September 17, 1996.
It’s not a date that stands out in our collective cultural memory. At least it didn’t stand out in mine. I had to look it up this afternoon.
September 17, 1996.
I was about 3 weeks into my Masters degree at Penn State. I was a month shy of my 24th birthday. I had gotten up early that day and walked to campus, taking a bit of a detour to the student union for a coffee and a cranberry muffin before going in to work. I loved cranberry muffins in those days. I made it to the English department building probably around 9:15 am. Shortly after my arrival, we got word to “shelter in place.”
In 1996, we didn’t know what that meant. It wasn’t the kind of refrain that is has become in recent years. We were told–over the telephone, I think–to stay in our office, away from the windows, until we received word that it was safe to leave. We weren’t given any details.
I wouldn’t learn until later that day that a 19 year old woman who lived in the area but was not a student at the university had brought a hunting knife and a rifle on to the campus, set up a tarp on the lawn behind the student union and had started shooting. She did not have an automatic weapon or a semi-automatic weapon. In fact, according to reports, she only had 9 rounds of ammunition with her. Nine. She took 5 shots, killing one student and wounding another, before another student disarmed her. The Collegian, our college paper, reported later that two other students found bullets lodged in their backpacks.
This incident was more than 2 years before Columbine. It was more than a decade before Virginia Tech. It was fifteen before Sandy Hook. It was more than 20 years ago.
September 17, 1996 was the first time I had to stand in front of a group of students and try to explain to them that this place that we all loved, where we all had felt safe had been breached. It was a horrible day. I remember my mentor telling our class of graduate students that as teachers we had a responsibility to try to help our students make sense of what had happened, to give them a place to try to reclaim agency. I remember feeling bewildered by this position. I was barely older than my students–I had no idea how to make sense of things myself. How was I supposed to help anyone else? On that day in September, I was forced to assume the role of adult, of authority, and yet, I had been at the student union that morning. I had walked past the very location less than an hour before it happened. I had lived in the dormitory just across the lawn just a few years earlier . . .
In 1996, this kind of thing was unheard-of. It was an outlier. An aberration.
We were all completely unprepared. And when I say “all,” I include not only my fellow graduate student instructors and the more seasoned professors; I also include the campus police force. It was a senseless act of violence, unprecedented in the university’s long history. It made national news. There were counseling services and candlelight vigils. There were flowers left on the lawn, and the senior class that year bequeathed to the university a Peace Garden, which is still there today. The shooter, her name was Jillian Robbins, was sentenced to a term of at least 30 years in prison. It’s been 21 and change. She will be eligible for parole in 2028. Suddenly, that doesn’t seem so far away.
Twenty-one years later, campus shootings are so common that they don’t even always make the news. Students of all ages have active shooter drills. My college had a faculty-wide presentation last week in which we were taught RUN/HIDE/FIGHT. We watched an instructional video from YouTube. It felt absurd. It felt ridiculous. But it also felt wholly insufficient.
If you had told my 23 year old self that mass shootings in public places like movie theaters and concert venues, in churches, and in schools from elementary grades through college campuses would become a national norm, I would not have believed you. And yet, here we are.
This morning at 10:00, students on my campus and many others across the country walked out in solidarity with high school students from Parkland, FL and Pikeville, KY, whose lives have been affected by school shootings. I stood in solidarity with our students and several of my colleagues. I listened as our students talked about their fears, their anger, their indignation. I listened as they read a poem written by a 4th grader eloquently titled, “Guns Are Stupid.” I listened as they said, “This is not a Democratic issue or a Republican issue: it’s a humanity issue.” I listened as they read the names of the 17 people, students and teachers, killed last month in Florida and Kentucky. I listened, and I was impressed by our students. I was impressed by their courage, their energy, and their heart. I was impressed by the way that they not only supported each other in words but also in action. I watched as they put into practice our Founder’s Ideal to “see clearly, decide wisely, and act justly.”
I still don’t have any answers to the questions that I was first forced to confront on that long ago September morning and in the days that followed, but as I stood in the cold wind outside of a different student union on a different morning, this morning , I found that I had something else that might be just as important. Today, I found that I have hope.
Thank you students. You aren’t alone.