Thursday, December 20, 2012

On music, memory and a massacre

The other night, we took a family trip to the middle school, to see our son play in the middle school band concert. It was in the gym. It was crowded. It was lovely. I've learned that one of my absolute favorite activities of adulthood is to see school performances of any kind; there is something eternally endearing about watching young children perform in front of a crowd of parents.

Last night, at our concert, the students played beautifully. They played Ode to Joy; Joyeux Noel, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, a Hanukkah Song and many, many more tunes. Yes, there were squeaky notes. Yes, there were some off-kilter renditions of classic holiday tunes. Yes, there were, on occasion, very young and very bored young siblings cantering up and down the gym floor in front of the band. But each musician was so intent on the performance; each musician had practiced diligently prior to the concert; each musician did his or her best last night. It was indeed a lovely night.

Each class had its own band; the concert started with the 6th graders and moved up to the 8th grade jazz band. Each class showed progressive improvement; when you compared the 6th graders, who are new to the band, with the 8th graders, you could hear the value of the experience a year or two brings.

But as I sat there, waiting for the concert to begin, I found myself looking at the door of the gym. Waiting for the black-clad angry white youth to show up, pull out a semi-automatic rifle and spray the room with bullets. I was angry with myself for expecting this, but really, quite frankly, it seems appropriate now to expect the appearance of an angry white male armed to the hilt, eager to take out any number of people as an expression of his rage. This year alone, angry white men have made their feelings of rage known at far too many places, which include a movie theater, a house of worship, a high school cafeteria, a coffee shop, and now, of course, at an elementary school in Newtown, CT.

The Newtown shooter killed 26 people in 10 minutes. Ten minutes. 600 seconds. A sixth of an hour. Not much time at all. 20 first graders were slaughtered in 10 minutes. A principal and five teachers. I am haunted by this statistic.

I am haunted by the incredible fury those little children saw in the last seconds of their life. I am haunted by the thought of a sunny first grade room, decorated with weather maps and the alphabet and birthday dates, now transformed into a blood-splattered "crime scene." I am haunted by the memory of those smiling, happy photos of the dead; I am haunted by the media images of the surviving children wailing, a sister wailing, a community wailing in grief. We tend not to place these overwhelming and powerful and bloodied emotions within a placid and affluent suburban setting.


Most of all, I am haunted by the shooter. By the shooters, actually, all of them. By the rage that fills them up and turns them into my worst nightmare. I am haunted by the fact that in America, it is easier to get a semi-automatic rifle that can destroy 26 lives in 10 minutes than it is to get mental health care.

And I am haunted by the fact that 20 young children, first graders, will never have the opportunity to grow, to see the changes a year or two can bring. They will never fall in love. They will never celebrate Christmas or Hanukkah ever again. They will never experience the joy I felt this week watching my son play in the school band.

The images of Newtown are lodged deeply in our collective memory. As a nation, we have come to a very dark place, a place where schools and movie theaters become the stages for armed and bloody conflict.

Our journey to this point has brought with it an opportunity to change. We can, as some suggested, start arming teachers, so as to protect those who claim protection under the 2nd Amendment right to bear arms. Or we can change our view of this amendment - we can understand that it does not provide for the unquestioned ability to own any weapon we desire. We can stop the sale and criminalize the possession of assault rifles. We can stop the sale and criminalize the possession of ammo clips that can mow down an entire first grade in less than the time it takes to watch an episode of "Clifford the Big Red Dog."

We are at a point where we must change - in order to protect our children from the next potential massacre. In our heart of hearts, we know the answer does not lie in arming teachers to protect children against gun violence.

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