Saturday, December 15, 2012

The age they were stilled

Kindergartners watch death delivered

When I think about the age of the kids shot to death in the Connecticut school, I tried to remember how new and strange the world seemed to me at that age. Adults staring down the barrel of a gun would be understandably frozen and confused, so how can a little kid understand why someone would execute other kids?
I reviewed my kindergarten year and what it was like for me in an attempt to understand the mental state of the poor kids in Connecticut.
I was a kindergartner in Rockville, Md. in 1963.
Rockville at the time was a small town on the road between Washington, D.C., and the mountains of western Maryland. The Cape Cod-style home my family lived in cost $13,000. The streets in my neighborhood were given World War II names because the homes on those streets were built with GI Bill loans. For instance, I lived on Crawford Drive, which was near Iwo Jima, Halsey, Ardennes, Nimitz, and Okinawa drives.
My mother was a landscape architect who designed many of the public parks in Rockville; my father taught piano in area homes. My job was to attend kindergarten, which I loved. We walked to school, my friends and I, waiting on the grass for the school safety guards to wave us across.
One evening, after the sun set and the darkness overtook the world, I watched with my family and neighbors from a hill as a blue-red vapor burst like a water balloon high in the heavens, then drifted silently over our town. The beautiful spray of color on the edge of space spooked me, because earlier that day Jean Dixon had predicted the world was to end the next morning. The light show was not the end of the world, as I feared it was. My father had done his best to calm me at bedtime, promising that the world was not going to explode. I spent a restless night until I finally drifted off to sleep. The next morning I awoke to a beautiful morning and ran in my parents' bed room, yelling "The world didn't end! The world didn't end!"
The Washington Post  also reported that the high-altitude explosion was Goddard Space Flight Center doing some weather experiments as part of the space program.
An old man would bring a pony in a horse trailer to our neighborhood so each kid could be photographed sitting on the poor beast. He was a kind, old man, and to a kindergartner, the pony was a romantic steed pulled from the wild herds of Montana.
The cowboy hat was provided but had to be returned to the old man after the photo was taken.
I remember hearing about a boy who lived across town who had killed his own parents; I was 5 and it was the first time I had heard of such a thing. The boy was put in Chestnut Lodge, an exclusive sanitarium for the mentally ill not far from our home. Who could kill their own parents? I pondered that in my little mind for a long time.
That also was the year that I learned what it was like to be shamed in front of a crowd. In kindergarten, each of the kids got a chance to care for some mice and guinea pigs in glass terrariums in the back of the classroom. During my day to feed and water the animals, I reached in with a bowl of water for the mice. One of the mice ran up my arm and I reacted, yanking my arm out and slamming the little gate on its neck, killing it instantly.
The other kids saw it happen and watched the mouse die. I remember them reacting, "John killed the mouse. John killed it!" I cried and bawled, explaining in vain that I had not meant to kill the mouse.
According to a counselor I told this to recently, to this day I cannot stand to be accused of doing something wrong if I am innocent. That I feel it necessary to explain myself all the time. That explaining myself makes people think I've done something wrong.
Hmmmmm ...
This is what it is like to be a kindergartner. Big world, the family its protective center, life lessons coming from every direction, fast and furious.
I remember the voice coming from the square, wooden public address speaker on the classroom wall above the chalkboard one November afternoon. The voice cancelled the school day and sent us home. On the walk home on those World War II streets, older students were saying the president was hurt. I followed the crush of students toward my home as the crossing guards hurried us across tiny intersections. When I got home, my mother was in the living room, crying as she watched the news from Dallas on television.
I remembered my parents talking about the president around the dinner table many times, and from their discussions I sensed the man was more powerful, more important than they were in the scheme of things. I had no real idea of what the president was, but his picture also hung on classroom walls and I knew if someone could hurt someone more powerful than my parents, then someone could hurt my parents. And me. It was the violence in Dallas, not the young man's killing of his parents in Rockville or the death of the mouse that turned my world into a very dangerous place. It was the assassination and the way the nation stopped.
I cannot imagine how the youngsters who watched the bad man kill their friends will put such evil as they grow into adults. Parents may try to calm their kids by holding them close, but the kinds understand that this crazy man was able to get to them when their parents weren't around. The gunman was more powerful than their parents. From now on, all adults will have the capacity to shoot them.
This is what kindergartners think about at times like this. At this age, they are spending entire days away from home for the first time. There is only home and school. Now that school is unsafe, they may only feel safe at home. I believe the result will be children with a diminished capacity for enjoying the world at large and the people in it. These children will need some very special help--as some of us have needed.
I also was struck by the way two kids rose to heroic action. One youngster told his classmates as the gunfire went on in an adjacent classroom that he would go and stop the man because he had taken karate lessons. Another youngster led his classmates out of the building when the shooting stopped. Unbelievable kids, I tell you.
By the way, school shootings are not new.
There was one in the news a year after I graduated kindergarten.
A school massacre occurred in a Catholic elementary school in the suburb of Volkhoven in Cologne, Germany, on June 11, 1964. Walter Seifert, born on June 11, 1922, killed eight students and two teachers with his handgun.

-- John Guerra

No comments:

Post a Comment