When I worked at Fort Lewis College, Columbine wasn’t a distant memory. No, our students were those students. Our parents were those parents. Specifically, I had those students, those survivors, living in my res hall. We all did. We had 7 halls I think and over the course of four years, we all had students who had lived through Columbine.
One of the most surprising things that Columbine parents ever said to us was how safe Columbine was before and after the shootings. They liked Fort Lewis because it offered somewhere safe for their children to go to college. Those kids were some of my best residents. Those were the young men who stepped into arguments and stopped fists from being thrown. They learned the hard way that violence was not the answer.
And I feel for those students. Not students anymore, they have gone on to become campus administrators. Some of them are getting married, some are certainly already parents with kids of their own. One thing that riles me up on their behalf is that ANYTIME anything violent happens in a school, it is compared to Columbine. I’m doing it right now, because you all know I wouldn’t be writing this if 33 students hadn’t died in Virginia this morning.
But to know that everytime that wound is close to healed you are going to hear it referenced on the news. Everything is worse than or not as bad as Columbine. I suppose that people who were in New York or at the Pentagon on September 11 feel the same way. The casual way that people throw it around.
And then I’m reminded of the last time I lived with students. It was in London and I was there when the bombings happened in Madrid. Was that March 11? No, it was earlier than that, but I’m not going to look it up. As soon as those bombings happened, I had to start tracking down students. Luckily I only had a few on holiday in Spain and I was able to find them quickly. Then I had to find my students from Spain and see if they were okay. Then I went and bought black and yellow and red ribbons and made little ribbons for my students to wear in solidarity. I had to do something.
While I was at my desk cutting ribbon, Udi (my lovely Israeli security guard) said to me, “Leah, if we did this every time there was a bomb in Israel, we’d never get anything done.” He was talking about my ribbon making and the walk I was taking my spanish students on through the streets of london to the Spanish Consulate. To show them that we were all madrilenos.
At that time, becoming Jewish was not even a glimmer in my life. I had no idea that I would start defining things in terms of bombs in Israel, shootings at JCCs, or graffiti on shuls. Hell, I’d never even heard a synagogue called a shul.
And I try to think about the housing staff at Virginia Tech. I never had a student die. Never. Not one. I had suicide attempts. I did first aid. I literally put out fires. I sent my boys to detox and had them arrested. But I never had a death.
I know how hard the suicide attempts were on me and my students. I know that I stayed awake until the sun rose with every single light on in my teeny tiny room with my door open. That way everyone knew they could wake me up, anytime. It was never too late to pound on my door. I was always available in an emergency.
And I know the kind of emotional walls I built to deal with near-death and counseling peers and later students. I know how much counseling I took to survive being a residence director without any deaths.
So my heart is really with the housing staff tonight. I know that it should be with the families and students, but the para-professional staff is going to be hit hard. Survivors guilt. Residents they weren’t able to keep in the dorm who were shot. Not getting the email before they went to the cafeteria. Not being superheros they expect themselves to be.
This will be very, very hard for them. Sure they’ll pull through. The cracks will barely show, not until summer, if then. Perhaps not for a few years. Perhaps immediately. I am so grateful that people still do this work. Moms and dads–resident assistants keep your kids safe. They really do. They work hard to keep up GPAs and protect their peers.
If you know an RA, let them know you are thinking of them. Even if they aren’t at Virgina Tech, this is going to have ripples.