The 4th of July has just passed. People were excited for their three day weekend, barbecues, getting together with friends and family, perhaps even a few were actually commemorating United States’ independence from Great Britain’s colonial rule, but ultimately most people were looking forward to fireworks. I was not. In fact, ever since hearing the first few bangs in my neighborhood, I have been dreading this weekend. The sound of fireworks brings up a terrifying feeling in the pit of my stomach that doesn’t ever seem to fade despite my strongest and most sincere attempts to rid myself of it. It wasn’t always this way; one summer in Milwaukee, I stood so close to a fireworks show the ashes feel on my skin and clothing. I remember wondering if I was going to be burned. That all changed.
I was a junior at Santana High School when it happen.
Monday, March 5th, 2001, I had just finished my first class of the day and it was time for a break (Santana had a block system–hour and a half classes). My sisters, twins Daniesha and Laniesha, also attended Santana and were a year older. When the bell rang, I habitually walked to the same area that I always met my sisters and a few of their friends during this particular break. This location just so happened to be near my next class, a science course, near the “small quad”. For those of you who like visuals, here is one:
Do you see the black square? That’s me. The small quad is the little grey area right above that. I’ll get to the other squares in a bit.
I was standing with my sisters, and a couple of Daniesha’s basketball teammates. We were having a conversation of unknown matters; it was high school. Not too long into the break, I heard a sound of what I thought at the time was firecrackers. I remember thinking “wow, some guy is playing the bathroom…real mature”. I looked towards the bathroom, which was about 10 feet away from where I stood, to check if I could see where the noise was coming from. If you look back at the visual, the red square represents the boys’ restroom. We were standing close enough for me to literally be able to see inside of it–hence the reason I looked in the first place.
However, I did not see any young teenage boys messing around with firecrackers. I didn’t see any kind of horsing around at all, as a matter of fact. I saw someone I recognized as a student teacher running out holding his side. Still not making the connection, my eyes followed him as he ran farther away from the bathroom and into the grass behind me (toward the green square on the visual). I didn’t move; I didn’t feel as though I was in any danger. My eyes then went back towards the bathroom doorway. Why was he running? What happened to his side? Once my line of vision got back to bathroom, I got my answer. In the doorway stood a figure. He was pointing a gun and firing. Andy Williams had started his shooting spree in the bathroom and I was standing a mere 10 feet away.
I learned later that, although that student teacher had gotten out, Bryon Zuckor lost his life in that bathroom when those first shots that were fired.
People had started to scream and run. I suddenly realized I was standing there all alone. People on the other side of me–people who I should have been a shield for–were falling to the ground.
As I stood there, I noticed one of the campus security supervisors, Peter Ruiz, on his way to the bathroom to check out what was going on. I knew him, we’d talked, laughed, and he was even part of a group of us who had gone on an off-campus retreat. In my head, I was saying “warn him…tell him not to go over there..tell him he is just some random unarmed security guy and there is a guy with a gun in the bathroom”. However, like so many others before me, people who stood by as others thoughtlessly put themselves in harm’s way, I took the cowardly approach and said nothing. I knew he was going to get shot. I knew I was going to get shot. At that point, I had accepted both of those outcomes. In a sense, I was ready for it. I was incredibly serene. Willing to accept our fate, but not willing to watch it, I simply turned around and began to walk to class, the class I was supposed to go to next notwithstanding the events of the day. The classroom is represented in the green block on the visual. Peter Ruiz was shot 5 times.
Why did I walk? I was ready to die. I was not trying to die; however, I was confident that it was about to happen and I thought I should take it in stride. I should not run and scream. What I learned from this incident is that I am not a fight-or-flight kind of person. I react more like a rabbit; I freeze in response to life-threatening responses. I walked because I did not want to call attention to myself in the same sense that if you run from a dog, it will chase you. I never thought I would actually make it to the classroom, but I did. I simply walked to my classroom, about 3 doors down from the boys’ bathroom, and joined other students that had found refuge inside. I was fortunate enough to have a teacher present, because many students who were hiding in classrooms did not. He made everyone get down on the floor. Being so close to the bathroom were Williams was shooting from, I had the unfortunate experience of hearing every single gun shot. Bang! Did that one hit another person? Bang! Where are my sisters? Bang! Why is this happening?
We sat on the floor and waited. The shots stopped. Eventually, this science teacher pulled out some sort of homemade radio and started listening to broadcasts about us–there was a shooting taking place at Santana High School. The broadcaster was saying they had a headcount, but they were missing X amount of students and a teacher. I looked around, did a quick count and whispered “I think that’s us”. Again, because we were so close to the bathroom, the teacher had the forethought to hold a white rag out to the door to let SWAT know there were people in there and, apparently, we were not the enemy.
