In 1983, when I was a sixteen-year-old sophomore in high school, two teenagers in my town hit a tree head on at a high rate of speed, resulting in their deaths. It was one o’clock in the morning on a Friday in early June. The sound shredded the sleep of the residents in the closest neighborhoods. It was all anyone talked about for the last two weeks of school that year.
I went to the funeral for one of the boys, the one I knew. It felt like the whole school walked out that day to attend the services. Cheshire High was only .85 miles from the church. In the other direction, the crash site was .64 miles from school, all three locations on Main Street.
I wore a dress that day for the service. The teachers held the doors open for us on the way out of the building. No one was marked absent for abandoning their classes. No one was questioned. It was a beautiful early summer day as we walked down the sidewalks of Main Street. We spoke in quiet voices when we spoke at all on the way to the church. It didn’t occur to me then but now I wonder what we must have looked like to people driving by, maybe just passing through our town, unaware of this massive tragedy. To see a mob of children walking through town in the middle of the school day, no horseplay, no talking or laughing, everyone dressed up.
We sat in rows of wooden pews, filling the church, the sun streaming across our faces in the crowd. We strained to get a glimpse of the family. There was sobbing before the service began. Was it the mother crying?
This dead boy had an older sister and brother. They were a trio of beautiful kids, magazine cover teenagers. I remember wanting to see if it was the sister who was weeping, and wanting to see what she was wearing. She was the kind of girl who made younger girls want to be like her- or at least look like her. At sixteen, that was the same thing. She was tall, willowy, with long blond hair and perfect square white teeth.
I don’t remember the eulogy or the pastor speaking. It was 35 years ago. But I do have a shockingly clear memory of watching this sister come down the aisle of the church, her face a blotchy grimace, her sobs echoing all around us. We stared as she came towards us from the front of the church, clutching a handkerchief, looking as if she’d already outgrown all of us, the whole school, the nature of adolescence itself. We understood that she would never be the same again and we knew that she had gone on to a new place of which we comprehended almost nothing.
* * *
I tell this story for everyone who graduated high school before 1999, the year of the school shooting in Columbine; for everyone who criticizes, name calls, or threatens the kids from Parkland, Florida; for anyone who doesn’t think of assault rifles when they think about their high school years. You are the people who are free to remember high school fondly, happily, with images of football games and homecoming crowns. You are too old to attach guns to school. I know because I have my own memories of high school and they all happened long before Columbine so my memories also do not include weapons and lockdown drills.
So picture the kid from your high school who died early all those years ago. Maybe there was someone in a car wreck, like at my school. A teenager with leukemia. A drowning. Remember the empty seat next to you in algebra. The missing lab partner in chemistry. Go get your yearbook. See the tribute at the end. Gone but not forgotten. Maybe there are sentimental song lyrics. Oh very young, what will you leave us this time/ We’re only dancing on this earth for a short time.
Maybe you say that kids today have it better than you did and they’re all a bunch of entitled, snowflake crybabies. Maybe you want to bring up “Duck and Cover” drills, hiding under your desk as an exercise to prepare for a nuclear explosion. Fair enough. But I would say this: you were practicing for something that had never happened before, an abstract possibility. When children experience lock-down drills today, they are hiding under their desks with specific images in their minds even as they huddle, brace, breathe. They are seeing bloody kids falling out of windows at Columbine, smaller kids from Sandy Hook, running in a line, little hands on the shoulders of the student in front of them. They see aerial views of public schools surrounded by emergency vehicles, kids sitting on the floor of their classroom, rapid fire gunshots just outside the door, screaming even while knowing they were supposed to be quiet. During these drills, my own 4th grader has told me that his school gets strangers, grown men none of the children have ever seen before, to rattle the locked doorknob and stare through the glass at their dim and quieted classroom. Some kids wet their pants, cry, hyperventilate.
Paige Curry, a student at Santa Fe High School, where the next school shooting happened after Parkland, answered an interview question by saying that she wasn’t surprised to have it happen in her own school.
“It’s been happening everywhere,” she shrugged. “I’ve always felt it would eventually happen here too.”
* * *
In my high school yearbook, the photos of the dead boys are published in the final pages. I never went to my high school reunions but when I reached out to a few old friends to write this, they immediately remembered these kids.
One friend said he’d been close to one of the boys when they were younger. “I have often thought of him over the years—he was such a nice kid, although really quiet. Thinking about how he ended up there, I’ve felt sad for him.”
Remember the person from your own community who died young. Who did you think of over the years when you celebrated milestones you were lucky enough to reach, like a college degree, a wedding, a new baby? Think of that lost person you once knew. See his empty chair at graduation. Now picture seventeen empty chairs. Or twenty. Or ten. See pages and pages of memorial photos and tributes in the back of your yearbook. Really imagine it. Think about how many seventeen is.
After the Parkland shooting, some of the survivors from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School who became advocates for gun control were targeted and harassed by everyone from the NRA to Laura Ingraham to Louis C.K. to random gun enthusiasts on Twitter. They were called crybabies and crisis actors. In some cases, they even received death threats.
I think of the big sister of the boy in my high school who died in a head-on collision with a tree in front of our town Dairy Queen and I wonder if she spent time lecturing about the dangers of drinking and driving. I wonder if she took on some sort of activism over the years as a way to cope with the loss of her brother, the grief and the guilt and the helplessness. I can’t even imagine how obscene it would have been for someone to call her a name. For anyone to make a tasteless meme with her image, a photo-shopped pacifier in her mouth, to call her a crybaby. It would not have been decent. It would have signaled some kind of end of the world as we knew it, of basic rules of conduct and community that we’d grown up believing in. It would have been crushingly and unbearably wrong.
I recently took my eleven-year-old son to listen to David Hogg, perhaps the most famous and the most hated of the Parkland survivors. He spoke eloquently and passionately about the problem of guns in America. I wanted my son to see that he could have a voice as a young person, that he didn’t have to spend his school career periodically hiding under desks, pretending a mass shooter roamed his familiar school hallways, and stay silent about it. If I closed my eyes, Mr. Hogg sounded like a seasoned public speaker, a debate champion, an adult. But when I looked at him, he was a kid. At the end of his speech, he answered a few questions and then he asked the audience one of his own.
“Do you guys mind if I take a selfie with all of you in the background?” He said. “It’s for my mom.”
And then he turned his back to his audience, held his phone up, aimed and shot the photo like any other teenager in America.
Cindy House earned her MFA at Lesley University in 2017 and won an emerging artist grant from the St. Botolph Club Foundation in 2018. She is a regular opener for David Sedaris and has published work at The Rumpus, The Drum, So to Speak, Longleaf Review, Wigleaf, Lily Poetry Review, and Driftwood Press. She lives in New Haven, CT with her husband and son.