false alarm. I remember the classroom I hid in, though. My desk was closest to the door, and I had to stay low as I made my way to the other side of the room. My cell phone was in my locker.

My second year in college, there was a gunman reported on campus. It ended up being another false alarm, but I was alone in my apartment without my roommates, and the alerts from campus police on my phone were telling me the alleged gunman was spotted in a parking structure not too far from where I was. We used Twitter to find out more information as the student – who was on his way to a paintball game – turned himself in.

As I grew up and grew out of school, the possibility of danger never left my mind. With every report of a mass shooting, I wonder if it's one more place we should fear: the movie theatre, church, a concert.

As a journalist, it's been hard to take myself out of that mindset whenever a mass shooting occurs. When the Chardon shooting happened in 2012, it was less than a month into my second internship at a major news organization. I felt as helpless as I did on April 20, 1999, watching the information come in – only this time, as someone behind the scenes of the newscast.

And then Aurora happened. And Oak Creek. And those are just two of the dozen incidents that occurred in 2012, before Sandy Hook happened on December 14. And just like I can tell you the layout of the classroom, where I sat in it, and the look of my friend's face next to me as a 10-year-old putting her lockdown drill knowledge to the test, I can tell you hour-by-hour what happened on December 14 and how it felt to have to write the headline: "20 Children Dead."

Reporting on a mass shooting never gets easier. It shouldn't. We may know the process – what to look for, who to reach out to first – but each incident comes with as much anxiety, fear, and emotion as I felt as a child. The only difference now is that there's more anger, at least for me there is.

On October 1st, I accidentally fell asleep early on my couch, and when I woke up hours later, my phone was buzzing with alerts about Las Vegas. I thought it was a dream. One of my closest friends in the world was working that festival, and I wanted to believe my mind was playing a sick joke on me. She was fortunate not to be physically harmed, and several people in my Facebook network who were also in Vegas started using Facebook's Safety feature to let the world know they were OK. But there were hundreds who were not so lucky, and as much as I want to say my "thoughts and prayers" are with them all, I'm afraid those words are as empty as they are every time they're said.

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