Of course, SWAT doesn’t really care about white rags. They came in with guns drawn, pointing them in our faces, and yelling obscenities. I suppose an accomplice could have easily taken refuge in there with us; however, at that point, Williams had already admitted to being alone. Their guns were yet another emotional assault. SWAT marched our group out and across the street in a single-file line. In the parking lot across the street, I found my father and two sisters and we all embraced. They had been terrified; I had technically been “missing”. I can’t imagine what they must have been going through emotionally, knowing that I had been standing right there with them, and that I had not exited the school yet. My sisters had not been together. They each have their own stories: one witnessed a boy take his last breath and the other looked into the face of a killer. It will haunt them for the rest of their lives.
The media’s camera’s, lights, and microphones were being thrust in everyone’s faces, refusing to allow us, adolescents, to have time to grieve, reflect, react, go home. I developed a stark hatred of news reporters on March 5th, 2001 which took years to slowly overcome. It was as if they were going to get the story of out-of-control violence at any cost, irrespective of what these children just gone through. As one of the few African American students, several tried to get interviews with me, on separate occasions, but I adamantly refused. I did not want to talk about it. Not to them, not to anybody. That day, I stayed in bed and refused to watch any media reports on it. The only thing I reacted to all afternoon was a media report I overheard. They said that the shooting may have been racially motivated, to which I said “I doubt it, because he has really bad aim if it was…all four of the Black girls who go to Santana were standing right in front of him”.
Before, the shooting, I was scheduled to work–at a fast-food restaurant called Carl’s Jr–so I went to work. As my mom drove me through what seemed like hundreds of media trucks and vans, thousands of mourners, and giant lights, I pretended like I didn’t see any of it. I noticed a sign that said: “Dear God, How could you let this happen in our schools.” The author’s reply for God was “I’m not allowed in your schools”. I quietly reflected on that for most of the ride to work. I thought, how is God, being omnipotent and all, not “allowed” anywhere; isn’t it the point that He is everywhere. Furthermore, I had both seen and been part of a few prayer circles around the flag pole in front of the school and knew for a fact that there was a Christian group on campus. That was a simple answer to a complicated question and even at 16, I knew it was the wrong answer.
President George W. Bush offered his condolences “to the teachers and the children whose lives have been turned upside-down right now.” He called the shooting “a disgraceful act of cowardice,” adding, “when America teaches our children right from wrong and teaches values that respect life in our country, we’ll be better off.” Was that the answer? Teaching children right from wrong? To respect life? When are people not doing that with their children? Again, a simple answer to a complicated question.
At work, another Santana student had also shown up to her shift and spoke about how she had not actually seen a single thing…but garnered a lot of emotional support and empathy from other coworkers and even customers. Again, I said absolutely nothing. I just observed everyone’s reactions around her. I am sure most of the people there didn’t even realize I was a student at Santana. I’ve noticed that, over the years, students who saw very little, or nothing, seem to do most of the talking about the shooting. Every time the anniversary rolls around they post things on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, all the social networking. They want to talk about it. They want to reminiscence about the day. I don’t. I try very hard to forget March 5 is anything other than my aunt’s birthday. Its’ easy for them because they don’t have the same issues to deal with that I do. They didn’t walk around with the same guilt that I did for years. They didn’t nearly vomit when a car backfired or feel their entire body tense up when a balloon popped at the mall.
We returned to school on Wednesday March 7–two days later. I had spent all of Tuesday making pins. I was lost. I had to do something to lift the spirits of the student body. I had to do something to occupy my mind. I had gone through a lot at that school. I entered as a freshman who managed to say as little as possible because of the racism I felt in the community and, at times, in the school. Determined to make a difference, I became one of the founders of a campus group, which at this point, was ironically named Peace Council. We promoted nonviolence, human rights, social justice, acceptance, and such. I made those pins because I wanted to give people something tangible to hold on to, something they could look at and remember that better days will come. I put four beads on a safety pin: white (future hope); black (mourning); and the school colors purple and gold. I passed them out on Wednesday to teachers and students–even students I didn’t know. I felt as though I was healing.
We scheduled an emergency meeting of the Peace Council that week to decide if we should continue with our plans for Peace Week. Somehow, I had managed to continue on with my life for three days as if nothing all that major had happened; but reality would inevitably take hold. Realizing that I was going to have to sit in that meeting, with everyone expecting me to say something great and profound, I hit rock bottom. Not wanting to be emotional in front of anyone, I went directly to the office and signed myself out of school. Before I could leave, a long-time mentor of mine, Janee Littrell, walked by. Sensing something was off about me, she came over, hugged me, and ask how I was doing. I immediately started to cry; this was literally the first time I had cried since it had happened. She told me not to go home and we walked outside of the office. We sat down in the small quad; just yards from where it had all started. I pointed out to her where I’d been standing and what I’d seen; she too started to cry. “Of all people, of all people…the one person that’s been working so hard to prevent violence and hatred…you had to see that” she said through her tears. I felt bad for making her cry. I felt bad for not saying anything to that campus security supervisor. I felt bad for NOT being shot. I was the one that was ready for it…I had accepted it..not those other students! I cried because I felt so bad.
