Having visited and bonded with survivors at Marshall County High School and Marjory Stoneman Douglas, I am seeing more and more posts about the upcoming first anniversaries of their school shootings. I see a marked difference between posts of people planning public acknowledgment and those of survivors. The planners talk about healing. The survivors talk about the daily effort of surviving. It’s weird to be looking at it all from this vantage point–from being the somewhat objective “helper” and the utterly subjective “fellow survivor.”
Everyone is trying so hard to use this marker as a way to contain what happened and its aftermath. Those are two different things, the event and its aftermath. The event is already pinned into place. It has an anniversary. That day comes and goes year after year.
The aftermath is amorphous. There are triggers leading up, and it is not over when it’s over. It doesn’t fit into a day. At least, not for a long, long time.
I can give hope, but I have little to offer in the way of comfort right now. That first year was just so, so hard. I don’t know of any way to change that. I ache, literally ache, for these good people.
Anyway, here are some of the questions I had on our first anniversary, and the answers I would give myself if I could go back in time almost 19 years:
Old Me: I used to feel deeply connected to God–not a personified, singular, sentient deity, but a Whole greater than the sum of Its parts. Now I feel utterly adrift in the universe. Will I ever feel reconnected?
New Me: Yes, and in a deeper and more meaningful way. You will become more aware of how vast the Whole is. It will make you feel bigger and smaller at the same time. It’s a trip. Eventually, you’ll love it.
OM: I became a teacher because that’s what God called me to be. Have I lost my calling along with that connection?
NM: You haven’t actually lost your connection to God. That’s not possible. A person can’t break off from the universe. You feel disconnected. That’s different from being disconnected. You’ll be called to do a lot of things in your life. You didn’t worry about it before; it just came. Don’t worry about it now. You have smaller fish to fry, and that’s OK for right now.
OM: I used to be one of those teachers who really loved and bonded with kids. Now, I only feel really connected to the kids I had bonded with before the shootings. I feel like there’s this wall between me and my new students. Is that wall there forever? Will I ever be able to love another student the way I used to?
NM: Just wait until one of the kids you think is on the other side of the wall seems like he is going to kill himself. You will find out lickity-split how much you love that kid. You feel that love now. You’re just too busy freaking out about that first question to realize it.
OM: It’s always there. I mean always. Even if I’m having a semi-OK day or moment or whatever. It’s always there, like an albatross around my neck. Sometimes I think it’s become my key identity. I used to be Paula–a teacher, a wife, a mother, a daughter, all these things. Now, I feel like all I am is Paula–a Columbine shooting survivor. That’s it. Is everything else lost?
NM: No! Right now it’s unavoidable. The whole school is no longer Columbine–a school with sports teams and a speech team and a drama department and a thousand other things. Now, it’s Columbine–not a school, but a mass shooting event. There’s a whole mythos evolving about the school that is hard to even recognize. The whole place is having a massive identity crisis, and you’re swimming in it; you feel like you’re drowning in it. All those old identities are still there for the school and for you. You’ve just lost your sense of proportion. You’ll gather those old identities back around you, plus add things like author and union activist and all kinds of other great things. Then you’ll retire and start to reinvent again. You’ll like who you become.
OM: But I feel changed on this deep molecular level. Like a synthetic version of myself. Plasticized almost. Like an imposter. What good are my old identities if they don’t feel like me anymore?
NM: Just as there are many possible versions of teachers, wives, and mothers, there are many possible versions of you in those roles. When you let go of who you were before, you will begin to see who you are now. You will brook less bullshit. You will prioritize differently. You will appreciate life more–you know, as soon as you’re done kinda hating it, and that will be a while yet.
OM: I don’t want to do this anymore. Not any of it. I don’t want to teach, but I don’t want to do anything else. I don’t want to hurt anymore. I’m tired. How can I make it stop?
NM: The only way out is through. You’re not on a treadmill. You only feel that way. Keep going.
OM: It’s exhausting. I feel broken.
NM: I know. You can do it. Hemingway was right: “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places.” Right now you simply have no idea how strong you are.
OM: Will April 20th ever be just another day? Will I ever suddenly realize it’s April 21st and I forgot?
MN: No. At least, not that I can tell, after nearly 20 years. It’ll be OK, though, after a while.
If I could talk to myself almost 20 years ago, I would promise myself that I would do more than survive. Be more than a survivor.
And my almost 20-year-ago self would not feel much better, I don’t think, but it would be good to hear.