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When Will We Ever Learn?

On Tuesday evening, February 27, 2019, I attended a beautiful, yet painful, event, entitled, “Vigil in Remembrance of Those Affected by Gun Violence.” The event, sponsored by Moms Demand Action, was at a local church, in my hometown, in the northwest suburbs of Chicago. Names of those who have been killed were read. Hopeful statements by survivors were also read by attendees, and while the familiar sites of many shootings were also named (Columbine, San Bernardino, Orlando, Sandy Hook . . . sadly, the list went on and on), we all lit candles. I was prepared to be there I thought. As a college professor of more than two decades, so many shootings have taken place at schools, that at the start of each semester, I have always looked around my classroom and imagined what I would do and say to protect students if someone with a gun appeared at the door.

Part of my usual classroom routine has always been to put quotes on the board for students each day we met. I have a long list of favorites, but the list continues to grow. In 2015, I felt I had to add the following when I learned the details. A fellow English instructor at a community college was killed on the first day of class. As a tribute to his life, I wrote on the board for my students:

“’Today is the first day of the rest of your life,’ written on the board on the first day of class in introductory Writing 115, at Umpqua Community College in Oregon by adjunct English professor, Larry Levine, 67, before he was shot along with nine others by a lone gunman.”

Honestly, I have become a bit numb when I hear of another shooting, but I still pay attention. Students in my classes in the last few years were born about the time of the Columbine shooting, so they’ve grown up with active-shooter drills. Yet, I still came to a difficult realization at the Vigil as I was listening to the featured speaker, Lauren Carr, a survivor from the 2008 shooting at Northern Illinois University. She explained that she was in the third row when someone entered her lecture hall at the right of the stage and began shooting. All the students around her were hit. Her laptop took a bullet and her seat had bullet holes, but somehow she escaped. She spoke bravely about her fears since the event, followed by anger, and then therapy, and now her active practice of looking for good in others.

Carr went on to explain that just a year ago, she and other survivors met in DeKalb, Illinois, on the NIU campus for the 10-year anniversary of the shooting, February 14, 2018. Many had stayed in touch but it was helpful to be together, facilitated by university professionals, to discuss their progress, to remember their friends, and to commemorate that they were still here and thriving, or at least attempting to thrive. Then Carr paused, and explained at a certain point during their reunion, some of them started getting texts, and then all of them did. The information they received revealed the facts of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida actively taking place. Ten years later, on Valentine’s Day again, another mass shooting disrupted our country, killed more young people, and destroyed the faith and trust the survivors from NIU were just beginning to feel.

Astounded, I realized that when the Parkland shooting occurred, I didn’t put the date together with the shooting at NIU exactly 10 years earlier. How common must these shootings have become for me, despite actively seeking for ways to prevent one in my own classroom, that the same date did not even register. I had not lost a loved one at NIU, but perhaps I just subconsciously decided to let February 14 stay Valentine’s Day?

Most Americans know we have a gun problem in the United States, but are we still looking for solutions? Thankfully, the Parkland students launched the March for Our Lives that many of us participated in, but have universal background checks been passed into law yet? Just last week, a gunman killed five people at a place of business in the city of Aurora, IL. A student from NIU was an intern there, reporting for his first day of work. Is this ever going to stop? When will it ever end? When will we ever learn?

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Ellen Birkett Lindeen is an Emeritus Professor of English at Waubonsee Community College where she taught Peace Studies & Conflict Resolution and Human Rights & Social Justice.

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