Jenee took me to Del Taco, a fast-food restaurant across the street, where I pushed around the fries I’d order and she talked to me more than I talked to her. She convinced me to attend the meeting; she said that the other students were counting on me. She also said that doing what I do best would help me to heal. Deep down, I knew she was right, so I went back to school. We had the meeting and agreed to continue with Peace Week plans.
I had some more interview requests, all of which I refused with the exception of one woman. She wanted to write about the pins I’d made and not my experience with the shooting, so I spoke to her. Here is a link to the article she wrote.
I shared my story, this story, to a few high school groups through my work with the Anti-Defamation League’s student group. We had originally started speaking to San Diego area high schools about reducing hate in the schools, but the shooting suddenly took precedence. There was also a run dedicated to peace that I helped plan and volunteered for. The first time I relinquished some of resentment toward the press and agreed to do a televisio
n news media, since the shooting had occurred, was at the end of this peace run.
They asked for witnesses to come in and talk to the police about what had happened that day; of course, I didn’t volunteer. However, someone must have given them my name, because I was called into the office and questioned. I do not remember much of what they asked me; just that they wanted to know if I could identify the shooter and the gun. I could only tell them I saw a person in the shadows with a gun. The police officers wanting me to specify what kind of gun it was; however, I had zero knowledge of guns, and the extent of my present knowledge of guns is based on first-person shooter video games–which I am sure does not count. When I couldn’t specify the type of gun, one of the officers stood up, pulled her gun out, and asked “did it look like this?”. That was exactly why I didn’t want to be part of their questioning or the trial; I wanted nothing to do with them anymore. I immediately shut down when I saw the gun. I said I didn’t know and refused to make eye contact. Frustrated with me, they sent me back to class. Needless to say, they did not question me about anything else.
Things slowly went back to as close to normal as they could. I went to my classes, I went to work, I remained active in the community. Some parts were harder than others. I still had to go to my science class and sit in the same room I was “trapped” in. Every once in a while, I’d glance at the empty stool where Randy Gordon used to sit. He was the other student who was killed that day. He was in my science class; I figure he was on his way class just as I had been. I couldn’t help but think about him sometimes. Was he as ready as I was? Was he trying to run away at the same time as I was walking? For months, I dealt with “survivor guilt”, but I didn’t have a name for it. I went on a trip with the Anti-Defamation League where they took high school students from all over the country to Washington D.C. The objective of the trip was to bridge the Black and Jewish communities that were, at one point in history, very close. We visited the National Holocaust Museum and heard Holocaust survivor stories among other things. It was upon hearing the story of one particular survivor that I realized for the first time what I’d been experiencing. After hearing him say the words “survivor guilt” and explain it, I knew I had been carrying a similar burden. He then said that felt that he survived for a reason, that he was destined to be a witness. I realized perhaps I too could come to the revelation that I walked away physically unscathed as an indication that I too have a larger purpose to fulfill.
I eventually went back to life as usual. I am sure that most people reading this have no idea that I had gone through such an experience; not only the shooting, but also the inner thoughts and turmoil I experienced. I don’t talk about it often. I have only verbally told this story to a one person in the last 5 or 6 years. My partner had to know the entire story. She had to know because if I randomly change the channel in the middle of a program, she would have otherwise been upset. She had to know because when we watching “American Horror Story”, I needed her to be okay skipping those parts. She needed to know because I had an emotional breakdown with Sandy Hook–I had to avoid social networking websites and television for days.
I find it interesting that parental response to school shootings is to bring their children out and do homeschooling. If I can think of one reason not to do homeschooling, protecting them from harm would be high on the list. My partner and I are both trained teachers, and we would never do homeschooling. Even with all of our expertise combined, we don’t know everything. Suppose our child wants to learns website coding, or trigonometry, or advanced physiology, or perform Hamlet, or ballet. There are things we would not able to provide, even if we found him/her fellow homeschoolers to play with. Having experienced a school shooting, I still plan to send my future children to public school. That’s not the answer. The answer also isn’t to suggest that a bunch of children deserved to be shot or shot at because we have a constitutional right to the separation of church and state in this country. Start from the beginning, well before high school, and teach that bullying of any sort is never okay, ostracizing others is wrong, and making new friends is always a good idea. We can also make a difference by refusing to expect others to take care of our children. It’s not the school’s responsibility to provide values for your child, to love your child, to support your child, to provide your child with emotional guidance and unconditional support. Lastly, we have to acknowledge that it should not have been that easy for them to have access to guns in the first place. I am not going to get in a gun-control debate when it comes to a legal adult, but a child should not be able to access the “family gun” and their lunch before heading to school.
The 4th of July is always stressful for me. There were random fireworks going off all weekend. People were yelling and drinking. Ultimately, my body can not tell, among all of this commotion, what I should legitimately be concerned about. But, I still ate a burger, had a beer, and looked up in the sky every now and then.
Life has to go on.