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25 Years

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I remember a lot of things about first grade. I remember the thrill of celebrating the 100th day of school by counting out 100 Cheerios. I remember receiving a small blank book in which I could write and illustrate my very own story. I remember releasing balloons with the entire school, before people worried about seagulls and raccoons choking on the discarded plastic. I even remember making a class quilt that was presented at Chicago’s Swedish American Museum and getting to see the king and queen of Sweden in person. I mention these memories to make clear that my childhood was full of privileges and positive experiences, and although in first grade I also remember hearing gunshots in the hallway and seeing a classmate soaked in blood after he was shot in a washroom down the hall, this trauma didn’t outweigh the affirmative influences during upbringing.

I was a first grader at Hubbard Wood School in 1988 when a woman entered my school and shot six kids. One died. He was an eight-year-old boy in the classroom across the hall from mine. In over two decades, I have rarely wanted or felt the need to bring up this experience, and I don’t want to go into details now. You can find them elsewhere. It almost feels disingenuous to write about the incident, as if mentioning it implies that it had greater influence on my life than it actually did. For many years I had a violent and visceral reaction to seeing guns – on police officers, on television, wherever. I didn’t see a gun that day, but I saw what one could do.

But that was a long time ago. I can’t say I’ve felt touched by it for a very, very long time, and I think of that day so rarely. Mostly, I find it hard to believe the memory is still mine.

I’m certain that part of the reason this memory felt locked in the vacuum-sealed container of the past was that I was repeatedly assured it would never happen again. In 1988, an elementary school shooting was an unfathomable and horrific act of violence committed by a supremely deranged individual — as it is today. But in 1988 there were few other mass shootings, and none at schools in bucolic suburbs to serve as a point of reference. It was an incident so unbelievable that it seemed it simply could not happen again, in Winnetka or elsewhere. In short, not long after, I learned to feel safe again.

And then it did happen, again and again. Yet all the other mass shootings over the years felt different – generally we are talking about high schools and colleges, often with peers as targets. My own experience was still an anomaly, one not worth bringing up in the wake of Columbine or Virginia Tech.

But when 20 children were murdered at Sandy Hook, what happened at Hubbard Woods — what I saw as a freak event — became a harbinger. While I’ve long had the comfort of thinking of what happened when I was in first grade as a blip on the radar of society, I no longer think that way.

What happened at my elementary school should’ve remained isolated and extreme. But instead it’s become one of the first of many. Now it’s not an incident, but part of a trend, an epidemic, a plague, a tragedy replicated in communities nationwide that makes up a tragedy in our society. The survivors of Sandy Hook won’t have the luxury of growing up thinking what happened at their school was a rarity.

At first, I didn’t think I was hearing gunshots or seeing blood, I thought that bright red paint had spilled on his shirt and balloons were popping in the hall. At first thought my classmate was joking when he came into the room after being shot and told our teacher, “There’s a killer in the school.”

I don’t know if kids today would have paint and balloons as their points of reference. Guns and blood have now been part of our schools for quite awhile.

After the shooting, Winnetka passed a handgun ban – which was then overturned in 2008 when residents sued the village, claiming it violated the Second Amendment. For years, people wore pins with guns and a red line drawn down the middle. They asked the same questions then that we are asking today about school security, gun control and mental illness.  What happened at Hubbard Woods did bring school security issues to the forefront of public consciousness, but I still can’t help but wonder: had the entire nation felt as shaken as my community did in 1988, would nearly 25 years of mass shootings have been prevented?

It is hard to know what to take away from this. That hardly any life goes untouched by tragedy, and that bad things happen in cities, suburbs and everywhere in between? That we need gun control? That we should make sure mental illness is identified and treated early on? Yes, yes and yes. But these were my takeaways in 1988, when I was 7.

Now I’m 31, and I think there’s more to it: why have we become a society so full of pain, hate and rage that hurting innocents has perversely come to seem normal? Why have we not heeded warnings that something is terribly wrong? This goes beyond mental illness and gun control. This is a deep, festering wound.

I don’t know what to do, but I do know that this is time to do something. It’s time because this story hit so close that it’s inscribed in our bodies. We feel it up our spines and in our stomachs, and we are so shaken up that distraction isn’t just a mouse click away. Or maybe that’s just me. Memory is strange that way, but I really hope this becomes something we all can’t shake. If the death of the eight-year-old boy across the hall from me wasn’t enough, then maybe twenty boys and girls 25 years later will be.

In many ways it doesn’t seem right to draw attention to ones own experiences in the wake of tragedy, but every time I read about Sandy Hook it is difficult not to remember what happened at Hubbard Woods. It is strange to feel like your history is repeating itself, and that you are living on the wrong side of it.

As a journalist, I wonder what the first grader survivors at Sandy Hook will be writing about nearly 25 years from today. I hope that they, unlike I, can say that what they experienced was indeed a wake up call. I hope that by the time they have children, they can tell them that things have changed, and that what happened when they were kids is a thing of the past. I hope that they don’t have to relive what they are going through today because 25 years from now, another horrific school shooting of even greater proportions has occurred.


Alizah Salario is a freelance journalist living in New York. Her work has appeared in The Daily Beast, Women's eNews, at the Poetry Foundation, and elsewhere. She blogs at www.alizahsalario.com. More from this author →