On September 17, 1996, students all across Penn State were jarred out of their sleepy morning trek to class by a series of gunshots. The HUB lawn became a war zone as people sought cover from the bullets that seemed to be raining down out of nowhere.
I heard the shots from several streets away where I was walking to class with a few friends. We exchanged confused glances, shrugged our shoulders, and continued on to class. Surely it was a car backfiring or some mischief makers shooting off firecrackers.
Moments later, as crying crowds began to gather outside of the buildings, it was clear that what had happened was far more serious than that.
The casualties of the day included one life, several injuries, and the innocence of an entire campus.
I’m sure that there had been other shootings at other schools before that day. But, it wasn’t something that was in the news regularly or a part of our common vernacular. To my fellow students and me it was as though every illusion of safety had been shattered.
We were shocked.
I had been living in temporary housing before the shooting took place. A few days afterwards, I got notice that a new room had opened up in the same building, on the same floor as where the young woman that had died in the shooting had been living.
I caught a glimpse of the girls’ parents as I dragged my suitcases down the hall to my new room. They were sitting on her bed, sorting through her things, tears streaming down their faces. The sound of their wailing echoed throughout the entire dormitory.
Although none of us could imagine the searing agony that the parents were experiencing, a deep sense of grief and instability permeated our campus for months. In fact, many of my friends suffered from post traumatic stress for years afterwards.
It was an incident which was so shocking, so outside the realm of possibility, it just didn’t seem possible that life could continue on as usual.
But, of course it did. Most of us finished up our years at Penn State and went on to start careers and raise families. Over the years I read about other shootings: Columbine High School, Virginia Tech, the DC snipers.
Each time it happened I would feel a sinking pit in my stomach, a recognition of our vulnerability. But, never again did I feel that same level of shock that I felt after the incident at Penn State.
Until Sandy Hook.
By that time, I had 2 little boys of my own: Two wide-eyed little imps who loved to play school and dream about the impending beginning of their own academic lives. They worried about making new friends and having mean teachers. But, never once did they, or I consider that someone could come into their school with a gun.
Although I had grown tragically accustomed to hearing about shootings at Universities and even high schools, elementary schools still seemed untouchable from violence.
Once again, I was shocked.
I read the story of each child that was lost in Sandy Hook over and over. I imagined the pain that their families were going through, the unfathomable loss their community had experienced. For weeks and weeks the images of those innocent lives lost haunted me. I cried often and held my little ones a little tighter.
As the years have gone by, as shooting after shooting has taken place… in schools, in dance clubs, in homes… I’ve realized that there are no safe spaces. That, until we make some real changes to gun legislation and mental health care and the heavy pull that lobbyists have on Congress, none of us are safe from these senseless shootings.
So, when the shooting in Las Vegas happened. Yes, as before, I wept and mourned for the lost lives.
But, no, this time, I wasn’t shocked.