A Gunman on Campus
September 29, 2010
I normally take the bus to work, but was running late yesterday, so Aaron gave me a ride. We strapped Kaspar into his car seat, and I climbed in beside him so that I could get some extra face-time as we drove. To be honest, I’m not a morning person (especially after frequently interrupted sleep); I felt frazzled and was being sort of pissy. But Aaron has a calm, collected presence, and he’s a smooth driver, so I soon settled in contentedly and chatted with him, stroking Kaspar’s head absentmindedly, as we made our way North. It’s a quick shot up to campus. We hit an unusual traffic blockage near one of the campus libraries, but Aaron deftly made his way around it and got me to my drop-off spot on time. I climbed out and, almost an an afterthought, knocked on the driver’s side window and reminded Aaron to drive safely. It’s a reminder he doesn’t need, but it makes me feel better to say it. He nodded, “I will,” and we kissed quickly before I turned and headed toward my building.
It’s been just under two months since we moved, and I’m still reveling in the comparative ease of our new routine. I’m busy—working a part time job at UT, living the mama-life in the afternoons and evenings and doing freelance work at night, often very late—but I am organizing my life, more and more, to reflect my priorities, to make way for what’s really important. I still appeciate not having to board a crowded subway twice a day. I still marvel at the open, clean spaces that I move around in now. I’m still pleasantly surprised by how friendly Texans are toward strangers. The deep heat of summer has given way to refreshing breezes that smell distinctly of autumn, and I took particular pleasure yesterday in the soft sunlight filterting through the foliage above me as I walked down the sidewalk toward my building. Then I noticed that the sidewalk was empty.
Where were all of the students?
I heard sirens, projected over loudspeakers. But, adrift in my reverie, I didn’t put the pieces together. I thought the school was testing the sirens; loud and flashy emergency procedure mechanisms were frequently tested in my office building in New York. Mention had been made during orientation at UT, too, of testing of this kind. It struck me as odd that the sirens would continue for so long, and that they weren’t followed by any “This Is a Test”-type recordings, though. It also struck me that there are places in the world where people hear sirens like this and immediately seek shelter. I imagined for a moment what that must be like, but it wasn’t until I saw the face of the barista in my go-to coffee cart that I suspected something bad was in fact happening, here and now.
This whole process of mulling and realization took only a matter of moments, by the way, took the amount of time it takes me to walk the short block to my building. When I opened its doors, I found the main floor packed with students. They were looking at their phones, or at the doors. A few were talking and giggling, but nervously. It was crowded, and quiet.
I walked into the main office, where at least ten people work at desks every day. It was empty. I poked my head into a number of open doors—empty, empty, empty. Then, one of the department directors appeared from behind his door. “Where is everyone?” I asked.
He told me there was an active shooter on campus, and the building was on lockdown. I needed to stay inside. “There’s a shooter?” I repeated.
“Yes, stay inside.”
“Yes. There’s been a shooting in a library. There’s another gunman out now. Stay inside.”
I immediately thought: Oh my God. Aaron and Kaspar!
“My husband and baby are driving around out there!” I said.
“Call your husband and tell him to get off campus,” the man said (I still don’t know his name). “Your cell phone probably won’t work—everyone’s on their phones—use my desk phone.”
I dialed Aaron, but he was driving, and didn’t answer. I left a frantic message. I tried again. Voicemail. “Okay, thank you,” I said to the man. “I’m going to keep trying from my cell.”
My cell phone wasn’t working, as he’d predicted, so I walked around, trying to get a signal. Designated people stood post at all of the doors leading outside. I went into a stairwell and climbed to the floor my office is on. My shoes echoed in the empty hallway. My head was warm, my ears rushed. I could only think of Aaron and Kaspar, of someone with a gun. I knew Aaron was headed to a food co-op just off of campus. I saw a small cluster of students in a hallway; one of them was looking at his phone. “Do you have service?” I asked him. He nodded, and handed his phone to me. I called Aaron twice, three times. He picked up.
“Where are you?” I asked him.
“Go home. There’s a shooter on campus.” I told him.
“There’s a shooter, a gunman, on campus. Everyone is being told to stay inside. Get off of campus—go home.”
“Can I come get you?”
“I can’t leave the building. Just get yourselves out of here. I’m fine.”
After I hung up and handed the phone back to the guy who’d lent it to me, three or four people approached us. Everyone immediately compared notes on what they knew. One woman said “My husband’s in the police force. He just told me that the second gunman has run toward Guadalupe street. There are helicopters and SWAT teams after him.”
I asked for the guy’s phone again, called Aaron back, and told him what I’d just heard, told him to go right home. NOW. He agreed, calmly, and said he was on his way South.
I thanked the student for lending his phone again, and ended up waiting by a door on the main floor with a colleague who’d been positioned there and told not to let anyone leave. People occassionally gathered around us, comparing notes, rumors, facts, and then moving on. Or they just stood there with us, looking out. We could see helicopters passing overhead, and police occassionally driving by in the street outside. We called any students who were outside the building to come in, and told them what was happening. After about twenty minutes of this, a huge wave of students approached the door from inside, swathed by officers ; a SWAT team was evacuating the building. Within seconds, the sidewalk—which had previously been off-limits, a danger zone-- was flooded with people pouring out of the building. People were telling each other what they’d heard, what the SWAT team had said: leave the area. Go West, away from the library, toward Guadalupe.
Information began to surface, in the crowd. The first gunman had killed himself and no one else. There was a suspected second gunman, but that hadn’t been confirmed. We were headed toward Guadalupe street, but, despite what I’d heard a little while earlier, I didn’t at this point wonder if we were heading toward danger rather than away from it. Information and instruction were changing so rapidly (don’t leave the building/evacuate the building, etc) that, now outside, my focus turned toward getting home.
I turned onto Guadalupe Street and called the public bus service number to see if my regular bus was running; it was running on an alernate schedule and route (no busses were running through campus), some blocks away. As I headed in that direction, the sirens started again, and a loudspeaker announcement directed everyone to go inside the nearest building and remain there. I joined the friend I’d been waiting with earlier. We sat for a while in a coffee shop. It was a weird feeling; nothing was happening, and yet it didn’t feel worth it to leave. No one knew anything concrete. We were just… waiting.
I saw a couple walking toward the back door of the shop, heading toward a parking lot. I jumped up and asked them if they’d give me a ride home. They agreed, and then I was back in a backseat, heading away from campus. We listened to a radio announcer repeat the same three facts—there’d been a shooter, he’d killed himself, no one else was injured—and report on the current state of affairs— authorities thought there was another shooter and the campus was on lockdown—over and over, until we reached my house.
Kaspar squealed when he saw me, and I scooped him up and breathed in his smell. Aaron and I hugged. “I’m so glad you’re okay.” I said. “I was pretty scared for about ten minutes there.”
“We’re just fine.” He said.
It turned out that there wasn’t a second shooter (I’m very glad that the university took the possibility of one seriously, though). The whole event had just finished when I’d arrived on campus. I was never in any real danger, and neither were Aaron and Kaspar. Still, I experienced real fear, fear for my family. That was the worst of it, the ten minutes of fearing for them. I’ve never felt fear like that before.
I got back to my day after returning home—I worked in the morning, spent the afternoon with my baby and the evening cooking dinner with my husband, putting Kaspar to bed, working. I’ve been feeling incredibly grateful ever since.
I feel grateful for our safety. And I feel deeply sad for the gunman. I later learned that he was a student, and a good one. He was only nineteen years old. My son will one day be nineteen years old. This is the way I now relate to the world. This is my world now that I’m a mom—the whole world is my world, is my son’s world.
My experience yesterday was relatively mild compared to what it could have been; I think everyone’s relieved that we didn’t have a Virginia Tech situation on our hands. I’m also feeling more aware of the reality that some people in the world face every day—the reality of fear for their families, of sirens, of guns, of not knowing whether to be inside or out, of not knowing which direction leads to safety. I’m in awe of how vulnerable we all really are, when someone decides they want to harm us, but also of how peaceful we are most of the time; I lived in New York for over three years, boarding those crowded subways daily. I was squished up against a bunch of people from a thousand different backgrounds, people living their own lives and lost in their own thoughts. Maybe New Yorkers aren’t entirely friendly toward strangers, and I certainly witnessed some lame behavior in the crowds, but, in general, people take care of each other, or at least abstain from doing each other harm. Here on UT’s campus, too, students are walking around again, holding hands, drinking coffee, talking on their phones, buzzing around each other and trusting that they’re safe in spite of yesterday’s tragedy. This seems to me a particularly beautiful human capacity.
As parents, affection and kindness are a part of our daily lives. They are characteristics that we cultivate toward our children. We are important people because of this; we are doing something invaluable. I want to encourage all of us to remember that bad things happen in the world, but good things happen, too, simultaneously, always. In light of yesterday’s events, I am reminded of the importance of extending our affection outward, helping to steer our children’s future away from fear, frustration, sirens and guns, and decidedly in the direction of all that’s good.
I’m gonna go ahead and quote the Dalai Lama, who says that when people ask him what to do about world crises, he replies that he has no idea, but contends that it’s still important for us to act on the practical, individual level.
“We should not think that the problem is a huge one and that the individual is too small… The problem may be big, but if every individual takes the intiative, then there is a real chance. If each individual remains isolated, neatral and indifferent, and expects dramatic change from others or from the sky or from meditation, that’s ridiculous… The main effort must come from ourselves… bascially each individual has to make an effort with complete confidence. Whether we achieve satisfactory results or not, it is logical and worthwhile to make an attempt…
“Very often, newspaper reports focus on negative things… There is hardly any news of how many children or how many sick people receive the benefit of human kindness and affection. An overdose of negativity leads the general public to believe that human nature is basically negative, and that idea leads to a great deal of frustration. One also loses self-confidence… From every angle, and through various professions, one must promote the value of the compassionate mind. Although it is not easy, it is the only way toward a better humanity and a happier future.”
I imagine that the student, wielding a gun, felt some level of frustration, a fundamental loss of self-confidence. I don’t know what was going on for him, but I wonder, if someone—anyone—had interacted with him from a place of genuine compassion and affection—treated him as a mother would-- some time yesterday morning or during the day before… I wonder if he’d still have picked up that gun. I don’t know, but I just don’t think so.